14 October 2021

Sutton-Smith—Intro to Stephenson, PTMC

William Stephenson
The Play Theory of Mass Communication
(1987 edition)
(orig. 1967)

from the introduction by Brian Sutton-Smith (1987):
The difficulty with the notion of subjective play is that there is very little systematic scholarship on how to think about it. Most modern play theory is about observable behavior, and even that which deals with subjective play...is largely about the way in which the possession of these competencies is of functional value in school or real life adaptation. It is not particularly concerned with their internal analysis; adequate description of subjective play is simply lacking.
(p. ix)

Is this perhaps
we describe only
what can be described


subjective play

is simply

not so accessible


On the one hand Huizenga's historical analyses show the multiplicity of play concepts throughout history and in language, but on the other hand, in his own criteria for play, he used the simplistic categorizations that are characteristic of modern approaches to play. ...

While [his] view is culturally relative and can be applied to watching television or reading a paper it would probably not have been so applied by Huizenga who saw contests as the major civilizing play form throughout history and was rather scathing about the world-wide "bastardization" of play forms in modern mass society. Presumably subjective play, with its vicarious and its apparently passive character (perhaps just its sedentary character), would not have appealed to Huizenga. He would certainly have had misgivings about calling the typical television watcher's interpolated activity a form of play. ...

[Conversely] For [Helen] Schwartzman [Transformations, 1978] play is a context of activity rather than a structure (with fixed spaces, times, rules and fixed emotions of voluntariness, joy, tension, differentness). It can occur anywhere, even during attendance on the mass media, and typically some transformation takes place in the receiver's mind within those media events.
(pp. ix-xi)

In hashing out a parochial academic issue, I think BSS has incidentally hit upon something with much broader implications, for which the specific issue of


is a fine proxy but hardly the only one.

Regarding my own pet issue of extrinsic and intrinsic benefits in music education, like-minded readers will recognize immediately that

observable behavior


functional value

have asserted a comparable tyranny over our efforts as well.

The final sentence above hones in on the corrective


some transformation takes place

clearly the involvement has not been merely



only where
no transformation is


is the interpretation
true passivity


Leaving aside the devil's advocate question as to whether

some transformation

necessarily equates to the very specific positive


which have been ascribed to arts education,

it nonetheless follows that:

in absence of *any*


in the student,

such (any?) benefits have not been reaped

or at bare minimum,
if no one can prove they have been reaped then we may well be permitted our skepticism in those specific cases

especially since laboratory researchers seem to have no trouble whatsoever overcoming the limits of


while at work in their (literal or proverbial) laboratories

and especially if the presence or absence
(and unfortunately it is most often the latter)
of even small


of any kind

not quite so opaque to the context-dependent


skills of
Practice-Led Researchers

(e.g. music teachers who also Can Play)

as perhaps it has been to non-practitioner social scientists
(and to music teachers whose Practice-Led Research involved little Practice and even less Research, and subsequently didn't Lead much of anywhere).

Oddly enough, I find myself in somewhat the opposite situation as BSS relates: the research is copious and effusive in its insistence that Music Makes Kids Smart, whereas upon embarking upon my most recent foray into small-group teaching I was warned only half-humorously by the band director who had engaged my services (and who incidentally was known to send mass emails linking to the most recent breathless study on the topic) that,

You're going to learn why teachers drink.

One candidate explanation for this inversion: perhaps social science and laboratory psychology have finally improved their methods to where it really is possible, now, to break through the wall of

observable behavior

and to finally access the glorious reality that music indeed engenders


in everything and everyone it touches

(and that these


are indeed of the positive variety).

This reality had already been, just by coincidence of course, loudly proclaimed for the previous 200 years by people lacking the slightest shred of scientifically-gathered evidence. But these days, anyone skeptical enough to dwell on that unfortunate history must be either a purblind empiric or a money-worshipping neocon.

I happen to think there is a simpler, classically conservative explanation

you get out of it what you put into it

and unfortunately no music teacher, social scientist, or play theorist, nor indeed any parent or guardian, has the one-hundred percent reliable magic formula to ensure that students put in anything at all. We do our Progressive best, because it's the right thing to do (I do believe that), but there is no full end run around the paradox of Individual Initiative.

What I find most striking about Stephenson's tack is that he proposes a broad, pragmatic typology of the self along precisely the lines that music teachers (among myriad others) are led to consider such questions of initiative. Instead of sorting individuals by their susceptibility to media influence, he instead proposes (I am stating this very crudely) that

everyone has

a part of themselves

that is



a part

that is



12 October 2021

Two On-the-Spectrum Vignettes

Ericsson and Pool
Peak (2016)
Francesca Happé and Pedro Vital, two researchers at King's College London, compared autistic children who develop savantlike abilities with autistic children who did not develop such abilities. They found that the autistic savants are much more likely than the nonsavants to be very detail-oriented and prone to repetitive behaviors. When something captures their attention, they will focus on it to the exclusion of everything else around them, retreating into their own worlds. These particular autistic people are more likely to practice obsessively a musical piece or memorize a collection of phone numbers—and thus are likely to develop skills in those areas in the same way the people engaging in purposeful or deliberate practice do.

One of the best examples of this is Donny, an autistic savant who is the fastest, most accurate calendar calculator who has ever been tested. Donny can provide the day of the week for a particular date within a second of hearing the date, and he is almost invariably correct. ...

Donny is addicted to dates... The first thing that Donny does when he meets someone is to ask for the person's birthday. He has memorized all fourteen possible yearly calendars...and he has developed ways to quickly calculate which of those fourteen possible calendars applies to any given year. When asked which day of the week a particular date will fall on, Donny focuses first on the year in order to figure out which of the fourteen calendars to use, and then he refers to that mental calendar to determine the day of the week for the date in question. In short, Donny possesses a highly developed skill that is the result of years of obsessive study, but no sign of a miraculous innate talent.

In the late 1960s, a psychologist named Barnett Addis set out to see if he could train someone of normal intelligence to do the same sorts of calendar calculations that savants do. In particular, he had been studying how two calendar-calculating twins performed their feats. The twins, who each had an IQ in the 60-70 range, were able to provide days of the week for dates out to the year A.D. 132470 within an average of six seconds. Addis found that the twins' method seemed to involve finding an equivalent year between 1600 and 2000 and then adding up numbers that corresponded to the day of the month, the month, the year, and the century. With this understanding, Addis then trained a graduate student in that method to see if it actually worked. In just sixteen practice sessions the graduate student was able to calculate just as fast as either of the twins...

The lesson here is that there is clearly nothing magical about Donny's—or any other savant's—calendar-calculation abilities. Donny developed his abilities over years of working with and thinking about dates, reaching the point where he knows each of the fourteen different calendars as well as you or I know our phone numbers, and he has developed his own technique—which, in this case, researchers still have not completely understood—for determining which calendar to use for which year. It is nothing that a motivated college student in a psychology experiment could not do.
(pp. 220-222)

Steven Mithen
The Singing Neanderthals (2006)
At the age of five, Noel had been placed in a school for children with severe learning difficulties. He was autistic—unable to make contact with other children or initiate speech—and had patterns of repetitive and obsessive behaviour associated with this condition. One of these was listening to music on the radio and then playing it by ear the following day on the school piano. The psychologists Beate Hermelin and Neil O'Connor heard about Noel when making a study of autistic savants...

