31 December 2019

The Tens Place Changeth

On December 31, 2009 I was living in the Central Time Zone, which means that this post from Way Out West comes as I enjoy a two hour bonus to my twenty-teens. Ten years ago tonight I suspect I was in bed before midnight, which will likely be the case here as well. I will sleep about as well as I ever do knowing that, if the sun indeed fails to rise tomorrow, it will not be because of a mere mathematical coincidence, and also that this coincidence will have driven countless revelers to deserve their sunless fates.

30 December 2019

Millennial Ambivalence: Sports

Sports have never been more fully integrated with the wider entertainment industry than they are right now, and neither have I, but I find, as I always did before, that sports fandom is the exception among artists and entertainers, not the rule. I for one quickly lost all interest in TV and movies as an adult, but sports have held on to an irreducible sliver of my attention where most all other artifacts of "entertainment" proper have failed. For market research purposes I suppose this puts me in an ever smaller sub-minority of entertainment consumers; truthfully, though, in my world sports are less entertainment than art, and this puts me quite at odds not only with the lowest common denominator but with virtually everything sports have become. Allow me to unpack that confession just a bit.

Like the rest of the entertainment landscape, the sports world has become increasingly ruled by "off-the-field" matters, both for better and for worse I think. Social media has given the athletes themselves greater agency in this new reality, but it is a reality which has been in the works for a while, since long before Twitter. If the proverbial aliens landed, they might conclude from the sports media's overwrought examination of every tabloid-worthy detail of the athletes' off-the-field lives that the games themselves must not be all that interesting to spectators, that the real action was in the human drama. Certainly most all sports media executives seem to have concluded this. This invites much the same question as do efforts to "humanize" orchestra musicians by shifting the focus off-the-field: Who TF cares about human dramas that are a dime a dozen? Is this really what the audience wants? Is it what the suits only think they want? Is this supposed to manufacture crossover appeal to other entertainment consumers by endowing sports with a tabloid sector? I don't know the answer, but I hate all of the choices.

On the plus side, I do think this Total Access has been constructive in greatly inhibiting the suspension of disbelief on which all entertainment makes its nut. People feel differently about the concussion issue in football, for example, but however they feel they are not allowed to ignore it, and that is, if not a happy condition in which to find ourselves, then at least the necessary first step toward happier times. This is just one of what seems like a dozen or so utterly delectable sports world nuggets for the dime store metaphysician to savor: everything contains the seeds of its own destruction, and sports fans alive today are getting to watch a generous handful of those seeds sprout and run amok both on and off the field. The money finally got so huge that the full weight of the human intellect was brought to bear on these primitive games, such that rule changes are now endemic to pro sports as the leagues desperately try to plug procedural holes that almost no one was even aware of 20 years ago. Social media has enabled smart athletes to make even more money on themselves, and dumb ones to find new and better ways to piss it away with each tweet. Teams are hardly identifiable by their uniforms anymore, because they have a dozen alternate uniforms and must keep them all in game circulation so as to keep all of them flying off the shelves at once.

Indeed, even I find myself perversely enjoying the spectacle of all of this and occasionally, as today, attempting to unpack it as if it mattered as deeply to me as music does, as deeply as in my weaker moments the outcome of a Big Game seems like it does. Ultimately though, both music and sports are things to do, not just things to contemplate. I consider the receptive end of the transaction to be active rather than passive in both cases, especially when done in person: crowds affect the outcomes of both concerts and matches in very similar ways, excepting of course (usually) the absence of zero-sum winning and losing in musical performance. I'm not really sure how knowing that the pitcher and the hitter have recently had a Twitter spat, or that the oboist has three children and two French bulldogs at home, figures into this equation for most people. I know that for me these are sideshows without which I would still enjoy listening to music and watching sports, and probably enjoy it more that I currently do precisely for not having to hear about all of this. Most every person-to-person interaction I can recall indicates that I am indeed part of a silent majority on this point; the towering piece of anecdotal evidence to the contrary is the wider thrust of all formal art and entertainment production towards tabloidism, oversharing, and backstory. I consume a certain amount of this residually, because I don't have a choice. I am not happy about it.

The process which was set in motion the first time a local pro sports team imported players from a neighboring town has now found its apotheosis in the holier-than-thous who "root for players, not for teams." Neither M.O. is any more or less rational than the other, but a player-centered fandom certainly represents the ultimate triumph of backstory over forestory. Formally at least, sports teams still win or lose "as a team," as the saying would have it, not as individuals or brands. So far this is one rule which has not been changed with an eye toward wider appeal; instead it is concertedly elided by an ever-growing sideshow of player-focused media content, most especially fantasy sports. I have had to resort to speaking of "material football" around my fantasy-playing co-workers in order to differentiate my interest in the games from theirs. Ironically, much like the nametags we wear at work, this twisted rooting interest doesn't actually allow fans to get to know the players as individuals but rather enables them to bypass this altogether to arrive at a false intimacy; instead of bringing fans closer to players, players literally become numbers, interchangeable chess pieces without human qualities, just as the team owners are so often accused of viewing them. (NFL = "not for long.") This is hardly more rational than rooting for the team from the place you grew up. What it is is more permissive of self-styling. When I was a teenager, self-stylers were known as "frontrunners" and roundly mocked. This was not that long ago.

There are exceedingly few players who are equally valuable in fantasy and material football, except perhaps for those who are equally worthless because they don't play at all. There are just as few whose aesthetic qualities and winning qualities are commensurate. Peyton Manning has been posited as among the most aesthetically unappealing great players. Mike Trout is not exactly unappealing, but his style lags well behind his substance. Kemba Walker just looks good in Celtics green and is, incidentally, also performing quite well in it. It just had to be a city like San Diego that brought Wil Myers and Manny Machado together, though some observers think the Padres are, whether because or in spite of this, finally headed for better times. Indeed, since I can walk to Dodger Stadium, and because the Dodgers and Padres play there 9 or 10 times a year, this is bound to be something I think twice about the next time I have a chance to go. There is a remote corner of my brain where there lives a standard-issue entertainment consumer, who is rationalistically put off by the idea of consuming the same entertainment product more than a couple of times. Happily for me, the artist who has the run of the remaining neural pathways is there to remind me that players evolve, stakes change, crowds affect outcomes, and that baseball is, like all great sports, just quirky and high-variance enough in its formal dynamics and material realities alike so as to preclude any two games between the same teams in the same building at the same time of day being remotely the same experience. High art can compete with that; tabloid journalism can't.




29 December 2019

Millennial Ambivalence: Deadlines

I’m someone who needs deadlines, and who for that reason finds the moment itself painful and anti-climactic. I feel acutely the truism that, “You don’t finish a project, you abandon it.” This month has been tremendously fruitful in expanding the reach of this work-in-progress into areas that have become important to me since the last bout of productivity, but at the cost of the work itself being almost uniformly undercooked. This is what Blog Month has always been about: imposing deadlines as a change of pace and M.O. I would like to have done better justice to the issues, but some justice now is better than never. This is the give and take that all creative and intellectual laborers face, whoever it is that they work for and in what capacity. Here, however, there is a socially constructed notion of maturity which I am willing to accept: as we age and our portfolios grow, there is less and less need merely to announce our presence and what we’re all about, and there is an ever greater need to hit the proverbial nail on the head with whatever our next product is to be. I wonder if seeing this issue through the lens of age, and by extension of generations, does not go a ways toward explaining so many conflicts between artworks as capturing essential ideas and artworks as contingent results of a process. The process currently on display here is for me a necessary kick in the pants, but it risks becoming just that with each passing year, so much so that I have started to view blogging more as rough drafting for more formal productions which take the time needed to reach their essential form. Let’s all look forward to that, but without holding our breath.

28 December 2019

Scrabble Shop (possibly the first or last in a series)

Just like music, what started as an activity became an obsession.

When I first started playing Scrabble online, I set the racks to display vowels first, consonants second. As a newb this seemed more logical and easier to process than the "alphagram" (alphabetical) order that is more common among tournament players and study materials. Pretty soon I found that a vowel-centered approach also helped me organize and remember words more effectively, so nowadays the vowels are my "stems" and I make comprehensive lists based on them. Above is the second of three cards containing A+I+I and five consonants. Below in rack order:
I found full rote memorization just took too long considering the number of words, so now I make a pass at decoding the rack orders once a day for two or three days in a row. This has greatly accelerated the pace with only a small sacrifice in long-term retention.

Studying this way means setting one's sights high, indeed quite a bit higher than anything I've been able to accomplish in a rated tournament. In this system, MINYANIM takes equal priority to INCASING, which is rather illogical considering one is far less likely than the other to present itself in an actual game. Even some top players don't bother with the very most unlikely words for this reason and are no worse for wear. I have allowed my word knowledge to outpace my strategy rather absurdly at this point, a bit like a soulless technician with no musicality. As Mumford would have it, perhaps owing to the sea of subjectivity that artists are set adrift in, I find it therapeutic to play the technical busy-beaver in my "spare" time, even if the circuitous path I'm taking toward lexical completism has not necessarily bore fruit in tournament play just yet.

