Roy Christopher‘s annual Summer Reading List is a snapshot of “the salient texts of the zeitgeist.” RoyC’s 2012 list continues the tradition: rich insights from netizens, ethnographers, cultural luminaries, mentors and critics on the authors, ideas and frameworks that inform their work. An Edgeor Iconoclasts-style dialogue/trialogue between some of these people would be very interesting to witness.
I spent a lot of the past year reading about Wall Street, writing draft zero of a political science PhD, and trading a small portfolio. My suggestions this year reflect this personal journey and are different to what I would normally contribute to RoyC’s list (and what other list contributors would probably read and sympathise with). There are books on geopolitical risk and salary negotiation, PhD texts on social science methods, and guides to investment, hedge funds, the visceral feel of trading, and institutional money management. Brenda Jubin’s awesome blog Reading The Markets informed some choices and Tadas Viskanta’s blog Abnormal Returns is now a daily visit. Hopefully, you’ll get a sense of how I approach and attempt to understand a knowledge domain on its own terms, even if some of the material is a very dry read.
The joys of this list include uncovering new things, and seeing things you are familiar with from a different vantage point. RoyC pointed out ethnographer and sociologist Tricia Wang‘s contribution to me: Brian Eno and Manual De Landa have also influenced me, and I will be checking out several of her banking and finance ethnographies. Likewise with RoyC, the cultural anthropologists Victor Turner and Arnold van Gennep are influences; I studied Aaron Wildavsky on risk; and I bought a secondhand copy of Anthony Wilden’s Systems and Structure from an old secondhand book shop in Melbourne.
I also participated in RoyC’s Summer Reading Lists for 2011, 2010, 2008, and 2007 (I missed 2009). You’ll see how my in-progress PhD project and other interests have evolved over the past five years. RoyC’s annual summer reading list now has a quality like Michael Apted‘s Up series: an unfolding, longitudinal journey through some interesting ideas of the early 21st century.
On 27th February 1998, my then-girlfriend/initiatrix/constant and I saw our first episode of J. Michael Straczynski’s science fiction series Babylon 5: the season three finale ‘Z‘ha’dum’. I was unfamiliar with the five-year narrative arc of Straczynski’s series, its characters, and world. The episode seemed to be about betrayal, the evolutionary dynamic of chaos versus order, and the Tibetan Bardo Thodol. I had studied script-writing and decided to take some notes. At about 8pm, I went to the home office of our house in Brynor Court, Preston, Melbourne (Australia) to write. I started in Microsoft Word with the B5’s open credits. The imaginal document then began to change, similar to Ericksonian hypnosis, Jungian depth psychology, and automatic writing. Ninety minutes later, I was exhausted, and The Book of Oblique Strategies was the result.
Oblique Strategies refers to Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s 1975 oracular, aleatory deck. I used readings from this deck in Disinformation’s daily newsletter from 2000 to 2008. Joe Nolan interviewed me about this period. I’ve written about Eno’s 2009 ‘Scenius’ talk and what researchers can learn from him. I’ve also commented on Alfred Hermida’s ambient journalism and its creative implications. But the document isn’t an Eno pastiche. It isn’t an attempt to copy Crowley’s Book of the Law. I wasn’t on a grandiose ego trip: I knew of the ‘magus of the week’ phenomenon on the alt.magick and alt.satanism newsgroups and I didn’t found my own organisation. I was struggling to make sense of cryptic, dense, multi-layered information with multiple meanings and significances. John Lilly likened such experiences to the ‘supra-self meta-programmer’ that can reshape the Self. The first hermeneutic ‘analysis and commentary’ document came to 50 pages. The 2011 commentary is about 30 pages and remains confidential.