They examined Noel when he was nineteen years old, when he had an IQ of 61 and an almost total absence of spontaneous speech. Hermelin and O'Connor played Greig's 'Melody', Op. 47 No. 3, to Noel and to a professional musician, neither of whom were familiar with the piece. It was played from beginning to end, and then again in short sections. After each section, Noel and the professional musician had to play it back, along with the previous sections, until finally they played the whole piece from memory. Noel gave an almost perfect rendering of all sixty-four bars of 'Melody', retaining both the melody and harmonic components and making mistakes on only 8 per cent of the 798 notes. The professional musician was only able to play 354 notes, 80 per cent of which were incorrect. Twenty-four hours later Noel gave a second near-perfect performance.

By analyzing Noel's mistakes, and undertaking tests with further pieces of music, Hermelin and O'Connor concluded that Noel's musical memory was based on an intuitive grasp of musical structure. Through his obsessive listening to music, he had acquired a profound understanding of the diatonic scales in which the majority of Western music from between 1600 and 1900 is composed... Noel combined his tonal knowledge with a tendency to focus on discrete musical phrases, rather than attending to the piece as a whole as was the inclination of the professional musician. This interpretation of Noel's ability was confirmed when he was asked to repeat Mikrokosmos by Bartók under the same conditions. This piece was composed in the 1930s and eschews the diatonic scale, falling into the category of atonal music. Noel was now markedly less successful, making errors in 63 per cent of the 277 notes he played, in contrast to the 14 per cent of errors in 153 notes played by the professional musician.
(p. 294)

11 October 2021

So-Called Patterns in So-Called Jazz

Steven Mithen
The Singing Neanderthals (2006)
The most significant survival of 'Hmmmmm' [Neanderthal communication that was "holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical, and mimetic"] is within language itself. One aspect of this is the presence of onomatopoeia, vocal imitation and sound synaesthesia, which are probably most readily apparent in the languages of present-day people who still live traditional lifestyles and are 'close to nature'. Another is the use of rhythm, which enables fluent conversations to take place.

Perhaps of most significance, however, is our propensity to use holistic utterances whenever the possibility arises. Although the creative power of language certainly derives from its compositional nature—the combination of words with grammar—a great deal of day-to-day communication takes place by holistic utterances, or what are more frequently called 'formulaic phrases'. This is the principal argument of Alison Wray's 2002 book entitled Formulaic Language and the Lexicon... She describes formulaic phrases as 'prestored in multiword units for quick retrieval, with no need to apply grammatical rules'. In my chapter 2, I give the example of idioms, such as 'straight from the horse's mouth' and 'a pig in a poke', while Wray provides many more examples which are often phrases used as greetings or commands: 'hello, how are you?', 'watch where you're going', 'keep off the grass', 'I'm sorry', 'how dare you!'

Critics of Wray's views about the prevalence and nature of formulaic phrases have noted that the majority do actually conform to grammatical rules and are evidently constructed from words. They rely, therefore, on the prior existence of compositional language. This is true, but misses the point. Even though we have compositional language, we have a propensity to slip into the use of formulaic phrases/holistic structures whenever appropriate occasions arise. These are frequently the oft-repeated social situations, such as greeting friends...and sitting down to meals...especially in company with people with whom we already share a great deal of knowledge and experience, such as the members of our close family. One might argue that we use such formulaic phrases simply to reduce the mental effort of having to put together words with grammatical rules whenever we wish to say something. But to my mind, their frequency in our everyday speech reflects an evolutionary history of language that for millions of years was based on holistic phrases alone: we simply can't rid ourselves of that habit.
(pp. 276-277)

Even though we have compositional language, we have a propensity to slip into the use of formulaic phrases/holistic structures whenever appropriate occasions arise.

The notions of the

appropriate occasion
and of the
slip[ping] into




some element of subjectivity might be
(or should be)
vis-a-vis the sizing up of occasions,


that we can break the pattern-habit
if we really want to
and are willing to work a little harder for it

And if we do

really want to,


one option among several


the oft-repeated social
(and/or musical)


05 October 2021

Heigh Ho, Pomo

Gerald Graff
"The Myth of Postmodern Breakthrough" (orig. 1979)
in Critical Essays on American Postmodernism (1994)
ed. Stanley Trachtenberg
pp. 69-80
In an essay that asks the question, "What Was Modernism?" Harry Levin identifies the "ultimate quality" pervading the work of the moderns as "its uncompromising intellectuality." The conventions of postmodern art systematically invert this modernist intellectuality by parodying its respect for truth and significance. ... It appears that the term "meaning" itself, as applied not only to art but to more general experience, has joined "truth" and "reality" in the class of words which can no longer be written unless apologized for by inverted commas.

Thus it is tempting to agree with Leslie Fiedler's conclusion that "the Culture Religion of Modernism" is now dead. The most advanced art and criticism of the last twenty years seem to have abandoned the modernist respect for artistic meaning. The religion of art has been "demythologized." A number of considerations, however, render this statement of the case misleading. Examined more closely, both the modernist faith in literary meanings and the postmodern repudiation of these meanings prove to be highly ambivalent attitudes, much closer to one another than may at first appear. The equation of modernism with "uncompromising intellectuality" overlooks how much of this intellectuality devoted itself to calling its own authority into question. . . .

(pp. 70-71)

With no scruples whatseover about repeating myself, I must say that following my trip to art school the ultimate archetype of these "highly ambivalent attitudes" and of the "deliberate avoidance of interpretability ha[ving] moved from the arts into styles of personal behavior" (71) will always be, for me, the radical conceptual art grad student who drives a gas-guzzling motor vehicle and listens exclusively to top-40 radio.

My unconsidered gut reaction to Graff's final sentence above is that "modernist" musicians tended more towards reasserting/recovering/recreating some lost "authority" and were usually not too interested in questioning themselves. Also that the principals of the eventual postmodern backlash are quite comfortable slipping into the tattered robes of "authority" whenever they think they can get away with it. Hence this whole question of exposing shams of undue authority is what inclines me toward a positive self-identification as a "postmodernist." I can't really say so in casual conversation, however, because there are too many other associations with the term which don't fit me at all.

Conspicuous among them: I do believe that rational, just authority exists. It's just that, in music, I am typically most skeptical about its possibility on the level of "meaning;" and yes, those scare-quotes are so totally necessary anytime that warhorse word is trotted out of the stable.

04 October 2021

signals have meanings but stimuli need not

Roger J. Watt and Roisin L. Ash
4th European Conference on Philosophy and Psychology, 1996


The meaning of a signal


the intended and agreed mental action
of that signal.

is bound up with

, so that

signals have meanings

, but

stimuli need not


The meaning of a signal is
not just the action of that signal

meaning is reserved

for cases where

the action is intended


It would not make

much sense to allow

the sender


claim some meaning

to a signal


no recipient would be


of that meaning

, and so

meaning is restricted

to cases where

the recipient


the sender



what the intended action should be

None of the actions of music
considered above,
per se,
would indicate that music has meaning

music does not mean tapping feet just because it has that action

music does not mean a cup of coffee
in Lochinver because that is what it is
associated with for some listeners

music does not mean the sea because that is what it is taken to express by
some listeners
or what it was intended to express by
the composer

23 September 2021

Repurposing New York's Aphorist Laureate for Very New York Purposes

When Yogi Berra plugged disability insurance, he could just as well have been talking about art:
When you don't have it, that's when you need it.

08 June 2021

B.W'd.Y.G addendum

A quick and bloggy addendum on looking for edification in all the wrong online places:

As I continue to trawl/troll Blogspot for distant voices of reason, I am frequently reminded, for one, that this is asking a lot no matter the medium, but also that the analytic/speculative/critical orientation remains very much a preoccupation of a tiny woolly-headed minority of thinkers, even (or is it especially?) now that it has been institutionalized and co-opted.