27 December 2019

Mumford -- Art and Technics (xi)

"Each art has its technical side...what would often be, were it not for the ultimate end of the process, sheer monotony and drudgery. But in the period when handicraft dominated, the artist and the technician arrived, as it were, at a happy compromise... That extra effort, that extra display of love and esthetic skill, tends to act as a preservative of any structure; for, until the symbols themselves become meaningless, men tend to value, and if possible to save from decay and destruction, works of art that bear the human imprint." (49)

Re: "preservatives," here is a useful, matter-of-fact statement of observations that have been made in increasingly strident terms since Mumford's time. Concretization of Art in discrete material artifacts has some of the same implications as does consciousness of and self-identification with cultures, traditions, races, etc. Perhaps there is even an evolutionary incentive for "the human imprint" to "act as a preservative" of our inanimate artistic creations much as it does regarding our living offspring; but there are, to be sure, mechanisms of devolution here as well. Concretization channels the weight of a whole array of human needs and impulses onto material objects, visual symbols, etc. The cultural-utilitarian halflife of such objects and symbols is usually quite a bit shorter than that which their "preservatives" ultimately enable them to enjoy; and so these works stick around long past their expiration date, long after they have ceased to be "relevant," as the most impatient cultural commentators would have it; this for better or for worse, and indeed often both at once. Artworks start to smell funny long before there is sufficient collective social momentum to toss them, and by the time that momentum coalesces, the discourse has become, as an apt figure of speech would have it, toxic. It turns out that this "happy compromise" plays better in times of scarcity than times of abundance; in the latter condition, more is preserved for longer than anyone can find the wherewithal to make sense of. Hence our world is overpopulated with images and ideas as well as with people.

Of course so-called relevance is very much in the eye (and the Philosophy/Theory) of the beholder. Often enough the full cultural relevance ledger looks completely irrational and counterproductive to everybody all at once. But the preservative acts upon the artifact regardless, blindly keeping in circulation the unjustly neglected and the justly ridiculed alike. If artists collectively gave as much thought to this general dynamic as they do to warring over the turf it encompasses, there would suddenly be a lot more vacant turf and a lot less fighing over it.

26 December 2019

Mumford -- Art and Technics (x)

"In some sense, man must forgo his purely personal preference and submit to the machine before he can achieve good results in the limited province of choice that remains to him. This curtailment of freedom is not unknown even in the pure arts...material and process play this part everywhere." (81)

Indeed, not "unknown" but frequently denied or willfully ignored. The "fundamental vanity" of the infant and the "irrationality" of the savage are archetypes to which Mumford has already appealed, psychological barriers to conscious acceptance of any "curtailment of freedom" as may be threatened. These barriers are presented as pathologies or deviations, failures of normative development; as with so-called Uncommon Sense, the norm is also an achievement, not a given. If there is any sympathy due the vain and irrational, it might be grounded in the observation that many curtailments are simply imposed upon us, accepted on our behalf, or perfectly untransparent to us at pivotal moments. I will forever be envious of trombonists for the potential (not to say the certainty) of the trombone to be both in-tone and in-tune where players of valved brass face ineluctable conflicts between those two ideals. Then again, if as an adolescent this had been explained to me intellectually, I would most certainly have ignored it. Immaturity is at best half the reason why.

Mumford continues,
What is peculiar to the machine is that choice, freedom, esthetic evaluation, are transferred from the process as a whole...to the initial stage of design. Once choice is made here, any further human interference, any effort to leave the human imprint, can only give impurity to the form and defeat the final result. (82)
In other words, as you design a machine, you make important choices on behalf of all who might use it. Similarly, end users implicitly accept such choices by their use. Makers can never fully anticipate future use. Users who tinker are limited by that which the existing device makes imaginable. There really is no elision of will or agency available here other than by a strictly deterministic outlook, no possibility of denying responsibility either for design choices or for that approval which use implies. We make our beds, and then we lie in them.

I think that we find the least willingness to accept this responsibility where people have the most personal investment in the idea of particular materials and processes as progressive, liberating, important, signifying; that is, where particular materials and processes have, perhaps by no fault of anyone involved, become the stuff of core self-identity, likely via proceedings which were not (and alas cannot be) conducted rationally or with those concerned possessing all of the information they would like to have had. I think this is the precise social-psychological location of the regressions to vanity and mysticism which deliver such absurdities as "Bebop is the Music of the Future" and "Harmony is the New Avant-Garde," which drive uncle Steve to give his new CD as a Christmas gift, which motivate generals in the Style Wars to pursue scorched-earth tactics. This is what I think. And I went to CalArts. Go figure.

People are endlessly creative in their use and misuse of machines. We poke around the boundaries of our materials and processes and sometimes attempt to crawl through a hole in the fence. The temporary thrill of these junkets obscures the extent to which prior decisions have foreclosed such escape routes. If we want to take those foreclosed choices for ourselves, we must ourselves backtrack from end user to designer/inventor, change our materials, rethink our process, etc. Failing that, we either accept existing technical reality as binding or we adopt opposition to it as a generative strategy. I for one have never seen better than limited generative potential in explicitly working against materials and processes. I have also entertained the notion that this seemingly rational opinion is in fact an irrational psychological defense of my identity as an aesthetically-oriented, lines-and-dots musician who fears he is watching conceptual avant-gardists and commercial illiterates unwittingly form a coalition to rid the world of chairs and stands. In any case, Mumford here offers up a powerfully rational case for affirmative rather than oppositional machine use, one which certainly speaks to my sensibilities on the matter.

Undeniably, opposition to otherwise settled function always has at least some limited generative potential, and it would be tragic (and also a very bad indication for the state of the field in question) if for mere lack of interest this was not pursued at all. If I were ever to teach college tuba, I would at some point assign every orchestral performance major to disassemble their instrument and take inventory of potential new sound sources. The question is not "When am I ever going to use this?", but rather, "What might this teach me that I really ought/need to know?" If you're serious about playing, then knowing the instrument inside and out, forwards and backwards, etc. is not merely a metaphor. And certainly if I was presented with the far-less likely obverse case, a 17 year-old music school applicant from an arts high school whose entire practice consisted of tuba improvisation using extended techniques, we would have the materials/processes talk often, and we'd learn a Bordogni a week until we could have the materials/processes talk about Bordogni too. I'll probably never have the chance to attempt this type of constructive brain scrambling with students talented, bright and persistent enough to learn something from it, but I find it a most interesting thought exercise even so. I would expect that the next, best question, that of judgment, would follow for these hypothetical students more naturally regarding the foreign modus operandi imposed on them than it would regarding the practice to which they were affirmatively, instinctively drawn. The ultimate goal of course is not to elicit or reaffirm negative judgments of other practices but to prompt conscious intellectual consideration of the core practice, to expose hitherto unchallenged, unwitting assumptions and judgments to new scrutiny. A reaffirmation of these assumptions is a perfectly acceptable outcome, perhaps even the most promising one, for it would indicate that the student's gut, their animal instincts, and all of the environmental factors that they didn't necessarily choose, that all of these things over which we in reality have almost no control have, nonetheless, been managed and processed by the student in a way that has enabled him or her to find a calling and to be at peace, consciously now, with the particular privileges and responsibilities associated with that calling. If, on the other hand, significant fissures are revealed in the student's thinking about the thing they say they want to do with their life, this is a less happy outcome but an equally constructive one vis-a-vis the function of education in society, at least provided that student and faculty alike actually act on it. Under pressure of expedience, music schools have taken up far blunter instruments in the come-to-Jesus part of their mandate, devious things like, in the case of my alma mater, scheduling unpleasant classes early in the morning and front-loading them in degree plans1. I think it would be better to stick to the old-fashioned method of attacking the desired specialization from every angle and leaving students to decide if, after several years of this, they still find the subject interesting enough to do good work.

Such generative limitations as exist in working against rather than with a machine can easily remain invisible to artists working in relative isolation, but they become painfully obvious when a wider net is cast (e.g. when you move to a bigger city, or when the internet is invented). All processes limit as well as enable, which is part of why seemingly revolutionary stylistic changes eventually beget the same stale redundancy they once shattered. It is, unfortunately, far easier to shield ourselves from this reality than to proactively gather the evidence of its truth; and once we have so shielded ourselves, our sense of our own self-importance, of our place in the pecking order, of the wider potential of our work, all of these perceptions lose their grounding in reality quite easily. Not so when reality is sporadically permitted to recalibrate them.

I have, as an adult, always found it constructive to be reminded when I am least expecting it that something I'm thinking or doing is not all that original. I have always been much more upset to be paid the complement that something I'm thinking or doing is wholly original when I know this not to be case. The latter has indeed happened a few times, and I am never quite sure where to go from there; whereas the former case is a near-ideal prompt to improve a specific element of what I do and who I am, whether that entails a diversification or consolidation of influences. If self-improvement of any kind is something you're interested in, then you must not merely be accepting of vulnerability but in fact actively seek it out. There is certainly plenty of vanity in the arts, but in this respect I think it's pretty clear that humility plays far better out in the world. Only the narrowest of specialists can achieve something great without some seasoning and without exposing themselves to critique (explicit or otherwise) issuing from outside their specialty. This kind of hyper-specialist can actually be quite useful to have around; but the next time you meet one, try poking around for leading indicators of the vanity and mysticism which Mumford sees it as the role of Technics to resolve for us; for whether or not they see the humane value in "usefulness;" to what degree they are at piece with that which they cannot control; to what extent their specialism represents the affirmative giving over of the self to a higher calling and to what extent it is psychological armor (perhaps material too) against a Big Scary World to which they are far less important than they are to their specialty.