Most poignantly, a section foreshadows the Bush administration’s Global War on Terror (GWOT). ‘Dakshineswar’ = both the Kali worship centre of Dakshineswar, India and ‘War Shines Da(r)k’. ‘I return Home in the Year of the Fire to unleash fiery Helter Skelter’ = the 11th September 2001 terrorist attacks and the ensuing confusion. (The internal representation of these lines was an image of fire seen from space: probably the influence on me of the 1982-83 nuclear war scare.) Bush announced the GWOT on my birthday — 20th September 2001 — as I was in-flight to attend author Howard Bloom’s wedding in New York City. The document thus has an underlying, consistent and self-generative metaphysics, ontology, cosmology and epistemology that emerges with hermeneutic analysis. I later discovered that others like Zeena and Nikolas Schreck had their own experiences with Kali and war archetypes at a similar time-period. Whilst studying counter-terrorism in 2005, I discovered that cyberculture had also influenced Shoko Asahara and Aum Shinrikyo cult members. Elsewhere, I have explored the moment that the GWOT emerged and the initial media reactions to it.
The Stafford Beer-Brian Eno Connection: Alex Hough of Manchester Business School mentions how the cybernetics scientist Stafford Beer influenced musician and producer Brian Eno. Beer also influenced a generation of researchers and practitioners in modular organisational design, management, and systems thinking. Eno’s collaborator Robert Fripp was influenced by a precursor, John Godolphin Bennett‘s systematics.
START Bulletin Fall 2009: The US National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) has just released its Fall 2009 bulletin
on its programs of research and major research reports. I’m always on
the lookout for ‘good practice’ examples of how to communicate the
research results to different audiences. R&D Management: Michel Bauwens tipped me off to a special issue on Henry Chesbrough‘s ‘open innovation’ and ‘open R&D’: looks very interesting. Journal article idea: Under what conditions might the innovation tournament be a more efficient allocative mechanism for R&D resources, human capital and commercialisation than other institutional structures, such as university-industry consortia and joint ventures?
The Myer IPO: Fairfax’s Michael West blames Myer for ruining the Australian IPO market for others. Three observations: (i) I agree with West that Myer’s private equity owners were driven by a macroeconomic/monetary policy timing window to cash out after their cost cutting and change management; (ii) Brokerages and commission-based sales provided an ‘echo chamber’ to talk up the Myer IPO so that the underwriter’s market-making activities are supported in the aftermarket; and (iii) always factor in market volatility into daily commentary — an 8% shift is normal in the current market conditions due to buyer-seller resistance, post-IPO speculation and different views of Myer’s fair market value — and the likelihood that the underwriter and other investment banks will attempt to stabilise the stock’s support level.
Vale Claude Levi-Strauss: The anthropologist’s structuralist approach is credited with changing how we perceived primitive societies and their cultural and religious practices. He is probably best known in popular culture for naming the Fine Young Cannibals‘ most successful album.
Eno goes out of his way to downplay his work and his public image; he also tape records every talk he does.
In response to a group of protesters outside who were angry about the Australian Government funding Eno’s trip, Eno explores various governance issues about government arts funding. He felt uncomfortable about receiving government funds. Noting the public influence of scientists such as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould and Daniel C. Dennett, Eno states that one of the problems artists faced is that they often did not make clear on their grant funding applications how the broader society would benefit from their work. A second problem was the deliberate mystification by artists of their craft and methodologies. Eno feels that artists need to detail with greater clarity their methodological approach.
He describes Western cultural history as the evolution and interplay of functional artifacts and aesthetic forms. Eno illustrated this by showing and talking about four different screwdrivers from the Sydney Opera House’s maintenance department — contrasting the functional ends with different handles. He also mentioned fashion and joke punchlines as examples of ornamentation and self-presentation.
Scenius’ is Eno’s term for a proxemic subculture which diffuses from an aesthetic response and evolves into a unique design space to solve complex social problems. Eno describes late 1960s San Francisco as a space that was less politicised than is now portrayed, and in his view, was more about a group of people deciding to simply ‘live’ a different philosophy. He also describes the Manhattan Project in these terms, given that the scientists essentially solved the problem of nuclear fission through brute force. He then suggests that there were other scientific frontiers, potentially cold fusion, that were at a similar conceptual and epistemological stage as nuclear fusion was in 1935. ‘Scenius’ also describes Eno’s role as curator/mentor in New York’s ‘No Wave’ scene in the late 1970s.