In plain English now, I am rather taken aback not so much at any lack of literacy or erudition but rather at the sheer number of "book reports" that people have written and posted, summaries of other authors' work which are in and of themselves accurate, grammatical, well-proofread, etc., more so in fact than we have been led to expect from The Internet, but from which any whiff of original analysis or insight is, let's say, conspicuous by its absence.

There is a specifically journalistic version of this wherein some bygone writer/thinker is exhumed in order to be offered as an antidote to or perspective on some current political event. In this there is at least some gentle stirring of analytic thought, some positing of a connection or juxtaposition between two ideas or ideologies; but if you have in fact already read the book which the author wishes more people nowadays would read (in other words, if you are like me in that you only go looking for original thought online after grinding away at a fair bit of your own), then for you these are still "book reports" which rarely take note of anything you have not already noticed yourself. I often go online hoping to find out what I have not noticed about a given work I want to cite or write about. I am finding that this bet doesn't pay out very often or very well. (I hasten to add that academic journals on the whole, and I really mean this, are not much better, not unless the article in question is a true landmark document. I have the best luck with physical books published before the PowerMac. I am quite underwhelmed by just about everything else.)

I believe it was Ms. Wright in 11th grade IB English who quite explicitly weaponized "book report" as an epithet and a piece of negative advice. We were therein admonished to understand the difference between writing a summary of a book and writing an essay about the ideas presented in the book, and about our own ideas about those ideas. We were also made to understand that many high schools out in the suburbs practice grade inflation while assigning less rigorous work than we would be doing, and that if we thought this unfair then it was tough beans for us. I've lived to have mixed feelings about the overall effect that all of this rigor had on me for the ensuing decade or so. But PHHS really did have some great teachers who "get it."

That said, I think that grade inflation and general soullessness is at best half the answer to the present riddle. My free-wheeling speculation is that the "book report" is, consciously or otherwise, just a more erudite and better-proofread version of clickbait. "Book report" bloggers are more likely to have something for sale, literally or figuratively. And, while it may of course be countered that summaries of Erich Fromm books are never going to get as many clicks as a well-curated cat video, I'm not sure that this conclusively rules out my theory.

Among my central interests here, which do not include cat videos even though I enjoy them as much as the next guy, it is not too hard now that google supplies some pageview data within the dashboard here to make some educated guesses about what kinds of posts might get the most attention. Ever since I posted it, my transcription of Wayne Shorter's Pinocchio has been by far the most viewed page on this site, often doubling up on the next closest competitor. A really terrible essay that I wrote for a class at CalArts, on Ligeti's Lontano, posted as a placeholder during a Blog Month, is always near the top. I would of course prefer it if Against the Literary Imperative or any of the essays on Mumford's Art and Technics were the most viewed; but I suppose I would have to delete everything else to make that happen, and even then this would be a lowering rather than a raising of the tide.

There are many other possible explanations for the "book report" phenomenon: a genuine desire to create something more accessible than the books themselves, any of a number of esoteric personal motivations, and, of course, the mere conceit to original thought in absence of any real ability to toss it off. But I do wonder if clicks are not part of the equation and if desperate slacker college students are not in and of themselves a formidable mass of clickers.

07 June 2021

McLuhan—Mass as Simultaneity, Simultaneity as Fragility

Marshall McLuhan
Understanding Media (1964)
MIT Press edition (1994)
In terms of the industrial age, it can be pointed out that the difference between the previous mechanical age and the new electric age appears in the different kinds of inventories. Since electricity, inventories are made up not so much of goods in storage as of materials in continuous process of transformation at spatially removed sites. For electricity not only gives primacy to process, whether in making or in learning, but it makes independent the source of energy from the location of the process. In entertainment media, we speak of this fact as "mass media" because the source of the program and the process of experiencing it are independent in space, yet simultaneous in time.
(p. 347)
Automation brings in real "mass production," not in terms of size, but of an instant inclusive embrace. Such is also the character of "mass media." They are an indication, not of the size of their audiences, but of the fact that everybody becomes involved in them at the same time. Thus commodity industries under automation share the same structural character of the entertainment industries in the degree that both approximate the condition of instant information. Automation affects not just production, but every phase of consumption and marketing; for the consumer becomes producer in the automation circuit, quite as much as the reader of the mosaic telegraph press makes his own news, or just is his own news.
(p. 349)

This recentering of the "mass" concept on the notion that everybody becomes involved in them at the same time gets at something important yet often overlooked about Post-Industrialism, Postmodernity, The Spectacle, or whatever TF we're calling it at the moment. Perhaps this emphasis on simultaneity is too narrow to be a total theory of mass media, and perhaps this is because the former mass media have now sprouted lots of "on demand" tentacles. Still, even now McLuhan invites some trenchant questions: was "on demand" not a bigger deal in the outmoded context of broadcast TV, i.e. within which it itself was nothing less than the seeds of destruction, than it does now, post-destruction (mid-destruction?), when it has become taken for granted? Even now, early Sunday afternoons in the fall are great for running errands, and getting the internet to work on my iPhone this past Memorial Day afternoon was a dicey proposition. In other words, beyond the ability of the media proper to determine behavior there remain structural factors which determine not just how but also when we engage with media. Hence I would venture that mass behavior in McLuhan's sense above is still a significant phenomenon in media consumption even as the implosion proceeds apace.

It would be quite an interesting project for some Media Scholar (not me, I am just a tuba player who likes to read) to take inventory of the current morass specifically around this question of simultaneous involvement. I'll bet that there is media consumption which is more truly "on demand" and media consumption which is more truly independent in space, yet simultaneous in time. Given that the various media have not quite, not yet, not fully congealed into a truly unified and undifferentiated sector (though it often seems we are hurtling towards this faster than we can comprehend), some correlation might emerge from such a study, i.e. we might find revealed a few obvious commonalities among those media which tend toward mass simultaneity and those which, somehow, continue to resist it. A now-familiar example: people playing around on the internet while they are at work; a structurally-determined mass-ness which nonetheless, we might conjecture, is also structurally confined, i.e. to things like discussion boards, simple games and short videos, and of course, the humdinger, social media, but also inherently resisting extension all the way to feature-length video, immersive gameplay, etc., the latter media expeditions being too demanding to be multi-tasked and too difficult to hide from the boss.

And as for projects of resistance, things are so far gone these days that just doing the opposite of the mass seems like a solid starting point. Apropos of the present retribalization, this means looking out for mass behavior even on the smallest scale. One of many subliminal cognitive reconfigurations which is precipitated by the move from a Minneapolis-sized to a Los Angeles-sized conurbation is that one no longer feels guilt or FOMO about being able to attend only one of the two or three in-network events happening on a given evening; rather, when you're always missing out on something, or better yet, a dozen somethings, you either get desensitized to the guilt or you lose your mind, and if the former then perhaps you ultimately are liberated from a certain kind of herd mentality (and also from sensitivity to otherwise notable absences at your own shows). In this respect, the dynamics of a small scene are much more mass than those of a big scene. Small-scene people actually behave more like a mass than do big-scene people. Scandalizing? Libelous? To the extent that we have passed what Tim Wu calls "peak attention," McLuhan's übermass has also passed into history and ceased to apply to the present whole. But within given communities or (GASP) networks I would argue that it still very much applies and has some explanatory power. Again, if you desire very strongly to get away with, say, taking your clothes off in a public place and hopping around like a frog for long enough to work up a sweat, might I recommend the Twin Cities' western suburbs on any Sunday afternoon when the Vikings are playing? Please don't actually do this. But please do consider this humorous thought exercise in relation to, say, Jane Jacobs' eyes-on-the-street theory of mixed use, or in relation to any of a number of eco-parables about subhuman animals mindlessly following the pack to their own demise. Please do consider what it is about simultaneous involvement that creates "fragility" in N.N. Taleb's sense, for both individual and group.