1. Uncharacteristically for me at that age, I spoke up against this front-loading in my first group advising session. I was told that, if I insisted, then yes, I could put off first-year Music History/Musicology until year two and second-year Music Theory until year three, in order to free up space for non-music classes which the degree plan listed as happening almost entirely in my fourth year. It was, however, non-negotiable and most crucial that I enroll in first-year Music Theory from the outset. I remember thinking at the time what a revealing/loaded assertion this was, and this feeling has only deepened with experience gained. What I only later realized was that I had unwittingly liberated myself from the threat of having 8am classes five days a week for an entire school year, the way things were meant to be for freshman. I wonder how different/better so many of my classmates' lives could have been, how many breakdowns and burnouts and health scares and suicides could have been nipped in the bud this way. And, given my classmates' general attitude towards their non-music classes, I wonder if enforcing seasoning rather than discipline would not have been an even more effective weeding-out procedure.

25 December 2019

Mumford -- Art and Technics (ix)

"...this recognition of the human importance of technics was indeed one of the radical discoveries of modern times...[Bacon] proposed to honor inventors and scientists in the way that mankind had once honored statesmen, saints, philosophers, and religious prophets...[Marx] pointed out that the means by which a culture gained its living and mastered the physical and economic problems of existence altered profoundly its spiritual attitudes and purposes. ...The world had too long overlooked the significance of technical effort. To the old categories of the good, the true, and the [38] beautiful, modern man added an important factor that slave cultures had overlooked or degraded: the useful. That was a notable human advance." (37-38)

"Man's success in technics depended, however, upon two conditions. One of these was beneficial to the development of his personality, the other in some degree inimical to it. The great original contribution of technics was not merely to man's physical life, but to his sanity and general balance: it gave him a certain kind of respect for the nature of the materials and processes with which he worked, a sense of the painful fact that no amount of coaxing or cajoling, no repetition of spells or runes, no performance of sympathetic magic, could change a block of flint into an arrowhead or a knife. ...it was important for man's further development and maturity that he should [42] recognize that there are certain conditions of nature that can be mastered only if he approaches them with humility, indeed with self-effacement." (41-42)

[the second, "inimical" condition...] "Man's need for order and power turns him toward technics and the object, precisely as his need for playful activity, for autonomous creation, for significant expression, turns him to art and the symbol. But however important man's technical achievements are to his survival and development, we must not overlook the fact that they have, for the greater part of historic times, been achieved only at a painful sacrifice of his other functions. Except to meet pressing needs and interests, few men would devote themselves to a whole lifetime of mechanical work; indeed, those forms of work that are most effectively dehumanized--like mining--were for long treated as punishment, fit only for condemned criminals" (45-46)

So, the Technical in fact has a higher purpose beyond its material, earthly one. Albeit limited in scope, this purpose is nonetheless essential. For individuals and collectivities alike, Technics are an empirical pathway towards certain crucial developmental landmarks: towards "sanity and general balance;" towards "respect for the nature of the materials and processes" involved; towards the realization that "there are certain conditions of nature that can be mastered only if [the technician] approaches them with humility"; and, on the cosmic level, proof of "useful[ness]" as a universal value, not merely a contingent phenomenon. These are not the sentiments of a technophobe, but they do set rather narrow boundaries both for the role of Technics and for normative human development, ontogenetic and phylogenetic alike. Like any such narrow prescriptions they can be problematized on the grounds that they are not as universal as they purport to be. I confess that I for one would not be inclined to take that tack. This all describes quite well precisely what I feel I've learned from wrestling with various instruments, acoustic environments and bodily limitations. It doesn't (or it shouldn't) take a full-on natural disaster for us to learn to appreciate the power of nature; in fact colloquial reliance on disasters in their capacity as Lessons Learned points precisely to a loss of humility and understanding vis-a-vis nature, a devolution into primitive irrationality which is justified by the seeming irrationality of nature herself in bulldozing houses on one side of the street while leaving those on the other side untouched. No, if you're a wind or brass instrumentalist you can learn the same lesson less hazardously just by trying to play in tune in uncomfortably hot or cold climes. I will be thinking about this as I attempt to do so later today.

24 December 2019

Mumford -- Art and Technics (viii)

"We ordinarily use the word technology to describe both the field of the practical arts and the systematic study of their operations and products. For the sake of clarity, I prefer to use technics alone to describe the field itself, that part of human activity wherein, by an energetic organization of the process of work, man controls and directs the forces of nature for his own purposes." (15)

"Art, in the only sense in which one can separate art and technics, is primarily the domain of the person; and the purpose of art, apart from various incidental technical functions that may be associated with it, is to widen the province of personality, so that feelings, emotions, attitudes, and values, in the special individualized form in which they happen in one particular person, in one particular culture, can be transmitted with all their force and meaning to other persons or to other cultures." (16)

"...art is that part of technics which bears the fullest imprint of the human personality; technics is that manifestation of art from which a large part of the human personality has been excluded, in order to further the mechanical process." (21)

Given these two definitions, it is more obvious how technics could get out of hand than art could, more obvious that the task of controlling/directing the forces of nature is fraught with invitations to material excess and destruction than is the seemingly private, scalable, immaterial task of "widen[ing] the province of personality." Art for the drawer can run amok in that drawer without doing any damage on the outside. It is not creation or expression per se but rather art's imperative to be "transmitted with all [its] force and meaning" where complications arise. Does whoever is on the receiving end of such transmissions get any choice in the matter? Are the technics of transmission not just as fraught as any other technical questions? Most of all, how much of this personality-widening inheres in mere creation and how much in transmission, reception, and response? This last question is, in my mind, one of the most important questions for artists living in the internet age. I would say that Cage's famous self-imposed belief that a work was not complete until it had been performed was rather out of step with his yet-more-famous conceit to the elision of the will and personality. Willfulness for the drawer is harmless, a tree falling which nobody can hear. Willfulness is not the problem, oversharing is.

23 December 2019

Mumford -- Art and Technics (ivb)

If the acronym STEM once found merely prosaic use, it now by its mere existence and invocation encapsulates quite neatly the territory which the objective has pillaged from the non-objective. STEM encompasses the most lucrative professions and growthiest growth industries, and also demands the most rigorous academic and technical skills. It experiences shortages of qualified (home-grown) workers, and it is also too white and too male for its own good. For all of these reasons and more, STEM Matters. If "modern man" has, incidentally, also "patterned himself on the machine" with terrible consequences, if money cannot actually buy happiness (still), if the academic topics thought most rigorous are really just the most objective ones, if nature can be thought to trump nurture even where diversity is valued over homogeneity, that is none of STEM's business. STEM is too busy making money, improving lives, and generally being awesome. If you want in on that action, then STEM is what you do.

Artists as a group are liable to be more unified in their general sense of objection to this situation than they are in the substance of their specific critiques. I tend toward Mumford's outlook, seeing in the current condition of American art and artists several particular manifestations of a more widely observable human dynamic by which the objective, the quantifiable, and the provable runs amok. Against this there is the option to play ball, to commence laying out the various strictly objective cases for the value of art and artists: educational, therapeutic, economic, activist, and so on. To me this latter tack has always looked self-defeating. The harder we work at proving our own objective worth, the further we get from actually doing so, and the more ridiculous we look both to STEMers and to each other. Objective value is not what we do. I fear that we let the Technics terrorists win by trying to play their game.

In spite of this division among artists, or perhaps because of it, the A-for-Art eventually wedged its way into the acronym, forming STEAM. It takes an artist to notice a sort of symbolic conflation of chemical and physical transformation in this too-cute linguistic maneuver, and also to appreciate and reclaim the irony. STEM always carried a cultural charge and was bound to be reactive for this reason. How stable, then, is the new molecule? Where, really, are the affinities between STEM and The Arts? There are some good ones, to be sure, but do they supply the necessary energy for a change of state?

Mumford's Functionalist rejection of Industrial Design is a powerful rejoinder to orthodox STEAM rhetoric. In what he classifies as "machine arts," with printing as the paradigmatic example, "we give up a certain subjective freedom in order to better serve a common collective goal." (74) And so,
by very reason of its impersonality and standardization, a machine art, once it has achieved a high level of form, is not subject to endless variations: the main problem is to keep it at its original high level.

Whereas "repetition without variation and re-creation is fatal to the existence of the humane arts,"
This is not so with the arts of the machine. Here the type is the supreme achievement; for the sake of functional economy, for the sake of order and common use, the fewer new demands that are made, the better. The capital danger in the arts of the machine is misplaced creativity, in other words trying to make the machine take over the functions of the person. (73)

I read this as essentially a consequentialist argument. To me it is at least imaginable that pure design considerations could be applied to a more-or-less perfected technology without affecting its functionality. Mumford's unwillingness to abide, say, the painting of typewriters and coffee grinders even after they have been designed, manufactured and purchased (p. 80), seems calculated to project total rhetorical consistency rather than rhetorical grace. This is the intransigence which earned Functionalism its staunchest enemies: what kind of Puritan would want to live in a world where purely decorative touches were so deeply mistrusted as to be veritably quarantined even from the most quotidian of technical pursuits? Ironic, then, that such radical anti-functionalists as Jorn and Debord unequivocally shared Mumford's contempt for "the canons of conspicuous waste, dear to the businessman, and the newly rich" by which "someone is picking your pocket of money you might use for better purposes, under the pretext that he is furnishing you with art." (75)

In other words, where the Situs wanted to liberate desire, Mumford was deeply suspicious of it. Both saw consumerism channeling desire to nefarious ends, but where the Situs saw unmediated desire as the weapon that would topple entrenched power, Mumford saw desire as one side of an essential duality which demands balance, discipline and restraint rather than release.

