Monthly Archives: October 2009

Genes and Jews

I just got an letter in the mail inviting me to a retreat by organization that has been called a “Jewish hipster skull and bones.” The letter wasn’t an invitation as much as it was a provocation, inviting me — in advance of the retreat — to get myself genetically tested (FOR FREE!!) and then, take part in a conversation about “how genetics influences our sense of identity.”

Um…. I’m creeped out. really? you want me, a post-holocaust Jew to get my Jewish genes genetically tested because there is a correlation between my genes and my Jewish identity? And presumably, you expect there to be some value in understanding my genetic makeup as it pertains to my Jewish self?

Apart from the obvious creepiness that my genetic makeup is going to be cataloged by a for-profit corporation, and apart from the fact that the relationship between one’s genes and one’s health (to take but one example) is still really dicey, there are so many, many ways in which this is troubling or otherwise difficult to swallow, so I’ll focus here on just two:

1. I am pretty sure that my notion of “identity” is well-past the tribal-genetic-blood-quantum idea of identity that sits firmly in the maw of late 19th century pseudo-science. I believe that W E B DuBois was right, when he said that the “color line” was going to be one of the definitive phenomena of the 20th century, and I was hoping that here, nine years into the 21st century, we maybe figured something out that would allow us, at least, to ask more interesting questions about identity — particularly communal or “ethnic” identity — than what our genes (might) tell us. Most of my scholarly life (and my personal life, too) is about working AGAINST these archaic ideas about identity being tied to one’s bloodlines, and just because we now can find out a person’s genetic makeup doesn’t seem to me to promise a whole lot in the way of helping us understand our identities.

2. Even if we take a cultural constructionist approach to identity, adding a little about one’s genetic makeup to the mix seems to me not a bad idea, necessarily. I mean, our identities are constructed, in part, by social responses to our physical manifestations (whether one presents as tall, short, good-looking, a male or female, light or dark-skinned, and so on). Thus, genes aren’t completely beyond the pale of conversation, but they’re no more part of the conversation, it seems, than those other aspects of identity; Why not also convene conversations about height? about blonde-vs-brunette hair color? About left-handedness.

Apart from making people panic about their health (or the potential proclivities toward particular diseases), I can’t figure out why or how looking at one’s bloodline – from a strictly biological standpoint — is really going to help advance this conversation, or our understanding of what it means to be Jewish. Or tall. Or good looking. Or a man or a woman. Or, simply, human.

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Curation vs Commercialization

So, I just finished a week’s worth of interviews in Nashville, TN, with folks in the music industry. It was fascinating for me, and I learned a ton about how the record industry works from many of the good folks who work there: in radio, in A&R, creative and so on.

And one of the questions I asked almost everyone I met was: what are you doing, working in the record industry right now? I asked the same question of folks at majors that I did of folks at independent labels.

My interviewees offered a really interesting take on the record industry right now. Many explained that record labels are even more important now than they ever were because there is so much music out there — too much for any person to reasonably listen to — and that record labels play a curatorial role in the quest for the next great song.

As anyone who studies the challenges of the “information society” will tell you — the problem now isn’t necessarily a lack of information, but too much of it. And the challenge now is how to help people wade through the information they uncover to find the information they need. The commercials for Bing emphasize this over and over again, as they try to distance themselves from Google.

These record label professionals expressed a similar role for labels: how would you know what is good or bad, if not for the curatorial role of record labels, deciding which songs are recorded, which bands are signed and which albums are produced?

Its interesting, but its missing one important historical dimension: record labels started not to produce the best music they could, but to produce the most popular music they could. The idea was not to create a cultural standard of musical worth, but to make recordings that they could sell.

The “brand” of a record label speaks to a certain kind of product that they make. Sub-pop is different from numero group is different from EMI. And while they all claim a kind of curatorial relationship between themselves and their products, one of the obstacles in the future of the record industry may lie in its over-inflated sense of itself as a curatorial venture rather than the recognition that its only ever been a commercial one.

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