06 June 2021

McLuhan—The Great Withholding

Marshall McLuhan
"Woman in a Mirror"
pp. 80-81
in The Mechanical Bride
(2002 Gingko Press edition) [orig. 1951]
This ad employs the same technique as Picasso in The Mirror. The differences, of course, are obvious enough. By setting a conventional day-self over against a tragic night-self, Picasso is able to provide a time capsule of an entire life. He reduces a full-length novel (or movie) like Madame Bovary to a single image of great intensity. By juxtaposition and contrast he is able to "say" a great deal and to provide much intelligibility for daily life. This artistic discovery for achieving rich implication by withholding the syntactical connection is stated as a principle of modern physics by A.N. Whitehead in Science and the Modern World.
In being aware of the bodily experience, we must thereby be aware of aspects of the whole spatio-temporal world as mirrored within the bodily life. ...my theory involves the entire abandonment of the notion that simple location is the primary way in which things are involved in space-time.
Which is to say, among other things, that there can be symbolic unity among the most diverse and externally unconnected facts and emotions.

The layout men of the present ad debased this technique by making it a vehicle for "saying" a great deal about sex, stallions, and "ritzy dames" who are provided with custom-built allure.

Debased because of all the sex? Or because the "syntactical connection" is throttled rather than teased?

Working title for my next record:
"The Syntactical Connection, Withheld."

McLuhan, ibid
"Magic the Changes Mood"
pp. 85-87
In Music Ho! Constant Lambert argues that syncopation in modern music is the symbolist technique of getting cosmic coverage by omission of syntactical connections... That, of course, is the literal Greek sense of "symbol"—the putting together of two unconnected things. (85)
We confess ignorance of the Lambert character and, in any case, find this totally unconvincing vis-a-vis "syncopation," which is sort of comically not at all like the Picasso ruse, not even a little bit. We really wish people would stop saying so. To get syncopation you must first have a grid, which is the epitome of "spatial location" and the antithesis of spatio-temporal relativity. Syncopation per se is pure syntax, actually. It's precisely the opposite of what these two proto-hipsters have jointly decided it is. It's more like Mondrian than Picasso. Too literal? Whatever "cosmic coverage" is, it sounds like a second-order effect. Syncopation is first-order, granular, atomic.

The passage keeps going:
The abrupt apposition of images, sounds, rhythms, facts is omnipresent in the modern poem, symphony, dance, and newspaper. Jazz, Lambert suggests, derives from Debussy via New York, rather than from Africa. True or not, it is easy to see that the basic techniques of both high and popular arts are now the same. (85-87)
Adorno said something similar to the last sentence. But I wish the deriving of things didn't have to be such a black-and-white "rather than" situation. Are we really doing this again? Is it so hard to accept that more than one thing can be true? (Yes, apparently.)

05 June 2021

McLuhan—Kicking the Cigarette Machine

Marshall McLuhan
"The Corpse as Still Life"
pp. 104-106
in The Mechanical Bride
(2002 Gingko Press edition) [orig. 1951]
A generation later Edgar Allan Poe hit upon this principle of "reconstruction," or reasoning backwards, and made of it the basic technique of crime fiction and symbolist poetry alike. Instead of developing a narrative straight forward, inventing scenes, characters, and description as he proceeded, in the Sir Walter Scott manner, Poe said: "I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect." Having in mind the precise effect first, the author has then to find the situations, the persons, and images, and the order which will produce that effect and no other.

That, for example, is the way T.S. Eliot composes his poems. Each is slanted to a different effect. So that it is not something his poems say but something that they do that is essential about them. And the same is true of most significant painting and poetry since Poe and Baudelaire. Yet the baffled sections of the audience still seem to expect such work to deliver some message, some idea or other, and then they kick the cigarette machine, as it were, when it won't deliver the peanuts. (106)

Kicking the Cigarette Machine
MUST enter the lexicon!


"David's crit was totally unfair. The BFA-1s kept kicking the cigarette machine and the instructor just sat there and let it happen."

"The notices for Julia's gallery opening were super positive, although the local newspaper critic kicks the cigarette machine pretty hard at the end of his blurb. He despises artists but also knows that as a professional he has a job to do."

"Bob was really looking forward to getting feedback on his chamber concerto, but the guest clinician from State University just kicked the cigarette machine and watched the clock. I think he has a dual appointment in Composition and Music Business."

"Working in the entertainment industry is fine, but forget going to screenings with your co-workers. Anything nonlinear and those bastards will be kicking the cigarette machine til they're on crutches."

"I wouldn't bother going to ITEC this year. It's just going to be a bunch of orchestra cats carefully disassembling the cigarette machine, scribbling PEANUTS on each pack, and then trying to sell it to you at the merch table."

All of that being as it is...

This reconstruction business is pretty hilarious. How's this working out for y'all? Still got a lot of
baffled sections of the audience

That's weird. I mean, you so totally
ha[d] in mind the precise effect first
and then you had the totally righteous notion to
find the situations, the persons, and images, and the order which will produce that effect and no other.
So weird that this hasn't worked at all even though you
everything so carefully. Sounds kind of like Taleb's economic forecasters trying to unfry an egg or unmelt an ice cube. Well...at least artists' b.s. can't cause entire banking systems or state pension funds to collapse. Actually, maybe it's better that we can't know exactly how our artworks will be received. Then we can do what we want and not have to think that we're total failures if even one person doesn't "get" it. I mean, bro, that's actually kind of twisted to be so hung up on whether other people "get" you. It's like you need their approval, or you want to control them, or you don't think you're good enough without them. Just do your work bro! Let the brain mappers do the reverse engineering, and be thankful that you lived before they finished
the life right out of everything and every body.

But do use the cigarette machine metaphor every time life gives you a chance to do so.

04 June 2021

Bro, where'd ya go?

The first time I heard or read the word "blog" was when I over-heard it on the radio while trying to work on something else. Some glib NPR infotainment piece about blogs, their rise and potential fall. Circa 2004, give or take a year. The funny thing is, something quite glib was uttered in the course of this puff piece that immediately captured my attention and imagination. This was solely responsible for my first aborted attempt at blogging, consisting of exactly one post which, if memory serves, was very much like post #1 here. A few years later I tried again and it stuck.

When you run out on a Blogspot, as I ran out on my firstborn, eventually it is resorbed into the cybervoid. You do get a friendly notice from the hivemind at google long before resorption is imminent. This has happened only once with Fickle Ears, and it practically made my heart stop, which is pretty embarrassing but also sums up well where things stand for me vis-a-vis anyone giving two shits about anything else that I've done. This blog project is now my hipster-nerdverse answer to Second Life. This was not the plan, but this is what has happened. McLuhan was quite correct to call these things "extensions of man," though I prefer "projection" because it more fully captures the aggressive aspect which is bound to be part of the equation for a washed-up high school athlete. This blog gets read about as often as my symphonies get played, but I believe in it, most of all because, just like that breezy NPR story said (or like I now imagine it to have said), the blog is a diary and a soapbox and a therapist and a record-keeper and perhaps a few other things, all and none of these things all at once, oddly able to shapeshift in spite of being, seemingly, a rigid, backward, slightly clumsy technology of failure, a technology of the millennium which with full millennial irony almost immediately ceased to have any obvious resonance with everything its sibling technologies have wrought. Meanwhile, I am a typical only child, and I'm here to stay.