From the standpoint of effective communication, the handwrought manuscript tended by its very elaboration to lose sight of its essential reason for existence. In this respect, its development was very similar to that we often find in other arts, a tendency on the part of human fantasy, once it is emancipated from the restraint of practical needs, to run riot, to seek to prolong the esthetic moment beyond any reasonable duration. ...Quite evidently this desire to prolong a pleasurable occupation, while it makes for a good life, has its own kind of shortcoming; and in the case of the book, the very esthetic excellence of the illuminators and illustrators served also to retard the process of copying and so limit the circulation of books. (69)

I suspect that printing is a well-cherrypicked example to which there not as many companions as Mumford would have us believe. That said, the current smartphone/tablet landscape seems as good an illustration as any of how collisions of agendas can disfigure a technology to the extent of interfering with a quite settled functional profile. Yet another CalArts memory comes to mind, that of Barry Schrader asserting that the digital computer is a settled type of machine which has not meaningfully changed in decades, thereby eliciting raucous protest from a gaggle of BFA-1 Music Techbros, who were palpably invested in the idea that they were entering a cutting-edge field. Mumford's Puritanical version of Functionalism (he reluctantly but unapologetically embraces both labels) is a bit hard to relate to personally, even for me; but read consequentialistically (and, as it were, pessimistically) it certainly is not lacking for anecdotal support. The balance between art and technics is an achievement, not a given, because the conflicting impulses at play here (the need for expression and the need for order) are so fundamental and powerful.

I think also of a passage from Cory Doctorow:
I’ve seen sausages made. I’ve seen laws made. Both pale in comparison to the process by which anti-copying technology agreements are made.

This technology, usually called “Digital Rights Management” (DRM), proposes to make your computer worse at copying some of the files on its hard drive or on other media. Since all computer operations involve copying, this is a daunting task — as security expert Bruce Schneier has said, “Making bits harder to copy is like making water that’s less wet.” (27)

Apple in particular, with the i-Devices, not only has made an end run around this "daunting task" but also figured out how to have people literally lining up at midnight to pay steep prices for the privilege of being thus manipulated. STEAMers sure are correct to see the iPhone as a money-machine which fully integrates the initials. It seems to me that this is, however, exactly the kind of mongrel contraption which Mumford theorized, a weaponization of aesthetics in service of endless consumption, resulting in a sleek supercomputer that can't keep a webpage loaded unless you threaten to fight it. (Yes, I own one.)

Incidentally, musical instruments are excellent examples of machines which achieve their visual appeal rather by accident, and where there are, with a few exceptions, not very many things you can do to them to change their appearance that won't at least marginally affect their utility. Instrument building is also a near-perfect STEAM topic, sitting as it does squarely on the intersection of art and technics, of rugged necessity and personal expression, of the machine arts and the performing arts. Yet even among the most accomplished high school instrumentalists, how many play so well that the differences between silver and lacquer, pistons and rotors, funnels and bowls, are viscerally rather than intellectually or rationally known? And what about the vast majority who are less accomplished, or who know these things only as abstract information that they have learned secondhand, or who have never stopped to consider them at all without prompting?

Indeed,
Behind the appearance of printing from moveable types, apparently so sudden, and on superficial analysis just a great mechanical feat, we find a thousand years of self-discipline and esthetic training, which went along with the effort to respect the gifts of the spirit and to deepen the inner life. Some of that training still is important for those who would design typography. You might think that, once printing was achieved, it would be possible to cut loose entirely from these earlier sources; but in fact the continued interdependence of art and technics could not be better illustrated than in this wholly mechanical art. ... As soon as the art of the calligrapher fell into decay, the art of type design became more difficult, for in aiming at mechanical accuracy and finish, the designer often lost the precious touch of the hand itself. Once utilitarian and rational interests predominated over esthetic ones, as they did in the nineteenth century, there followed a series of lapses both in type itself and in the layout of the printed page... (71-72)

Again, there is a consequentialist flavor to this view, but Mumford is hardly the only one to advocate for the continued need for "self-discipline and esthetic training" even as machines continue to take over more and more tasks from humans. If STEM, the brand, is too rigidly one-sided, or perhaps appears that way on the surface to concerned parents, that is a question of overall purview; the extent to which different disciplines are compartmentalized or integrated in the curriculum is an entirely different question. Maximum integration of topics seems to me unnecessary if the goal is simply to develop the whole person, though I fear the actual goal is simply to look that way superficially. Comprehensive education seems like the obvious winner in any case. But of course comprehensive education is, again, essentially politically unviable anywhere fiscal conservativism reaches a certain critical mass, and so this invites some messy workarounds. STEAMers certainly can count on the artists to play along: we're generally happy to trade our street cred for any degree of mainstream acceptance vis-a-vis this vocal minority of true believers in Hire Education. There is liable to be a personal incentive for us to integrate our marginalized disciplines with more prestigious ones regardless of the potential therein. Call it a classic democratic compromise where nobody gets exactly what they want.

22 December 2019

Mumford -- Art and Technics (vii)

"Order of any kind gives man a sense of security: it is the changeful, the unexpected, the capricious, in other words the unpredictable and uncontrollable, that fill him with anxiety and dread. Hence whenever man becomes unsure of himself, or whenever his creative powers seem inadequate, whenever his symbolisms breed confusion and conflict, his tendency is either to find a refuge in blind Fate, or to concentrate upon those processes in which his own subjective interests are not directly involved. Our psychiatrists have discovered, in recent years, the genuine healing value of mechanical processes like weaving; and weaving remained, down almost to modern times, the highest type of mechanical order..." (44)

Musical instruments and the attendant details in learning to play them fall all along this continuum from "the unpredictable and uncontrollable" at one extreme, to total "mechanical order" at the other. Temperature changes affect different instruments differently. Reeds and corks, springs and strings, sticks and heads are all consumable items, introducing different degrees and kinds of uncertainty into technique and performance practice. Wooden recorders become saturated with water after a certain amount of playing and have to be swapped out; brass players meanwhile can, in a pinch, empty quite a bit of residual condensation in a second or two. Water management is a wellspring (sorry) of in-group humor for musicians of all ages, orientations and abilities, yet it does profoundly shape what is possible for the instruments and for the people who play them. In other words, it is political, just like matters of instrumentation always are.

Certainly these politics loom large wherever "genuine healing value" is prioritized. There are many reasons why brass players generally are not in the healing business (and often in quite the opposite business). Brass technique is uniquely untransparent to beginners; the physical demands are severe; a big-picture resonance between student and instrument can be foreclosed by fixed factors of oral anatomy. Though there is, in another way, nothing less than a cosmic order governing the brass universe, callow tweens thrust into study of a brass instrument do tend to find its operation "capricious," and this is a very unfortunate part of our endeavor.

21 December 2019

Holiday Foodblogging: Vegan Chili

Since I first posted a recipe here, I've made peace with cheese, re-upped on eggs, and scheduled meat once every other week, but there are still plenty of days and all kinds of reasons which call for hearty plant-based meals. I've tried my hand at chili a few times with mixed success. Here is the latest effort.


Whole Economy was fresh out of dry red beans except for adzuki, which I've never cooked or eaten before. I cooked about 3/4 of a pound of them in a stiff vegetable broth made from plenty of hot peppers, garlic, and shallots (no onions, they do funny things to my broths), along with a couple of stray carrots and some cauliflower scraps. Add some salt to the broth as it is simmering for maximum flavor extraction; after straining out the solids, make sure the broth is still hot as the beans are added. Adzuki are smaller than the great American kidney bean, so they cooked nicely right out of the bag in less than 2 hours.

Meanwhile, get the skillet sizzling and sautee/stir-fry a couple of blocks of crumbled tempeh and a head of cauliflower, finely chopped/riced. Do it small batches, just barely enough to cover the pan; piled-high veggies will steam themselves without browning.

Once the beans were done, I let them cool for about 15 minutes before combining the tempeh and cauliflower, along with a generous dollop of tomato paste and little too much chili powder mix. Topped with sliced green onions. The final product is plenty flavorful and probably too spicy to serve without a warning. As usual I used too little broth, so it is a bit thick. But it doesn't get much meatier or more nutritious than this. Happy helladaze from the Fickle Ears kitchen.

20 December 2019

Mumford -- Art and Technics (vi)

"...until recently we have taken for granted that, since we ourselves live in a Machine Age and boast of that fact, every other age was correspondingly dominated and influenced by its tools and technical devices. Despite our own devaluation of symbolism we had nevertheless made the Machine the symbol of life itself, and transferred our own obsession with that particular idol to every other phase of human history." (38-39)
"One has only to compare the cave paintings of the Aurignacian hunters with the tools that they used to see that their technical instruments...were extremely primitive, while their symbolic arts were so advanced that many of them stand on a par, in economy of line and esthetic vitality, with the work of the Chinese painters of the Sung dynasty." (39)
"Early man had created vast and wonderful symbolic structures in language at a time when a handful of tools sufficed to meet his needs in hunting and agriculture...
a civilization of great complexity arose in Egypt and Peru before the invention of the wheel as a means of transportation. If man were preeminently the tool-using animal, this long backwardness in technics would be hard to account for." (40)

And so man is therefore preeminently the...aesthete? Symbolist? Builder of complex civilizations? If as a species we are not quite "preeminently" aesthetic, Mumford's gloss at least restores aesthetics to its rightful place of phylogenetic priority.

