31 May 2020

Three Views on Competition


-I-

Mid-quarantine sports media has gone nostagic out of necessity, with the recent Michael Jordan documentary leading the charge, and thereby it has been pointed out that MJ's pathological competitiveness would today run afoul of numerous sensitivities. Leaving aside for now the litigation of those sensitivities and the triteness of the observation, I think it is nonetheless an observation worth dwelling upon and extending: the games are mere escapist entertainment and the Darwinistic element is, unlike the analogous Roman spectacles, more symbolic than real; yet the people are real, and if they are not usually worth truly feeling sorry for, that is not to say that their outrageous salaries somehow void their basic human entitlement to dignity and health. MJ in his more infamous moments undoubtedly created a Hostile Work Environment. Since his playing career ended, American pro sports have seen a handful of high-profile breakdowns, AWOLs, and early retirements which are either partly or wholly attributable to similar behavior by less-revered teammates. The social ground has indeed shifted beneath the feet of bigtime sports, making this human toll seem less collateral and more integral. It is doubly inconvenient, then, to be told that MJ's now-questionable motivational tactics were integral rather than peripheral to his success. I love sports and I also think it is okay to be uneasy with this, i.e. to impose today's standards on yesterday's events. Nothing would ever get better if that type of hindsight was not allowed. The anti-civs can howl all they want about PCness and Revisionist History, but even they know that there is a right and a wrong way to treat people. Some of them may even have had an experience that (gasp!) changed their mind! I certainly have...and somehow I still love watching sports. Love of sports is, paraphrasing a girlfriend-of-a-friend, my only "normal" trait. I take no offense to the comment; rather, taking it at face value, I choose to strategically deploy this aspect of my public-facing self in those tough social situations where it is crucial to seem normal. But of course in my remaining abnormal moments, it has only gotten more difficult with time to ignore everything about sports that is unseemly.

For the most part, even pro sports lockerrooms have at least met the new sensitivities halfway. The greatest countervailing force to this belated enlightenment is not the odd Old School jock, but rather the amount of money at stake. Rule-bending/breaking is itself something of an art form, and exceedingly thin competitive margins in high-stakes endeavors tend to encourage its consolidation and refinement. MJ of course authored the definitive work of contextual rule-bending when he...created separation from Utah's Bryon Russell in the closing seconds of the 1998 NBA Finals (his only signature moment that I vividly remember watching on live TV). It is a "work" without parallel even in MJ's oeuvre, by, of and for that moment and that moment only. Among the commentators I listen to, the ones who not only were there but also have dug deepest into all of this after the fact tend to emphasize a similarly contextual, circumstantial, incentive-driven understanding of MJ's most infamous interpersonal conflicts. Context and circumstance are crucial to the sensitivity question, no matter where you fall on it. It is of course possible for high-stakes athletic competition to unfold with minimal "personal" friction, but it is not possible 100 percent of the time. Similarly, high-level competition might emerge without correspondingly high stakes, but it probably won't. A long-winded way of saying: sports cannot be sanitized much further than they already have without harming their intrinsic appeal to "normal" people (or, as the case may be, to the little tiny "normal" person that lives inside even of weirdos like me).

For now, a basketball game still has a winner and a loser, and the team sports franchise remains nothing less than the contemporary archetype of patriarchal, non-particularistic organization. The Chicago Bulls can turnover personnel a dozen times and still be the Chicago Bulls. If the rarefied air of hyper-thin competitive margins is then thought to be first and foremost hazardous to one's health, and thus unseemly on specifically that basis, this represents a particularistic turn which is anathema to what bigtime sports are. If the human toll is no longer acceptable then I will fall in line with that new reality, but I don't have to enjoy the new sports-like product. I'm not very normal, but I am too normal to enjoy games where no one wins or loses. If we now "root for players, not for teams," as even some of the above-mentioned sports commentators claim to, then it does seem that winning and losing no longer matters. I can't relate to this, but I think I at least understand it. Why we would continue to channel competition-averse desires through sport is, conversely, something I can't even understand.