In contrast to these successful large-scale collaborations, Eno suggests the Santa Fe Institute has been a failure, as nothing really has emerged, and its researchers continue to work on their individual projects rather than collaborative research programs. Eno omits that Citicorp’s Walter Wriston tapped Santa Fe expertise so that its capital markets and trading division could develop complexity models of international and cross-border financial flows.
Eno thinks in terms of axes, continuums, and spectrums which are then layered in a possibility space (he uses an overhead projector to explore various axes and issues throughout his talk), and drew on ideas from product development and quasi-experimental methods of iterative, rapid prototyping.
Eno feels that climate change and the ‘limits to growth’ scenario means that artistic methods for problem-solving need to be diffused more widely, and that everyone needs to perceive themselves as having the abilities to contribute to solutions.
1. Develop a longer-term view for your body of work/research program: Eno’s 40-year career demonstrates how creativity, foresight and role plularity may underpin a body of work or research program. Eno’s career spans several phases: early Roxy Music, a solo career which popularised ambient music and generative art, and as a producer on breakthrough albums by David Bowie, David Byrne, Talking Heads, and U2 (sorry, Coldplay doesn’t count). For most people, helming any one of the following projects would be enough: Talking Heads’ Remain In Light (1980); U2’s The Unforgettable Fire (1984), The Joshua Tree (1987) and Achtung Baby (1991); or David Bowie’s epochal ‘Berlin trilogy’ of Low (1977), Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979). Eno’s hit rate and cultural influence suggests he has a greater embodied awareness. For an overview, see David Sheppard’s recent biography On a Faraway Beach (Orion Books, London, 2008).
2. Develop a self-mastery of technique: As the creator of ambient music and generative art, Eno is frequently portrayed as a Renaissance-style creative mastermind with adaptive intent. Two more informed examples are Eric Tamm’s PhD thesis and Elspeth McFadzean’s study (‘What We Can Learn From Creative People? The Story of Brian Eno’, Management Science journal, 38:1, 2000, pp. 51-56). Eno’s diary AYear With Swollen Appendices (Faber & Faber, London, 1996) illustrates the emotional strength; attitude to funding, project and organisational constraints; and granularity of focus that a research program needs in the face of adversity.
3. Honour chance and luck: The ‘Law of Accident’ plays an aleatory, randomised role in many of Eno’s most influential creations: the car accident which led to the ambient music experiments for Discreet Music(1975), the Frippertronics tape delay experiments which resulted in Eno and Robert Fripp’s album No Pussyfooting (1972), and the oracular deck Oblique Strategies (1975) created with the late painter Peter Schmidt. This period shows the value of a disposition for action that is informed by conceptual depth; rapid, iterative development for strategy execution; and quasi-experimental methods with collaborators that fail fast and leverage upside risk. Eno continues this line of development with the art installation 77 Million Paintings (2006).
4. Build a network of collaborators and mentors: Eno’s collaborators range from David Bowie, David Byrne and U2 to journeymen producers Daniel Lanois and Robert Fripp. This network enabled Eno to transition from Roxy Music to a solo career, and then as an in-demand producer (where word of mouth and past credits are the equivalent of academic publications and grants). As recounted in Simon Reynolds‘ history of New Wave innovation, Rip It Up And Start Again (Faber & Faber, London, 2005), Eno also became a mentor and subcultural curator in the late 1970s to New York’s ‘No Wave’ scene and artists such as Devo and Talking Heads. Many of these artists and producers would become influential in their own right, rather than followers of an Eno aesthetic. Of course, sometimes things can go wrong: the rest of Talking Heads blamed Eno’s production as one of the catalysts for vocalist David Byrne’s decision to leave the band. More recently, Eno has leveraged his ‘public intellectual’ status to promote John Brockman’s Edge salon and The Long Now Foundation.