The anthropological bent here could be an excellent testimonial in favor of the arts as a basic necessity, a human right, a core subject, etc., or it could be the opposite. Perhaps aesthetic refinement and self-indulgence are not just tendencies but desires, not mere bad habits learned from European romanticism but rather top-shelf items in a hierarchy of needs. Or, perhaps today's rigidly formalized consolidations of aesthetics (broad) into art (much narrower) are indeed perverted/alienated/denatured/artificial forms of expression which civilizations use to channel dangerous impulses into benign ones. As I see it, the phylogenetic priority of aesthetics is precisely what justifies and demands its consolidation into formalized practices. Basic human needs tend to become sites of formal knowledge gathering, cultivation, and refinement precisely because of their importance to human life, not in spite of it. Indeed, they almost inevitably become sites of alienation for the same reason; but proscriptions against formalization are alienating too.

-----

...here again [in printing] the esthetic symbol preceeded the practical use. For the first application of printing was in the domain of art, the printing of woodcuts: it was only at a later stage that the interest in the word led to...the invention of movable type. (67)

Is it an incidental detail that the particular piece of social technics which precipitated this was "the word?" Does this not seal the deal that mere words, like symbols, operate on "art" in their ephemeral ways much as machines loom more materially?

19 December 2019

Mumford -- Art and Technics (v)

"What my friend Matthew Nowicki used to say about architecture--that a great client was essential in the production of a great building--holds for every other form of art..." (28)

"[the] stage of full maturity...that only great art reaches...in both the artist and his community it demands a certain dedication, indeed a certain sacrifice, that sets it off from the more decorative and pleasurable phases of art." (29)

Cue Branford on Cecil for a not-so-friendly reminder that there are limits to what artists can reasonably expect from audiences. That said, neither community nor clientele is exactly the same as audience; in fact, Mumford reminds us here, the latter is rather limited in influence compared to the more pervasive, less tractable influence of both the wider community and the specific person or group controlling the purse strings.

I suspect that virtually every gigging musician can recall at least one instance (but probably more than one) of client and audience being out of step, where all chains of accountability ran through the client and none directly between artist and audience. Perhaps this scenario belongs too properly to the commercial rather than the artistic world to be relevant here; it most certainly belongs to the community, though, and it most certainly represents a temporary breakdown of that institution. Communities get the art they deserve, the art for which they have laid the foundation via whatever conduct and discourse prevails therein; clients get the art they ask for, whether they know what they're actually asking for or not; and audiences too often are left to choose from among the debris field of broken relationships and communication bottlenecks.

The notion that the community has a role to play in helping its art to reach the greatest possible heights has unfortunately become conflated with the task of initiating the non-initiated into such esoteric art practices as the administrophere sees fit to impose on them. This in and of itself does nothing to create the conditions under which art thrives.

18 December 2019

Mumford -- Art and Technics (iva)

"Our power and knowledge, our scientific discoveries and our technical achievements, have all been running wild because Western man turned his back upon the very core and center of his own life. ... More and more, from the sixteenth century on, modern man patterned himself upon the machine. Despite sentimental compunctions of various sorts, compunctions expressed in the romantic movement, in nationalism, in the reactivation of Christian theology, Western man has sought to live in a nonhistoric and impersonal world of matter and motion, a world with no value except the value of quantities; a world of causal sequences, not human purposes. ... In such a world, man's spiritual life is limited to that part of it which directly or indirectly serves science and technics: all other interests and activities of the person are suppressed as "non-objective," emotional, and therefore unreal." (12-13)

And so the place of the "non-objective" in education, for example, remains a highly polarizing issue which nowadays must be relitigated by each generation. Educational quality that cannot be quantified cannot be proved. Deficits of trust lead to ever-louder calls for greater Accountability, an edifice which is built only from the objective standpoint.

As with technical progress in the arts, I'm more convinced of the correlation than the causation here when it comes to human beings seemingly "pattern[ing themselves] upon the machine." Technological progress certainly provides means and models that did not previously exist; but there already existed strictly human dynamics which point in the same direction. The less cultural consensus we share, the more our various atomized cultures must be litigated by our consensus-based institutions, and the further we sink into the abyss of radical empiricism, low-trust economics, and institutional sclerosis. Certainly mechanization is instrumental here, and also materially and symbolically aligned with such rages for order; but for mechanization to itself serve as an idol is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for a tyranny of objectivity to take hold. All that is needed is enough of the right (or wrong) kind of people.

Indeed, common culture can in fact be seen as its own tyrannically objective force, even in its pre-mechanized epoch.

Europe, at that time [the fourteenth century], had created an imposing symbolic structure, in the dogmas, the philosophy, the ritual, and the daily pattern of conduct promoted by the Christian Church. Medieval civilization was overcome not by its weaknesses but by its achievements. So successful was this effort at symbolization, this habit of seeing every fact and every event as a witness to the truths of the Christian religion, that a plethora of symbolic "inner" meanings lay over every natural event and every simple act: nothing was itself or existed in its own right, it was always a point of reference for something else whose ultimate habitat was another world. The simplest operations of the mind were cluttered by symbolic verbiage of an entirely nonoperational kind. (57)

For Mumford (continuing),

In order to come clean, man took refuge in a different kind of order and a different kind of abstraction: in mechanical order, in number, in regularity, in drill. Unfortunately, Western Man in his search for the object, presently forgot the object of his search. In getting rid of an embarrassing otherworldliness he also got rid of himself.

This implies that there is an element of backlash in the post-enlightenment tyranny of Technics, that it somehow began as an overcorrection for a tyranny of art. To the contrary, I read this as the best demonstration yet that language and "symbolization" are actually branches of Technics, not of Art. The greatest "success" of the medieval Christian Church was social control, and this

plethora of symbolic "inner" meanings [which] lay over every natural event and every simple act

was a huge part of that enterprise. This was a world as unreceptive to the artistic and the ephemeral as any work review with your boss at the office ever could be. Indeed, it is not a coincidence that modern corporations and offices have developed their own lexicons and dialects, and their own code-switching practices; and it is not for nothing that the imposition of code-switching itself, of which it could just as well be said that

the simplest operations of the mind [are] cluttered by symbolic verbiage of an entirely nonoperational kind

is properly seen as an instrument of oppression when it is demanded of people based on their self- or perceived identity rather than by the real requirements of the task at hand.

The individuals who today populate such institutions serve objective, technical masters, be those masters human, mechanical, or conceptual. These people are totally managed and hence must manage back. It is true that the specter of real, violent death imposed from without has been replaced by the relatively humane specter of Career Suicide. But at least the medievals believed in an afterlife.

The ultimate lesson of all this is that there is no escaping from freedom, as it were, back into consensus. Both the bounded cultural world Mumford describes above and the fragmented one Americans live in today impose an objective Way that is not so easy to swim against. This indicates that institutions, in spite of their sclerotic predisposition, are more susceptible to progressive change than people are. We have ceded a lot of "personal responsibility" but refuse to cede control. Few of us could survive in the wild, so to speak, but most all of us want our needs met on our terms. Trust is still strictly conditional; changes in the conditions are trivial compared to the stability of the institution of conditionality itself.

Mumford is easily misread as a crank or a technophobe. His superficial biases certainly get the better of him on many occasions here. But ultimately he writes not against progress but in favor of balance between opposing forces. This is the most compelling part of his argument because it describes a human dynamic that can be seen in quite a few other yin-yang dualities besides the one which gives this work its title.

17 December 2019

The final placeholder of the decade? Or the first of the next?

I have done three posts worth of blog work today, but nothing is quite ready to serve just yet. This is one consequence of using other writers as prompts rather than digging deep for shareable content with a personal perspective. This outcome was unthinkable when I started blogging, so thoroughly had the academic pressure cooker alienated me from books, reading, and learning itself. It seemed odd that almost all music bloggers were more interested in writing about books. Now that I’m one of them, this invites the positing of a maturation or developmental process whereby the ability to focus long enough to read a book emerges only in one’s thirties. I reject this notion, in my case at least, via a claim of self-awareness. When I eat poorly, sleep poorly, and utterly exhaust myself, I feel exactly like I did as an adolescent, and I have the same ability to focus as I had then (basically none). It is one of my great regrets that I waited too long to take my first break from school.

16 December 2019

Riding the Knobs

The workers who have been repairing the house next door to my apartment building were either absent or silent this morning, offering the hope that the mandatory 7am wake up calls I have enjoyed for the last several weeks may be subsiding. The rest of the year I am up well before 7 on work days anyway, but we have enjoyed a temporary reprieve from these early mornings during the holidays as long as I’ve had the job, working in the afternoon and early evening instead. Thus there is some cruel irony, not just inconvenience, in the noise next door appearing when it did. I do also have real jackhammers in the neighborhood, for bridge work scheduled to run into 2021. And of course there is the endless barrage of emergency vehicles, closing train doors, vehicles at work honking twice to announce their impending movements, etc. We use loud noises to get each other’s attention, ostensibly for safety purposes; but this is anything but safe for our ears. I have taken to wearing earplugs to bed and keeping them in all the way through my outbound commute. Is this really all that dangerous when I can still hear all of the warnings perfectly well?