-II-

The current slogan of the North American Scrabble Players Association is, "Making Words, Building Friendships." What exactly does this imply? (Or not?) Perhaps most basically, a matter-of-fact concurrence with reality: even I have made at least two unusually good/close friends on the Scrabble scene, and the proportion of people I find tolerable is non-negligibly greater than the baseline expectation. This being as it may, if an equivalence is what is implied in the slogan, I think this is wholly illogical and dishonest. Certainly it is not in concurrence with the reality I've observed. There is at least as much animosity as friendship in Scrabble; this much was palpable in the room from my very first expedition to a NASPA-sanctioned club. What has only become clear with experience is that this animosity exceeds the mere social background radiation one expects to find everywhere; it is, rather, intrinsic to the game itself. The disproportionately extreme consequences of seemingly marginal strategic decisions make Scrabble as much about mastering one's own emotions as about cognitive ability or competitive spirit, and no one in this pressure-cooker is a perfect master of their emotions, no matter how friendly they are the rest of the time. If you want to engender friendship, you definitely do not place people into this sort of dynamic interaction with chance; and if you have a friend-target in mind, it's best that this friend-target not embody the opposition in a zero-sum test of the two acquaintances' comparative abilities to manage said dynamic interaction with chance. Given some of the dust-ups I've witnessed, I give myself relatively high marks for civility; but mere civility is not friendship. I confess that I find friendship (d)elusive here, not only in the heat of competition, where it is colored by visceral emotion, but also upon distanced reflection, where it is colored by a wider interest in sport as expounded upon above. I grant that the drawing of any analogies between the NBA and the NASPA strains credulity. Nonetheless, both a game of basketball and a game of Scrabble have a winner and a loser; if the analogy can be extended only that far, this is nonetheless quite a significant fact with many significant implications. As such we might add that both are ritualized, sanitized reenactments of base instincts, or some flavor of that old trope. What does this phylogenetically distant basis in primal violence mean? Is it the distance or the violence which is more meaningful? Sensitivity is the obsession of the moment for hard-liners on both sides that question, but I think the answer really depends more on our intelligence than on our sensitivities. (I also believe the covariability of intelligence and sensitivity to be generally overstated1, though I do need to learn more about this and could be swayed.) For the most part, sentient adults are capable of compartmentalizing ritualized reenactments from so-called real life. As a species we are, I think, quite capable of civility per se in this scenario, if not always of friendship; and as the eminently social species, there is much to be gained if we can achieve this, and certainly also lost if we cannot: the ventilating function of such ritualized, non-destructive competitive outlets, the lexico-cognitive dimension of Scrabble as healthy mental exercise, the greater acuity of such exercise-benefits when they are channeled by competition rather than pursued casually, and so on. Call these the Extrinsic Benefits if you insist, though really they are intrinsic to this uniquely human institution. Of course the institution of friendship matters too. But if friendship is your end, tournament Scrabble is a strange choice of means. If friendship were the ultimate aim, what wouldn't we change about Scrabble? And if winning and losing isn't what really matters, what are we doing playing a game that has a winner and a loser?


-III-

My 2002 summer expedition to the Aebersold workshop in Louisville was rather fruitless from a playing perspective, but the lengthy evening concerts were, as many others have remarked, themselves worth the trip. By now most of the finer details have blurred, but I specifically recall a Don Braden-Eric Alexander tenor battle not for the music (which I'm sure was fine nonetheless) but for Braden's mid-set remark to the assembled newbs. Paraphrasing: it can't help but be a competition when the two of us are up here together, and this is fine as long as it serves the music. I can't help but agree, which leads us seamlessly back into navel-gazing: is competition thought able to serve a constructive purpose here because there is, metaphors and figures of speech aside, no winner or loser in music? Certainly there is an aesthetic dimension to sport: John Stockton is said to have described the Dream Team scrimmages as "poetry;" and Scrabble played at the highest level certainly has struck many an informed observer as "beautiful." But only in the case of exhibition games can I imagine a convincing argument that aesthetics are essential to sport, even as they are quite essential to my own interest in it. Conversely, as Debussy would have it, "Pleasure is the law" in music. That assertion can be problematized from any number of abstract ethical perspectives, same as can ritualized competition; but the overwhelming thrust of real social practice, rational or not, is on the side of pleasure here. Hence I think the burden is on the ethicizer/moralizer to demonstrate that pleasure and competition alike are entirely about wants and not at all about needs. I do not believe this to be true in either case.