Apropos of such a failure, no two people use these little monsters in quite the same way, and this makes community and exchange far more elusive than McLuhan seems to have thought it might become, depending I suppose on what exactly you understand "village" to mean. Lewis Mumford idealized the "neolithic" village as the most stable, secure, peaceful existence mankind has yet known, and so lashed out at McLuhan like a cornered animal. They were both prescient in their own ways. But neither got all of the details quite right.

There are only three other blogs that have really, really resonated with me. One of them, speaking of malign profits, is Professor Gann's Postclassic, and when I say it "resonated" I mean to evoke a cast iron skillet falling off the stove during an earthquake rather than the gestalt of a clean orchestral tutti. Still, Gann is just about the only person writing about music who actually is all the things his right sidebar says he is. This makes his fieldwork invaluable even for someone who occasionally finds his positions absurd. Better a scholar courting absurdity than vice versa, I think. I'm not going to provide a link though, because if you're reading this the percentage chance that you've already been there is in the high nineties.

Daniel Wolf's Renewable Music has been a much more enjoyable horizon-expanding experience. Daniel's writing style also very much appeals to me and has influenced my own writing greatly, unlikely though that may seem. Unfortunately even with Daniel's help I didn't really understand exactly what The Radical Music referred to until I got to CalArts. (Or did this merely distract me with an academic caricature? Hmm...) I am not an experimentalist, nor all that Radical of a musician, and I have very precisely articulated/rationalized reasons for why I am not these things. But the funny thing is, in absence of full context I have always been able to read the writings of experimental musicians and think that I agree with every word. I've had some odd, very adolescent false starts this way. But I do owe Daniel quite a debt not just for providing raw information and for generating plenty of "heat and light" but also for exemplifying in quiet eloquence what a civil internet might look like. Daniel is the reluctant virtuoso of the blog whose example guides much of what I do here, though again I realize that probably sounds inexplicable and perhaps also is unfair to him. Influence works in funny, indirect ways.

Both of these blogs seem to have gone dormant, happily without yet being gobbled up by the streetsweeper, but for years now rather than the mere months which are customary for all of us. Predictably given my tastes and purposes, Gann's project does feel more or less complete at this point, while Wolf's feels open-ended and inexhaustible. Gann once confessed to being wary of repeating himself, a problem which every blogger has if we're being honest, while Wolf's purview itself seemed to ensure a certain ludic unpredictability very much in the spirit of the musical work he makes and writes about. As a reader I don't miss the pressure of keeping up, but now the disappearance of these two curiosities, both of which kept me on my toes in a way that a rigidly empirical orientation cannot, is felt as a palpable absence in my personal intellectual theater.

For all the time (too much perhaps) that I once spent bouncing off the walls of the blogosphere, there is only one other blog I would truly count as an influence. I spent only a very brief time with it, but it made a strong impression. Returning for the first time in a decade, I was sad to find that it has long since been resorbed, or possibly intentionally removed, and sadder yet to find the Internet Archive seemingly not quite in sync with the Blogspot way of organization. And yet, if you use the URL followed by the year you can indeed find your way to most of Stanley J. Zappa's It Is Not Mean If It Is True (Attack Attack Attack) and therein you will find plenty to chew on.


[Update: criminy, these archive.org links work only on desktop, not on mobile. WTF?]

Peek-a-boo! Fetish Character in Music and Regression of Listening!

Adorno, Phoebe Snow, and the Colors of Spring--Emo Mix

Business Extending Peacefully

The Illusion, The Understanding

Exchange Value Destroys Use Value

The Truth About Tuxedos

Large Fry, Small Fry

10/10/11. God is Dead. Occupy Wall Street. Shit On Police Car. Wipe Ass with New York Times.

EYES RIGHT! Sgt Shamar Thomas, USMC and The Revealation of Self-Production and The Unity That is Realized in Precisely that Spontaneity

Forcible Retardation, Pinched Hatred, Neurotic Stupidity and the Genius of Children.

Capitulate Before the Superior Power / Purchase Spiritual Peace

Sensory Pleasure Turns into Disgust / Displacement of Feelings into Exchange Value / Neurotic Mechanisms of Stupidity in Listening / The Arrogantly Ignorant Rejection of Everything Unfamiliar

Whereupon Teddy Drops A Chocolate Yule Log on the Ambivalence of Retarded Listeners, Jazz Administrators and Pattern Based So-Called Improvisation

The Younger Generation, Rowing for the Older Generation

It's weird, but something about SJZ's presentation of Adorno just feels right. It's a well-staged collision between Adorno and the punk aesthetic, the kind Greil Marcus tried to bring off but couldn't without looking like a douche. The medium is the message, and there's a message-message too. It works. The liberal use of highlighting is especially crucial. I have already started stealing this idea and intend to continue to do so. No "anxiety of influence" here. But do go to the source.

This is also awesome.

And I'm not the least bit ashamed to say I totally agree with this.

Finally, please don't neglect to enjoy the order-from-chaos aspect of the labels list. Beef-Beethoven-Beheading! hipster-Husserl-hypocrisy! Pink Martini-piss smell-Plato! In a world where even fleeting moments of happiness are elusive, this makes me smile. Bro, where'd ya go?

Sticking with the Village motif, I decided to get tribal and do some googling confined to the domain blogspot.com. Lotta people were all over Wordpress when it first came on the scene, and it would be years after that before the Blogspot got any kind of comparable makeover. I confess that I did consider bailing. Nowadays I'm inclined to double down on the hipster-nerdverse aspect and remain on the present platform. I do take pleasure in having a deep archive even if most of what it contains is execrable rubbish. But I also sincerely despise slick packaging, which I'm pretty sure is exactly what the leavers were after. Happily there's still plenty of heat and light being generated by my tribe in a no-to-low-frills sort of manner. Some interesting shite that I managed to dig up:

Ever heard of Justus Buchler? The name sounds like a joke, but it's dead serious, and quite compelling.

Part 1

Part 2

Roger Bobo, the GOAT himself, is blogging strong! I especially recommend this short post, after which you can safely skip approximately 73% of the overwrought muck that I've posted here over the years.

Also of this variety, re: judging competitions:

There were groups that played perfectly together and projected no musical personality whatsoever. These groups, absolutely amazed by not being advanced to further rounds, were invariably the ones who would approach the judges, demanding an explanation as to why. Trying to explain was not easy.

A tired subject perhaps, until the last sentence. The rare wisdom is all in the last sentence.

And of course no excursion in brass would be complete without the gearheads trying to ruin everything.

I wrote the essay, "Specters", about some of the interesting people, those who would follow the various orchestras that I had played in through the years in our rehearsals and concerts.

Sadly, the stories of an old man who played in the Moscow Youth Orchestra when Tchaikovsky would bring by a new score by to hear the orchestration or another old man in another part of the world had a big part of his life rewriting symphony scores with all the inaudible orchestration deleted, do not hold the same interest as rotary vs. piston valves or "Is Bigger Better?" To me that's sad.

Everybody now, in your best millennial tween voices: SAAAD!

I love that our GOAT has brains and heart as well as chops.