15 December 2019

Mumford -- Art and Technics (iii)

...that the development of art historically has its parallel in the development of the individual, and that human infants exhibit, without embarrassment, many characteristics we find most marked [25] in the artist--above all a certain innocent self-love, which makes him regard his own productions as precious and worthy of attention. Without that fundamental vanity, man might never have had sufficient respect for the materials of symbolism to transform them into works of art--works taking stable form under and exacting discipline, and so capable of influencing the feelings and conduct of other men. (24-25)

Here is the old saw, artists as infantile. We find certain infantile traits "most marked" in the artist; they are noticeable, then, but are they determinative? Essential?

Whatever LM means precisely by "innocent self-love," whatever is "fundamental" about his notion of the infant-artist's "fundamental vanity," one can certainly confirm the resemblance anecdotally, and perhaps copiously in certain milieux (e.g. art school). I would, however, caution against defining artisthood this way; that is, to move from correlation to causation, as many in the post-Freudian continuum did. Creativity is one of those traits of children that lead armchair psychologists to trumpet the value of staying young at heart; but for every one of these traits there are a handful of others which are handicaps to artists much the same as they are to any other adult. I cannot help but think here of the popular, movie-made image of Mozart as against that of Bach, Beethoven or Brahms, or dozens of other Grown Ass Men and Women whose art has outlived them. Perhaps, then, it would be better to say that the arts are a sector where it is easier get away with not growing up, especially if you're talented (true of most fields), or even if you're not (I think this is the biggest difference).

By locating "sufficient respect for the materials of symbolism" as arising only from the artist's vanity, LM makes out "stable form" and "exacting discipline" to be quite the chores. By this account, a socially maladaptive/pathological trait (infantilism) is in fact well-adapted to and defined as normal within the world of art. The mind of the artist, this child's mind in an adult's body, could never find "discipline" rewarding in and of itself, but if discipline is what it takes to sate the artist's vanity, then it is a means to an end which will be milked for all its worth. I have known and worked with several people like this, generally for short periods of time.

Of course no sooner has the infant-artist axis been established than LM reveals a schema for an artistic maturation process (a deep-psychological one, in contrast to the merely behavioristic observations which precede). In the highest stage the artist "lose[s] himself in [the] act" of creation, which has become all about "begetting fresh forms of life," the work becoming "itself an independent force", etc. This all sounds lovely, but it's not clear (nor is it ever really addressed) that there is any real correlation between good intentions, good artists, and good art. I would question whether creation and reception have ever been well-integrated enough to bear the weight of the prescriptions he issues for them here. For LM it is the second of three stages, the "adolescent," during which "exhibitionism passes into communication." To the contrary, I would argue that "communication" per se is essentially a branch of technics, not art. To speak of communication rather than something more vague or euphemistic, to speak of symbols rather than signals, is precisely to hone in on "that manifestation of art from which a large part of the human personality has been excluded." Communication is the technical end to which language is merely the most capable and nuanced means; art is also nuanced but not nearly so capable. To define art and artisthood as literally communicative points, ironically, toward the fully-rationalized world LM writes against. This is art-ontological technics run amok, elevating a more technical, tractable function over fuzzier ones, and conflating concreteness of expression with maturity of purpose.

14 December 2019

Bring Back the Muzak: Reprise

In rock music, the important thing about a harmonica solo is that it is played on the harmonica. In a cavernous retail space, where everything but the harmonica and the backbeat blend into the aural clutter, the true quality of the blaring harmonica solo is revealed, and is therefore made newly important.

(Composed in and posted from a San Francisco Whole Foods, therefore also recalling a half-overheard conversation between CalArtians venting about how they grew to hate the Bay Area music scene: “Yeah, yeah! And all the rock bands have tabla...”)

13 December 2019

Mumford -- Art and Technics (ii)

...the very growth of mechanical facilities has given people a false ideal of technical perfectionism, so that unless they can compete with the products of the machine or with those whose professional training qualifies them for such a public appearance, they are all too ready to take a back seat. (pp. 6-7)

If "professional training" has contributed to a chilling effect borne of meaninglessly inflated standards, then the technologies responsible are not the ones which automate and dehumanize the task in question but rather the technologies which enable culture to be recorded, archived, and disseminated. (Perish the thought that the last step, reception, will eventually somehow be automated too.) I would say that in music, at least, we can observe the emergence of "a false ideal of technical perfectionism" which is borne entirely of human dynamics and which predates the usual technological suspects. Eminent musical technicians have set many a new bar unaided by concurrent technological advance and without taking mechanical reproduction as their model1 2. But they have been reliant on information technology to make available relevant artifacts of the past, distant and recent alike. For temporal artists who need to gather firsthand evidence, faster travel has helped too (it could have saved Bach several weeks of walking), but in a pragmatic rather than a generative way.

So, mechanization has been the primary means of development of a mass culture which shrunk the world and accelerated change in the widest-reaching ways. Yet even today there are only a few corners of the musical universe where machines are truly admired to the point of serving as models for human musical ambitions. It seems to me that musicians fairly reliably get where they're going in this respect via the dynamic interaction of nature and nurture, and indeed that this interaction is a bit too dynamic for "compet[ing] with the products of the machine" to ever hold much interest for more than a few of us, not even when we are surrounded by machines as seductive as the iPhone and the 3-D printer. In other words, we must eventually zoom in from the bird's eye view where Mumford has perched himself, at which point it becomes clear that not everyone is inexoribly led to form such "false ideals" no matter how thoroughly such ideals surround them. Even now we still have a few evangelists for slow food, quiet music, close reading, etc. The early-period Situationists confronted the 1950s at far younger ages than did Professor Mumford, yet they certainly shared his contention that

with all our superabundance of energy, food, materials, products, there has been no commensurate improvement in the quality of our daily existence. (13)

Perhaps, then, the Situs' basic critique was not as radical as their proposed solutions. By the same token, perhaps Mumford resolves the Structure-Agency problem too one-sidedly because he is interested in interventions to which only Structure is susceptible; in reform rather than revolution. But then a sociology of technical perfectionism is needed before practical reform can be theorized, and I don't think we have that here. Later on we learn, in fact, that Mumford himself (suddenly ahead of his time rather than behind it) expects to find the social valuation of mechanization leading rather than trailing technological development itself.

men become mechanized, they themselves are transformed into mechanical, uniform, replaceable parts, or they teach themselves how to perform, with accuracy, standardized and repeatable acts, before they take the final step of inventing machines that take on these duties. The social division of labor precedes the mechanical division of labor, and the mechanical division of labor, in general, precedes the invention of complicated automatic machines. (64-65)

And he continues,

The first step is to reduce a whole human being into a magnified eye, a magnified hand, a magnified finger, subordinating every other function to that whose province is enlarged. This specialization takes place even under the handicraft system at a late stage in its development. By breaking the once unified process of work into a series of fractional operations...the output can be increased at the simple cost of taking all the fun and interest and personal responsibility out of the operation for the worker.

Those who enjoy pillorying millennials for sport can entertain themselves unpacking whether "fun" and "interest" are reasonable things to expect out of your job. For the rest of us, the phrase that leaps off the page is "personal responsibility." Here Mumford, the non-revolutionary, encapsulates in concise, plain language why mass production is not merely tedious but in fact socially destructive. Personal responsibility, this central tenet of classical conservatism, is directly countervailed by the ways neo-conservatives like to pursue economic growth. This is worth keeping in mind anytime the "anti-business" epithet is trotted out in American political warfare.

I would propose that the now-endemic corporate and governmental construct of Accountability, a superhuman human standard whose rigidity gives it a clear affinity with mechanization/automation but which clearly issues from of all kinds of forces besides machine worship, is in fact a desperate effort to re-wrest control of the post-responsibility worker, whose predictable response to a world where "fun" and "interest" take place only outside of work now creates an unsustainable level of friction within the prevailing social and economic systems. Machines are both models of accountability themselves and far superior to humans as tools for testing and imposing accountability on other humans. Plus, they don't need to have fun.

I did at one time perform (and rehearse) extensively with an ensemble where contact mics and digital tuners were de rigeur during rehearsals. I take every opportunity to relate this experience to other professional brass players and have yet to find one who thinks this is a good idea. I'm also positive that the formative events leading to this outcome in that group of people need not await the invention of even more accurate tuners in order to find full expression. Here the machine was neither competitor nor prophet; it was merely meeting an unmet psychological need. Where stakes are not so high and solutions not so elusive, meanwhile, I would expect to find very few people and institutions worshipping the machine. The self-cleaning oven is foremost about exempting us from the chore and only secondarily about doing a better job of it.


1. Daniel Wolf:
let's throw out any claims for an inevitable progression in musical history from less to more complex -- it didn't happen as we left antiquity, with its now-lost enharmonic genus and wealth of modal melodic types, it didn't happen in the way from the late 14th through the early 16th centuries, it didn't happen from the late Baroque to classicism -- successive musics focused on different issues, and the location of audible or associative complexity in musical textures moved as well. We need a more complex view of musical complexity.

2. Milo Fine:
each succeeding generation has "improved" technical wiring; which is why, for instance, contemporary composers are generally one generation ahead of people actually being able to realize what they write. This is much more inevitable than it is admirable; a natural progression of technique, but, of course, not necessarily resonance.