Devo‘s first Melbourne performance in 25 years was ‘a dream come true’ cofounder Mark Mothersbaugh told the audience – in falsetto – as Booji Boy during the finale ‘Beautiful World’. Most of the audience were ‘less beautiful than their parents’ who had attended Devo‘s last show in 1983. Australia was ‘relatively untouched then’ compared to the post-industrial decay in Devo’s hometown of Akron, Ohio.
The 90-minute setlist centered on Devo’s first three albums from 1978-82. After opening with clips from Chuck Statler’s film In the Beginning Was the End: The Truth About De-Evolution (1975) the band played the MTV hits ‘Whip It’ and ‘Girl U Want’ early in the set. Devo’s heavy rock arrangements became even more intense when they dispensed with the Korg keyboard at the front-of-stage and their trademark yellow radiation suits to reveal black t-shirts and shorts. Session drummer Josh Freese kept a fast drum tempo, Bob Casale switched deftly between keyboards and rhythm guitar, Bob Mothersbaugh added lead guitar histrionics to ‘Uncontrollable Urge’, ‘Gut Feeling’ and the Rolling Stones cover ‘I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)’, whilst Gerald Casale’s vocals on ‘Secret Agent Man’ highlighted the band’s humour. The first encore ‘Freedom of Choice’ became a satire on Pax America: ‘If you want proof of devolution just look at the current White House’, Mark Mothersbraugh told fans. For me, ‘Jocko Homo’ was the standout track with MIDI keyboard samples, jerky robotic stage moves, a wall of sound, and the audience singing the anthematic chorus.
I took away three lessons about innovation from Devo’s 2008 tour.
Devo’s expertise in art direction differentiates their live show from others: a Pop Art aesthetic now fused with New Wave nostalgia. This sensibility may be why Brian Eno, Iggy Pop and David Bowie engaged in a bidding war to produce Devo’s first album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo (1978). It’s also why Virgin’s Richard Branson invited Devo to Jamaica in a ploy to sign John Lydon as their frontman, which Simon Reynolds recounts in Rip It Up And Start Again (Faber & Faber, London, 2005). Branson perceived Devo as the New Wave heirs to the Sex Pistols‘ Situationist critique (p. 80-81). This New Wave branding ensures Devo has a core fanbase and branding that resonates enough to sell plenty of red flowerpot hats 25 years later. It’s also evident in the Australian support band Regurgitator‘s aesthetics and Band in a Bubble experiment, and the Primus theme for South Park.
Devo mania was however a New Wave subculture that did not go mainstream. Despite MTV’s heavy rotation of ‘Whip It’ and ‘Girl U Want’ the network became the ‘Home
Shopping Network for record labels’ claims Mark Mothersbaugh, rather than maintain its avantgarde and experimental credentials (p. 349). A mainstream audience would not understand Devo’s satirical parodies of Christian fundamentalist and 19th century eugenicist doctrines on human and cultural evolution nor its embrace of the Church of the Subgenius. Devo by the mid-1980s was consigned to mid-level status on Enigma Records: what happens after a fad or mania fades away can be just as much a lesson as the subcultural tipping point.
The production company Mutato Muzika offers a synthesis of how to escape the half-lives of subcultural fads and the limits of mid-level success. Mark & Bob Mothersbaugh and Bob Casale have refocused on composing advertising jingles, film and television scores. Mutato provides a small team environment which composer John Enroth describes as a focus on pragmatic ‘craft’ with timeboxes for project delivery that are differentiated from the ‘art’ projects that members pursue elsewhere. Mutato developed business models including corporate sponsors for songs and Apple iTunes release and distribution that are now ‘indie’ common practices.
As the next stage in devolution Mutato looks to be a sustainable business that can collaborate with the mainstream media yet is also centred on a personal aesthetic experience and philosophical outlook.