A super-interesting 8-part series begins here. A taste:

Prewar Modernist architects had looked back to the look of cleanness of white undergarments that signaled a actually clean body (in contrast to the earlier look of white linens that had simply covered a dirty body). In the postwar years the material abundance made of industrial manufacturing changed the game once more. JFK, the president who committed America to landing on the moon, changed suits as many as four times a day, often went through six fresh shirts a day, and habitually wore a girdle to the point that his muscles atrophied. Mid-century Modernist fashion designers,who were the first to extend their couture brands to mass market merchandise, were now returning the early Modernist architect's gaze. But they were not admiring architecture's look of cleanliness, they were admiring the rigid structure.
Through the above site I found my way to this one:
Robertson conducts a large and varied cast through a long time and a complex plot with great skill to a most satisfactory click of closure. But, Hames argues, the difficulty of integrating the characters' lives with a political history that mostly consisted of tiny conventicles and ceilidhs in literally smoke-filled rooms and debates in widely unread periodicals, and that now and then took public form as 'set-piece' events in parliaments and streets, can defeat even the best novelist – even though Robertson was himself on those marches and in those rooms. It's a problem familiar in science fiction: one reviewer cited refers to Robertson's 'info-dumping', a term from the lexicon of SF criticism.

I am quite ignorant of the principals but not the principles, hence this was logged at once in my personal card catalog of meditations on the lie that tells the truth.

Here is an intelligent and erudite examination of a work which is fundamental to my own bloggerel.


Abstract comics!!

This made me just the slightest bit homesick, emphasis on the sick part.

Critics taking a beating? Bibliographical use of the comments feature? I'm there.


Just as the best places for Raising A Family are not/cannot be the best places for an artist to find a fertile balance of arrogation and humility, so I have often aspired to emigrate from the parochial intellectual climate of the here-and-now to a self-curated intellectual community of online scholars. "Small pieces, loosely joined" in the coinage of one popular author. The ideal seems unachievable and the need remains unmet. In the bigger/scarier city I settled in as an adult, from which the so-called Family Millennials and their as-yet-unborn entropy machines are said to be fleeing in droves, superficially it seems possible to find almost any other variety of human company one might desire. The reality is that even after uprooting and moving across the country, certain structural obstacles remain. I can confirm, against my abiding pessimistic streak, that the aforementioned "small pieces" are indeed in evidence, both online and IRL. Not surprisingly in hindsight, it's the "loosely joined" part that has remained elusive and seems impossible. That is cause for as much skepticism and despair as even I am capable of mustering. As a co-worker and scarred LA veteran once put it to me, there's no "scene" here because there's no "community." A continent's worth of great players does not make a scene if said players are too spread out, spread too thin, and spread too far up their own buttholes. And now, adding insult to injury, we've been forced even further apart and, assuming we are able to return to our non-scene at all, will be confronted with the historic ruins of a dead civilization, something much trickier and traumatic to confront than mere scorched earth from which spontaneous regeneration is more assured. The online world, meanwhile, was already imploding even before the Plague. The social media have become less rather than more differentiated. To become even "loosely joined" to anyone or anything on the internet is now the greatest hazard rather than, as it was once imagined to be, the whole point of the thing. So, I will continue to shelter in place, to append "site:blogspot.com" to any google queries which otherwise prove to be overbroad, and to feign optimism to the extent possible under the circumstances. Feel free to share anything you've been reading or writing lately in the comments.

03 June 2021

[sc]airquotes (viii)—The Determinist Connexion

"The new media and technologies by which we amplify and extend ourselves constitute huge collective surgery carried out on the social body with complete disregard for antiseptics. If the operations are needed, the inevitability of infecting the whole system during the operation has to be considered. For in operating on society with a new technology, it is not the incised area that is most affected. The area of impact and incision is numb. It is the entire system that is changed. The effect of radio is visual, the effect of the photo is auditory. Each new impact shifts the ratios among all the senses. What we seek today is either a means of controlling these shifts in the sense-ratios of the psychic and social outlook, or a means of avoiding them altogether. To have a disease without its symptoms is to be immune. No society has ever known enough about its actions to have developed immunity to its new extensions or technologies. Today we have begun to sense that art may be able to provide such immunity."
(McLuhan, Understanding Media, 64)
To have a disease without its symptoms is to be immune.

Sounds like a pretty good epigram for my blog, ca. 2021.

Does anyone else find it funny that in a mere coupla pages we have gone from
starting with the effect and then inventing a poem, painting, or building that would have just that effect and no other
all the way to
No society has ever known enough about its actions to have developed immunity to its new extensions or technologies

Is this not to obliquely concede that those nineteenth-century conceptualists evinced a rather spectacular
epistemic arrogance
in their disregard for the
limitations that prevent us from unfrying an egg

Is it not pretty f*ing weird to propose that
art may be able to provide such immunity
controlling these shifts in the sense-ratios
if the artist cannot even control the

of a work of art on any particular recipient


It's not a totally crazy idea, actually, but it is extremely blunt, majoritarian, and intolerant.

Absolute control over the reception of a work might be labelled a problem of organized complexity whereas the sense-ratio issue, being a bird's eye view concern and hence less-than-absolute in conceit, can be reduced to a problem of disorganized complexity. I'm borrowing from Jane Jacobs here, who borrowed thusly from Dr. Warren Weaver:

"The classical dynamics of the nineteenth century was well suited for analyzing and predicting the motion of a single ivory ball as it moves about on a billiard table . . . One can, but with a surprising increase in difficulty, analyze the motion of two or even three balls . . . But as soon as one tries to analyze the motion of ten or fifteen balls on the table at once, as in pool, the problem becomes unmanageable, not because there is any theoretical difficulty, but just because the actual labor of dealing in specific detail with so many variables turns out to be impractical.

"Imagine, however, a large billiard table with millions of balls flying about on its surface . . . The great surprise is that the problem now becomes easier: the methods of statistical mechanics are now applicable. One cannot trace the detailed history of one special ball, to be sure; but there can be answered with useful precision such important questions as: On the average how many balls per second hit a given stretch of rail? On the average how far does a ball move before it is hit by some other ball? . . .

" . . . The word 'disorganized' [applies] to the large billiard table with the many balls . . . because the balls are distributed, in their positions and motions, in a helter-skelter way . . . but in spite of this helter-skelter or unknown behavior of all the individual variables, the system as a whole posesses certain orderly and analyzable average properties."

(The Death and Life of
Great American Cities, 430-431)

certain orderly and analyzable average properties

So what are the orderly and analyzable average properties of a minimally-regulated marketplace of rational first-world art consumers?

What are the orderly and analyzable average properties of Southern California day laborers vis-a-vis instrumental music consisting entirely of dissonant counterpoint?

What are the orderly and analyzable average properties of holders of graduate jazz performance degrees while playing from an unmetered performance score with a high degree of independence among the parts, and how does this first set of orderly and analyzable average properties compare with those of the same cohort when playing from The Real Book (Fifth Edition, in C)?

As matters of disorganized complexity these questions are child's play. In each case many of us have a pretty solid depth and breadth of experience from which to make strong inferences vis-a-vis the system as a whole, be that the marketplace system, the day laborer system, or the graduate jazz accreditation system.


as soon as one tries to analyze the motion of ten or fifteen people within a marketplace, an audience, or (this is the real pisser) a band, then things get rather dicey.

I want to suggest that the limits of McLuhan's "determinism" as a policy or platform are shown up by this exercise. As a matter of system-level intervention it may be possible to achieve some degree of foresight, some "orchestration" of media which optimizes some system-level trait. But this has political implications for any special balls who don't fit the analyzable average. (Listen to me getting all intersectional and libertarian at the same time.) These units may well be driven batty by the orchestration which cools off the more strictly average among their cohort. "Technological determinism" (if that's what it is) either assumes uniformity in the population or it pleads ignorance of diversity. McLuhan fruitfully identifies some new problems, but there is a very old problem here too.