12 December 2019

Millennial Ambivalence: The Road

If you're from the future and you're reading this blog from start to finish, it probably comes as a surprise that this weekend brings another junket and another Scrabble indulgence. The ascetic image I like to cultivate here is more cultivated than real. I have always worked on projects in bursts and then floundered for days, weeks or even months. I take lots of breaks which can last for lots of different durations. I seem to have a fixed quantity of creative energy which, like semen, is best spent in large bursts rather than constant emissions. My old roommate in The Valley claims that Asians can work more steadily and that this is why they excel. (He voted for Trump.) Blog Month itself was partially conceived as an experiment in working against what seems to be my ineluctable nature. It is informative that I have several times failed to adhere to its strictures.

Poring over lists of arbitrary words in solitude and then venturing out to mediocre hotels and senior centers to sit across the table from other socially stunted word grinders is not everyone's idea of a vacation. It's not really my idea of a vacation either, because I'm allergic to the word "vacation," and to the middle-class obsession with leisure travel generally, and to all of the specious rationalizations for leisure travel as a means of personal growth. It's the intellectual and creative challenges, and the competition, which draw me to Scrabble; the temptation to bankrupt myself traveling to more and more tournaments is a serious drawback.

I have been a core member of two bands which have toured on a scale of weeks rather than days. I learned that when a musician claims to "love touring," either they are lying or they are really saying that they love the things that touring gets you, like money (maybe), looking busy (always), an intensification of focus/interplay in an ensemble which can only come from performing a lot on a compressed schedule (probably), being received by new people/communities (depends on where you are), and group bonding in transit (temporarily). I am not ignorant of the benefits other people see in these things, but four of the five of them hold no interest for me and have no relevance to my work. And because touring is even less conducive to keeping up with other projects in "spare" time, I dislike it even more than the idea of travel for its own sake. I must confess, though, that the ensemble sharpening aspect is real: a short tour is ideal for getting a band in peak form, especially on difficult music, and as long as you are not already a mere short tour away from strangling each other. Touring is the new rehearsal, because actual rehearsal sounds like a lot less fun than traveling.

11 December 2019

Freud -- The Pschopathology of Everyday Life (i) -- Know Thyself

"In this and similar incidents, I have concluded that actions unintentionally performed are bound to be a source of misunderstanding in human intercourse. The perpetrator, who has no idea that there is any intention linked to them, does not credit himself with one, nor does he consider himself responsible for them. The second person concerned, however, since he regularly draws conclusions about the intentions and attitudes of the first from such actions, knows more about that first person's psychic processes than he is ready to admit himself or thinks he has imparted. He will be indignant if faced with any such conclusions made on the basis of his symptomatic actions, declaring them groundless, since he was unaware of having any intention to carry them out, and he will complain that the second person misunderstands him. Such misunderstandings, strictly speaking, actually arise from too great and too subtle a process of understanding. The more 'edgy' two people are, the more likely they are to give each other occasion for disagreements, each denying his own responsibility for them while taking it as proven for the other party. This may well be the penalty we pay for our inner dishonesty in allowing ourselves to express certain ideas only through the devices of forgetfulness, inadvertent and unintentional actions, ideas that, even if we cannot control them, we would do better to admit to ourselves and to others. In general, it may be said that everyone is always psychoanalysing his fellow men, and as a consequence learns to know them better than they know themselves. The way to carrying out the famous injunction to know thyself is through studying our own apparently fortuitous actions and admissions." (Ch. IX, trans. Anthea Bell)

On one hand, this is a powerful admonition towards a radical honesty which is deeper and more utilitarian than that of simply blurting out whatever comes to mind. The latter merely sows the seeds of diversionary conflict, revealing much to the recipient and little to the issuer, thereby perpetuating a particularly volatile inequity of understanding. Rather, it is actually "our own apparently fortuitous actions" rather than those quite conscious and summary blurtings out which afford the greatest opportunities to build self-knowledge, and the barrier to working through them ourselves is not public but private inhibition.

On the other hand, this is a deeply presumptuous theory whose full implications are rather bleak. How is dialogue possible at all when alter, as a rule, is accorded a privileged status vis-a-vis ego's own internal operations? Is this not precisely the leap which leads inexorably to radical empiricism, denialism and gridlock? Is this not a how-to manual for diversion into endless litigation of personal motives and biases instead of debating ideas on their merit?

The implied subordination of ego's self-knowledge to alter's gathered observations is very much of a piece with the wider questioning of individual subjectivity. Those inclined toward such questioning can wiggle out of some very tough rhetorical spots by deploying this tactic; how to constitute ourselves as subjects, after all, when we cannot even prove to others around us that we mean what we say? Infinite regress is a constant danger here, and so ultimately we tend not to push each other or ourselves too hard. We suspend the armchair psychoanalyzing when something fundamental has to get done, because it would never get done if we litigated every slip of everyone involved. (By "we," of course I mean "non-politicians.") While Freud indeed presages the parallactic era here, he was not actually living in it yet, and neither, I hasten to add, are very many of us now actually living in such a milieu; that is, not if we can imagine any non-oppressive social utility for experthood and authority, including self-knowledge. And so while I do think this passage should knock more than a few heedless extroverts off of their self-constituted high horses, the ultimate admonition here is not to close ourselves off to those who might judge us but rather to open ourselves up to ourselves; to smooth out disparities of understanding not by withholding but by releasing, first and foremost within, at which point subsequent release to our social surroundings is no longer conditioned (or at least not so severely) by self-repressions.

Of course the Professor has not, yet, furnished us with a means of distinguishing "those paranoiacs who draw conclusions from the trivial signs they observe in other people" from "those healthy people who, correctly, judge character by the fortuitous and unintentional actions of their fellow men." Do such means exist? Here is a chicken-and-egg question if there ever was one. And yet with so little honesty and directness to go around in the post-industrial, post-positivist, post-individual-subjectivity, post-purpose social world we presently inhabit, it is not a question any of us can afford to simply ignore. Neither self- nor common-interest is served that way. For Freud here, we telegraph to others the things we're unable or unwilling to face up to within ourselves. But even if we can't control the outflow of information, let alone the manner in which it is subsequently interpreted by external social agents, we can at least cultivate an internal environment of ruthless introspection, self-analysis, self-therapy, and self-evaluation; and only then, having earned the privilege, we might check our work simply by asking around strictly among those who have done the same for themselves. (Writing is my outlet of choice for the introspective phase of this process, whether or not anyone reads. But thanks for reading.)

10 December 2019

Two Sides of the Hard Line

From Kyle Gann, Except That

Like much of my music, the piece doesn’t wear its strangeness on the surface. On the surface are the normal elements of music: melody, harmony, meter, even a slight retro pop sensibility. ...Its surface naivete is a carefully calculated construction. It is almost cartoon-like, and I’ve always admired cartoons (in fact, at age twelve before I became a composer I wanted to be a cartoonist) for their clean, hard lines, their indifference to realism, their personality-expressing, deliberately pixelated approximation of reality. The strange part...is backgrounded, and is so modestly finessed that a casual listener might not even notice it. ...In its notes, it’s a piece that could have been written seventy years ago – if the preceding two centuries had been very different.


From Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, p.69


The constant battle is to find the elements that will look best in this medium and still allow the strongest communication of the idea presented. A drawing must be made in line, duplicated on cels, painted in flat colors, photographed over a background, and projected onto a giant screen. Tiny, sensitive lines on the drawings are now enlarged until they are more than a foot wide, and very, very black. In the mid-thirties, we wished for shading, for textures, for areas with no outlines, but they were not practical. We had to find other ways of putting over the points in the scenes, and in so doing developed character animation into a communicative art that astounded the world. But at the time there was neither glory nor pride in our efforts, only the nagging limitations. As we passed each other in the hall, we shook our heads and shared the thought, "It's a crude medium."


09 December 2019

Millennial Ambivalence: Work

I remember an evening sometime in my early twenties, at band practice (not rehearsal) with a group of mostly much older people, when I said something I immediately regretted about never wanting to retire. In that moment, conceiving of my profession as playing tuba in public, it seemed like a fair statement. What I really meant was that I hate being idle and I hope never to stop doing the work that I care about. A decade and a half later, it seems like no one in any profession cares about work, period, not even those whom many others envy. Work is, definitionally, unimportant, usually involving offering up something others don’t really care about either and convincing them that, in a moment of weakness, they could take it or leave it and don’t want to miss out. A great many people are idle at work in precisely the way I can’t stand being idle anywhere. If I was stuck in that bind and couldn’t ever retire from it, things would be dark indeed.

So, as of the precise moment that I am clicking the “Post” button, I do not like idleness and I do hope to retire someday. But I also self-identify as part of the silent majority who likes work, not just activity; who finds the structure helpful, even if it is minimal; and who is mildly to moderately unhappy being totally unemployed. Because there is so little dignified work, this seemingly adaptive and salutary characteristic is functionally the reverse: however much you dislike idleness, you can always find a job that you hate even more. Slowly but surely, pre-millennial generations are having to admit that millennial altruism only looks idle and destructive because the structures these generations bequeathed to us are insidiously designed to punish initiative, shame creativity, and enforce idleness as a defense mechanism. The scholars who foresaw this almost perfectly were dismissed as extremists, so the realization has had to proceed literally block by block, industry by industry, until enough scattered individuals have become upset enough at the meaninglessness of work that they actually start to relate to us a little bit more. Some have long since accepted that money can’t buy happiness while insisting that consumption is good for the economy. But now, production is not good for the worker, and no rate of growth will make it any more possible to buy our way out of that abyss.