02 June 2021

[sc]airquotes (vii)—The Challenge and Pretense of Conceptual Art

"It was Bertrand Russell who declared that the great discovery of the twentieth century was the technique of the suspended judgement. A.N. Whitehead, on the other hand, explained how the great discovery of the nineteenth century was the discovery of the technique of discovery. Namely, the technique of starting with the thing to be discovered and working back, step by step, as on an assembly line, to the point at which it is necessary to start in order to reach the desired object. In the arts this meant starting with the effect and then inventing a poem, painting, or building that would have just that effect and no other." (62)

Marshall McLuhan
Understanding Media (1964)
MIT Press edition (1994)

"If you have the right models...you can predict with great precision how the ice cube will melt—this is a specific engineering problem devoid of complexity... However, from the pool of water you can build infinite possible ice cubes, if there was in fact an ice cube there at all. The first direction, from the ice cube to the puddle, is called the forward process. The second direction, the backward process, is much, much more complicated. The forward process is generally used in physics and engineering; the backward process in nonrepeatable, nonexperimental historical approaches.

"In a way, the limitations that prevent us from unfrying an egg also prevent us from reverse engineering history."

N.N. Taleb
The Black Swan (orig. 2007)
2nd Ed. (2010)

Incidentally, Taleb also takes aim at Russell and the suspension of judgment:

"We cannot teach people to withhold judgment; judgments are embedded in the way we view objects. ... It is not possible without great, paralyzing effort to strip these small values we attach to matters. Likewise, it is not possible to hold a situation in one's head without some element of bias. ...

"Philosophers since Aristotle have taught us that we are deep-thinking animals, and that we can learn by reasoning. It took a while to discover that we do effectively think, but that we more readily narrate backward in order to give ourselves the illusion of understanding, and give a cover to our past actions. The minute we forgot about this point, the "Enlightenment" came to drill it into our heads for a second time. (Taleb, 202)

Time for another Enlightenment, I guess. Or maybe the Plague will suffice.

"The lesson for the small [matters] is: be human! Accept that being human involves some amount of epistemic arrogance in running your affairs."
So, re: the peculiar arrogance of believing that any work of art can have just that effect and no other on all of the people who might encounter it...is this a small matter?
"Do not try to always withhold judgment—opinions are the stuff of life. Do not try to avoid predicting—yes, after all this diatribe about prediction I am not urging you to stop being a fool. Just be a fool in the right places." (Taleb, 203)
Is artmaking the right place to be a fool? In most ways, yes, emphatically, it is perhaps the best such place. But is this also true re: prediction about the audience? How about re: epistemic arrogance about the audience? If so, what hellish effect or concept does that betoken?
"Know how to rank beliefs not according to their plausibility but by the harm they may cause."

Artworks which themselves do harm to the audience are rare and exceptional. Many of these are indeed "conceptual" works in the sense used here, but that is beside the point. What's the harm in a little old fashioned bohemian pretense? In isolation from all the rest of it, nothing at all. But we are the opposite of isolated these days, and so I do wonder about the system-level impact of all this free-floating dissimulation. I wonder if each of our little white lies about ourselves and our art, and most especially about its effect on audiences, if all of this is not precisely the kind of signal distortion which ultimately ramifies into toxic identity politicking and alt-right conspiracy mongering; into a Global Village not in the reductionist sloganeering sense but in the pejorative, racialist sense of "village" that a 19th Century British anthropologist might have uttered with a hiss. Take credit for enough that is not real and eventually you will have theorists of the Cultural Marxist conspiracy giving you credit for all manner of unreal things beyond your wildest dreams. i.e. Be careful what you wish for. Perhaps the frustrations of the actual Marxists could teach us artists something about the folly of starting with the effect.

A more fitting credo:

"What an artwork represents is quite insignificant. What the artist believes it represents is also insignificant. The effect the artist wanted to achieve is itself without interest. What the observer believes he sees in the artwork is in itself insignificant. The only thing that means something is the objective and real effect the art has exercised on the observer. That is the artistic reality."
(Asger Jorn, quoted in Kurczynski, The Art and Politics of Asger Jorn, 201). 

01 June 2021

Face Ain't the Space (not no more it ain't)

I stand by the opinion that Facebook was pretty cool and useful for its first several years of existence. It has long since ceased to be of any use or value, but I do still have at least one account which occasionally comes back from the dead, and so I recently allowed myself to log on and take a look around.

I posted the following cyberpoem to my feed on Sunday, May 2, hoping to draw some sympathetic attention to the most recent flurry of blog activity. As recently as 2017 this would have garnered at least a couple of stray eyeballs. In 2021 it garners nothing at all, not even a passive "like" or a snarky TLDR textspeak comment. I'm fine with that on the cosmic level. On the earthly level, well...talk about screaming into a void.

I share all of this just so no one accuses me of hiding, of not getting myself out there, of any of the things that hard-working normal market-oriented people like to say to introverted nonmarket lurches like me when we seem to be underachieving and/or slacking. You can't market what I'm doing here, not even to people who would pay for it. But here is what that would look like if it were possible. Now playing around with colors in dedication to an honored blogospheric ancestor.


I don't believe in self-promotion or in single-use plastics or in narrative, but it's impossible to avoid them completely. =+=+= A booking agent once said: "that guy's like a stalker." A friend once scolded me: "you should be playing with everyone." =+=+= I still believe in the Basic Blog, vintage 2003 or so. Fuck all this other Marshall McLuhan shit. =+=+= I am still furloughed. Trying to reckon with 5+ years of notebooks, post-its, and emails-to-self, re: political art, overpopulation, high school band, etc. =+=+= Nobody reads unless I post about it here. And then only for a day or two. =+=+= Sometimes my sources and my thinking are opaque, or just wrong. I cannot improve without feedback. Should we have to pay $100,000 for that kind of feedback? =+=+= I have people to play with (music and scrabble). Not "everyone," but good people. I could use more intellectual sparring partners. En garde! =+=+= I'm just a Basic Blogger living in a McLuhanite world. =+=+= I have a masters degree and an iPhone, but JSTOR and Apple News just are not cutting it these days. =+=+= Functional unemployment doesn't scare me. Intellectual underemployment is terrifying. =+=+= Clearing the backlog has been messy and uneven. The constipation analogy is not out of place here (thanks Vinny). So, I've added a "Tentpoles" widget in the right sidebar of my blog to curate some older posts that I worked hard on and still believe in. =+=+= So where are you blogging these days? Take me to your Gutenberg Galaxy. Less "stalking," more "playing with everyone" please. I don't believe in self-promotion or in narrative, but, well...

24 May 2021

Boorstin—On Seeing and Not Being Seen

Daniel Boorstin
The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961)

[My notes say:]

p. 231—"We wish our membership to be reported. We do not care to participate."

This is a very astute observation of how the Image-nonculture bleeds from top-down institutional levels to stain even individual social relationships, at which point it is equipped to become self-perpetuating. The examples of churches and service clubs are also well-chosen since this particular Image is very much bound up with the "democratic-humanitarian" impulse (127).

Then again, ITEA et al have made a stunning reverse achievement: we DO wish to participate (i.e. so we can promote ourselves) but DO NOT wish for this to be known by all of our peers elsewhere!

[from a post-it, 2017]

Boorstin—Look In The Mirror

Daniel Boorstin
The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961)

[My notes say:]

p. 194—"...a vague but attractive image he has of himself."
THIS is a legit example of technology-driven change in society and culture: the sheer growth in ease and frequency of seeing oneself (or if you insist one's own Image) cannot have had less than a total impact on questions of self-image; an environmental change in human development whereby many people remain veritably arrested in Lacan's mirror stage, and are seemingly quite content to be so. Of course I also find the technology useful; it is here to stay in any case. But in that respect, Debord is correct that a "new way of living" is necessary, one which accounts for this question as one of human development.

[from a post-it, 2017]
[The passage:]
It [the image] must be a receptacle for the wishes of different people. Seldom is this so plainly acknowledged as in the recent program by Pincus Brothers Maxwell, clothing manufacturers of Philadelphia. They advertise their new brand of men's suits, not by a sharply focused photograph, but by a blur standing on the street. "The agency, Zlowe Co., New York," Printers' Ink explained (January 20, 1961), "came up with a campaign that discards the fashion plate for personal image. Based on deliberately blurred reflection photography, the illustration is supposed to sell the man through a vague but attractive image he has of himself."

Boorstin—Recordings as Pseudo-Events

Daniel Boorstin
The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961)

[My notes say:]

p. 174—the recording as itself a pseudo-event
This is actually quite provocative, and I'm inclined to agree, at least in the metaphysical sense, not necessarily in the material/functional sense. Generally commercial sound recordings are not quite as central to the Dark Forces of image-mongering as scholars of music (for their own self-importance mostly) would like to think.

Having said that, the sonic wallpaper phenomenon (p. 175) IS real, it has since taken some yet more disturbing (and very functional) turns, and certainly in that metaphysical way referenced above it is nothing less than an affront to our humanity.

[from a post-it, 2017]

Boorstin—The Company We Keep

Daniel Boorstin
The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961)

[My notes say:]

p. 170—"Have you seen my snapshot of the Mona Lisa?"
This point hits the mark but is, let's say, undertheorized here.
p. 171—"We are quite precise when we describe him as a devotee of hi-fi rather than of music."
Also a direct hit, and also undertheorized, though here of course I'm happy enough that he leaves the fleshing out to specialists.
In both cases, the first further order of business is this: the relationship between original and copy, artist and curator, is not symbiotic but in fact parasitic, and this is evidenced by which variable in the equation of valuation must be manipulated in order to change the output on the other side of the equals sign.

[from a post-it, 2017]

Boorstin—Museums and Contexts

Daniel Boorstin
The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961)

[My notes say:]

pp. 99-102—on museum art objects being experienced out of their context; as "an animal in a zoo" (102)

Sadly (or perhaps not!), the "context" always has an expiration date, revolution or no revolution, museum or no museum. Hence the choice is most basic: to show the objects out of context or not show them at all. I'm not so sure that the affinity with the Tourist mindset can be avoided; it is then left to that old bugaboo, Individual Initiative or what not, to deliver a deeper engagement (assuming there is one to be had!) to the individuals seeking it. Museumization and Tourismization, then, are symptomatic of the absence of this Initiative more so than of the presence of dark curatorial forces.

To be sure, attempts to synthesize the missing context in a laboratory, so to speak, ARE absolutely symptomatic of the presence of dark curatorial forces! Culture that is living must shed its skin periodically, hopefully in a mammalian rather than reptilian manner, but it must happen in any case. Resistance to such processes (I'm comfortable calling them Natural) tends to create bigger problems while failing to address the small ones as it purports to.

[from a post-it, 2017]

Boorstin—Immediacy as a Form-Content Issue

Daniel Boorstin
The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961)

Readers and viewers would soon prefer the vividness of the account...to the spontaneity of what was recounted. (14)
[My notes say:]

A classic mapping of the Form-Content problem onto the Seriousness-Accessibility problem; which is to say that both Form and Content so construed do not mediate accessibility with equal force or aplomb; rather, Form is the gatekeeper, with all of the stigma (I would say of course) of that word as we use it to apply to middlemen in the social world of the arts. Of course the market/commodification is the real driving force toward an imbalance; but the dynamic is there in any case, market or not.

Boorstin—The Four Criteria for Pseudo-Events

Daniel Boorstin
The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961)

pp. 11-12—the four criteria for pseudo-events
(1) It is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted, or incited it...

(2) It is planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced...

(3) Its relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous...

(4) Usually it is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy...
[My notes say:]

Does Hopscotch itself qualify?

Does virtually any arts event qualify?!

23 May 2021

Lipstick Traces—Attention-Seeking Ain't Easy

Greil Marcus
Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (1989)

[My notes say:]

pp. 251-252—On Isou's "way[s] of getting attention" (252), incl. fabricating interviews with "luminaries of literary Paris" and titling a publication The Lettrist Dictatorship at a time (1946) when new details of Nazi atrocities were emerging daily.

This certainly could be seen as "worse than the punk celebration of the swastika," and certainly it "worked on the same levels," but more to the point, it probably wouldn't succeed in grabbing attention today, nor would the "placing" of fake interviews. And so there is one point of historical affinity here between then and now (there were and are at least some artists willing to lower themselves to this level in hopes of gaining exposure) and also one disaffinity (there are undoubtedly more of them now, both in absolute number and proportionately, and this cannot be due solely to extra-artworld dynamics but must, IMHO, be in at least small part an inevitable escalation generation by generation).

See also p. 323, final ¶ re: dedication of a film to the masters, "thus placing himself in their company." Is this not always the case with tributes?

[from a post-it, 2017]

Lipstick Traces—Mass Culture's Pop Heart Is Late To The Party...Again

Greil Marcus
Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (1989)

[My notes say:]

pp. 70-73—on the explicit drawing of parallels between Punk and the Frankfurt School
p. 70—"The inane radio jingle you heard too many times a day fed into a totality: to get that jingle off the air, you somehow understood, the radio had to be changed, which meant that society had to be changed."

This "you somehow understood"...how isn't terribly important, unless it is. For me individually this was a (rare) textbook case of maturity interacting with experience; for a larger group of people not understandable as a monolith in either respect (or were they?) it's hard for me to imagine exactly what must/might have been In The Air the moment this totalism was realized as mass consciousness. Which is to say, I wonder if the totalistic thinking actually came first, arising from general (and legitimate) discontent but also being truly ignited by genuinely puerile and anti-social tendencies which are in no way either unique or interesting. Certainly these tendencies will tend towards the Total, and that is not a strength but a weakness, i.e. because this becomes, let's say, a very clumsy (if not bedridden) vehicle of both theory and praxis. It has no nuance or flexibility. And of course everything IS connected, but the connections themselves can be quite varied.

[from a post-it, 2017]

[A second such note:]

p. 70—"...now the premises of the old critique were exploding out of a spot no one in the Frankfurt School...had ever recognized: mass culture's pop cult heart."

Great news as far as it goes. But as for "positing punk music as a transhistorical phenomenon" (paraphrasing a passage from GM's Wikipedia page), the question remains of where/how/why this Critique does and does not bubble up; why it is, say, not always, and not never, but rather Transhistorical, ebbing and flowing. Hence as the punks were getting woke, others were dozing; and now that yet further groups of woke people are coming and going, Punk has passed into History, and a real live Punk is a sight to be pitied at least as much as respected. Hence the Transhistorical encompasses much that is in fact merely ephemeral; much that never Gets Over The Hump; much which cannot manifest and pass gloriously into history because no one person or demographic or occupational group can be counted upon once they're Woke to stay that way. So, uh...were the Frankfurt School ahead of their time, or the Punks behind theirs?