08 December 2019

Millennial Ambivalence: The Hot Food Bar

When Whole Foods became Whole Paycheck, we could at least rationalize this by reciting the old adage, "You get what you pay for." ("Cheap gets expensive" is the polka singer version. Is this of German origin?) But when Whole Paycheck became Whole Economy, everything became much harder to rationalize.

For me, today was a gift, an unexpected day off from work which happened to coincide with a local Scrabble tournament. Unusually for me, I went looking for a restaurant afterwards rather than rushing home to cook for myself. After much Yelping and some wandering, I did what I told myself at the outset I would not do: I ended up at the Whole Foods downtown, where I shop for (a few) groceries most weeks.

When you live in LA, surrounded by culinary excellence and excess in equal measure, the idea of landing at the Hot Food Bar on a day like this feels so pointless and deflating. The abstract reality is that it is the best thing ever. I got to eat a pile of roasted vegetables out of a cardboard box, sip a stiff local IPA, and gorge on sports. I walked in with a backpack and a Scrabble bag and nobody looked at me sideways. The volume level in the room was reasonable. I'm not sure where else you can have all of these things together. I feel much better about this decision now than I did two hours ago.

Marcuse, Fromm, Adorno, Debord, among others, would have a discursive field day unpacking the Amazon phenomenon. Among the corporate powers which threaten to overtake and supersede state power, this is the only one I am truly ambivalent about. I would love to read these theorists attempting to predict the shape of the incremental drift from seeming benevolence to pure evil that we all expect. Until then, repressive desublimation sure feels good.

07 December 2019

Consensual Art (iiia)

The portion of LA Metro's Red Line between Hollywood/Highland and Universal City frequently becomes a stage for pop-up dance performers. It is the longest stretch on this route without a stop, and in my experience also among the least likely to be boarded by police. The greater duration and lesser enforcement hence seem to jointly determine performers' choice of venue. I rode home from work this way for a solid year and have thereby been treated to dozens of Friday evening performances.

Performers always announce their presence, literally in most cases, but if not that way than via one of a few other available methods. One guy has perfected the art of allowing the doors to close on his outstretched arm without the motion detectors causing them to release; having thereby gotten our attention (Will he be dragged to his death?! Does he deserve it?!), he pulls the emergency release, enters the train, joins the troupe, gives his introduction, and starts dancing. By the time I was this guy's age I had done a dozen stupider, more dangerous things than this, but I was not driven to do them either by art or by necessity. Please keep that important distinction in mind as the series continues.

Needless to say that most people ride the subway for transportation rather than for entertainment, and that none of these entertainers ever ask permission to perform for riders, nor would they nor could they get explicit permission either from a 21st century big-city bureaucracy or from a haphazard collection of 21st century plebes in a confined space during rush hour. Does this matter? Anecdotally I'd say that rider reactions are fairly evenly split between subdued receptiveness and willful disregard. I've never seen a train delayed, nor an intervention by authorities, nor an explicit expression of displeasure directed at the performers. Implied consent carries the day here. As that day becomes months and years, precedent is established incrementally and informally, by convention rather than by fiat. Perhaps even a few people do start riding the subway for entertainment. Is that enough? Isn't this the way real-life, bottom-up social discourse tends to work, when it works? Who would object to dancing on the subway anyway? If this doesn't brighten your day, what does that say about you?

There are many such possibilities that would brighten my day, but this is not one of them. For that opinion I will accept any personal counterjudgment that might come my way, but I will not accept any postmodern ethical triangulation regarding the general phenomenon of which this is merely one thought-provoking instance. As with the airport checkpoint, implied consent here is not really consent at all, and abstention is heavily disincentivized. Unlike the checkpoint, which is an artifact of top-down democratic sausage-making, the flash mob is the work of a comparatively tiny group with no such mandate. In this specific case it is, for better or worse, also a cut-and-dried violation of earthly Law. Have any higher laws been violated?

Admittedly, it is difficult for me to achieve objectivity on these questions. Happenings which are transparently rooted in an established art practice and intentionally placed in my path through public space unavoidably trigger reception in the context of said art practice. It is impossible for me to compartmentalize these happenings from my own identity and experiences as an artist; rather, where I see art I see my own affinity group, and so where I see artists misbehaving I see Family Business to be handled. It is unsatisfying to be writing rather than acting on this feeling, but I see no good options in the latter realm. The option of somehow disrupting the performance or expressing displeasure, whether passively or actively, is exactly the response to provocation by which the unconsenting cede the moral high ground to the provocateur. This is true, I think, no less for the authorities than for ordinary riders. Despite having the letter of the law at their disposal should they choose to enforce it, they must contend with a complex web of unofficial precedents, popular perceptions, and general volatility. Not least among these is the fact that both material and symbolic artifacts of authority are only ever seen by riders when the law is to be immediately enforced: I am confident in generalizing the perfect mutual exclusivity I have observed between the conditions "Dancing on the Subway" and "Cops on the Subway." This is an image problem for the cops, especially when speech/expression are at stake. It is, I suspect, the same reason my high school teachers were reluctant to scold me for being "off task" when I used in-class work time to sketch compositions. In a big-city subway traincar there is no way to know which way the silent majority is leaning or how strongly until someone forces the issue, and this is not the kind of role I have ever been comfortable in. But I do feel strongly that the fact that we don't know this without asking people (or giving them a chance to tell us with their actions) in and of itself makes certain public spaces quite poorly-suited to bear the brunt of an entire city's freedom to express themselves and to solicit tips for their trouble. I do not want to live in a society without freedom of speech, expression or assembly; it sure would be nice, though, if more people had read the user guide.

Because I know that artists and audiences need each other, I reject the notion that consent could ever be irrelevant on either end of the transaction. I further reject the notion that such consent could be difficult to establish or confounded by cultural barriers; rather, it is most commonly confounded by manipulation of circumstances, and that is something I cannot abide. Leave the door open to a gallery or a concert hall and allow people to come and go freely and they will tell you unequivocally whether or not they want to receive your art. It is also true that there are a million and one reasons why people are not equally able to take this decision freely and that addressing this problem is absolutely part of the artist's mandate. For me, at least, forcing the choice defeats the purpose. That inhibition is thought to be a psychologically healthy, socially constructive one in many other applications of consent, but it seems not to have penetrated terribly deeply into the world of art and artists, be that in the street or the ivory tower.

Of course the rhetorical escape hatch here is to deny such performances the status of art, for their own good as it were, thereby unburdening them of all sorts of accreted cultural and philosophical baggage. At that point they cease to be transgressions of a hallowed social institution and become quotidian transgressions of the municipal code, perhaps also of (un)common courtesy. They then are no worse than the proverbial jackhammer at 3am, ripping apart mere asphalt rather than the very fabric of society. Perhaps by a twisted SoCal logic borne of class war, the logic which makes the unlikeliest of relativists out of the staunchest of conservatives, the dancers fall on the morally superior side of a dichotomy between ordinary subway beggars and enterprising spirits down on their luck who are "at least doing something." Or, resolving the structure-agency problem in the opposite direction (all while clinging to the same relativism), perhaps these people are merely desperate in one respect or another and they are behaving the way any organism would in desperation.

I want to anticipate and address the objection that my notion of consent has in this case become a rationale for shutting down someone else's expression, "punching down" as it were from the position of a bourgeois artist, wielding law-and-order as a muzzle against street artists, and casting my lot with proprietors of tightly-drawn, fully-administrated Free Speech Zones. I am wary indeed of the severe restrictions which already exist on LA County property, even though in this case they make official a prohibition on something which I see as wrong in the abstract. It is not inconsistent to hold these positions. A fundamental right is, precisely because it is fundamental and therefore far-reaching, a rope that is long enough to hang ourselves. Similarly, it is impossible to narrowly target restrictions of such far-reaching rights to address very specific behaviors; inevitably the net that is cast is too wide. Currently this is much-discussed regarding hate-speech-as-free-speech; the stakes are not as high in my example here, but the dynamic is the same. I don't want to live in a world where it is illegal to dance on the subway, but nor do I want to be cornered, blasted, bugged and begged. I can envision constructive purposes for consensual subway dance parties and I can envision draconian policing of misdemeanor offenses being wielded selectively against dissidents and minorities. What I cannot see is a justification for availing oneself of a captive audience, no matter what you're peddling, and I cannot explain it away as the isolated actions of a few heedless extroverts because it happens constantly in this city, at the hands of both the rich and the poor, from photo shoots to Car Operas and everything in between. I want to be part of a community that has earned the right to free expression by the ways we choose to use it, and not a community where its abuse is so rampant that it must be progressively curtailed just to keep the lights on. And because I am not a relativist, I refuse to absolve the poor, the oppressed, the underappreciated artist, or the so-called "naive" or "outsider" artist of this responsibility simply because they are naive of their Family Resemblance to those of us who have the luxury to stop and consider all of this. Placing your dancing self and a high-output sound source where people literally can't escape is as easy an action to read as is an orchestra patron exiting the concert hall mid-performance. What they both say is that the process leading up to the presentation was flawed.