1. Anecdotally, the phenomenon of the pathologically cutthroat pickup basketball player always seemed to me a product of vulnerable class position, not of individual psychology, and certainly not of intelligence. Where individual psychology comes in, I suppose, is in the case of players whose competitive drive stems from perceived vulnerability that is not necessarily real. MJ and Tom Brady are often mentioned in this connection, as is the significance of what I am calling "perceived vulnerability" (as opposed to the real kind) in the realm of politics and demagoguery.

30 May 2020

Conquering Dependence on Necessary Evils

One day as a high-schooler writing music on my Dad's PowerMac, I discovered that ConcertWare had a meter called "Free Time." Thus began an abiding compositional habit of periodically dispensing with barlines. Having now seen much more printed music and made many more forays (not totally successful ones) into hand-written/mind's-ear composition, it is always a bit embarrassing to think back to moments like this, when composing was for me something of a video game. Whether the software thus encouraged that impressionable young person to play fast and loose with convention or whether it merely allowed him to is a question of framing rather than of substance, and one which composers will answer more according to our own orientations rather than according to reality. Since the reality was in my particular case lost to the sands of time without anyone (including myself) caring nearly as much as composers seem to care about this issue in the abstract, perhaps this is just fine. Admittedly, from the perspective of a more experienced quasi-teacher attending to a hypothetical student, I would not be totally at ease with such a process now. Yet the same hindsight shows that there were at least two undeniably propitious elements in my case: (a) the ease and accessibility of this feature exploded a hitherto unquestioned convention rather than rigidifying it, and (b) ConcertWare undeniably handled unmetered notation far more flexibly than Finale, Sibelius or MuseScore do, even now.

It is true that such departures can be made too easy as well as too difficult, depending on the technical intermediary and the cultural atmosphere. It is also true that frequent interface with printed music outside of one's computing life has a way of diluting the computer's influence over notational decisions. I was fortunate as a tween to at least be seeing printed music in band class, and occasionally tripping over stacks of it at home. I suppose it was only later, when I realized that composers, publishers and conductors I had heard of (or at least a few of them) were open (or at least not irrevocably opposed) to temporarily dispensing with barlines, and when I encountered my first gentle opposition to this practice on the part of other musicians, that my decision thereby became something of an informed decision, taken freely. And when a beloved college wind band conductor habitually referred to barlines as "a necessary evil" in rehearsal, as an idealist I of course heard "evil" more than "necessary," and at that point all barline bets were off.

Unmetered notation remains controversial, even among the most seasoned and fluent musicians. Periodically I have occasion to pause and reflect on this situation, and it occurs to me now that there is a significant connection here to another Style Wars polemic which bubbles up occasionally: the question of learning one's part from notation as against learning it via aural transmission. In addition to asking for unmetered music to sound a certain way, by writing unmetered passages composers are asking the player to do some extra work; perhaps to figure out for themselves, by shedding, where the barlines might be if they had been used; perhaps to become familiar enough with (essentially, to memorize) the passage such that the coordinating function of the barline is superfluous; and perhaps therefore not to concern themselves with what other players' parts might be asking of them, nor with how those other players might handle those demands, including the possibility (within reason) of different grouping/phrasing in different parts. There is more to unmetered passages than the possibility of multiple "correct" meterings or the absence of composerly guidance (not to say intent) on said point: there is, more importantly, a practice, rehearsal, and performance process which is mediated by a notational decision. The result of this now-changed process is what I am seeking with unmetered passages. I am not seeking a "perfect" rendition as if barlines had been deployed and subsequently observed by unusually adept players or by a machine. I am, in a sense, actually going out of my way to avoid this.

Process is the only reason that the performance of unmetered music might, potentially (hopefully?), sound different than if the music were metered; getting music to sound a certain way is the only logical reason to depart from received notational convention; and departing from received notational convention is a good way (if not the only way) to shake up the performance process. This is the kind of procedural perfect circle that composers dream about, and usually only dream about. If the "process" merely consists of the performers staying 5 minutes after the first rehearsal to compare parts and draw in uniform barlines, then we can still say that the notation has mediated the process, and that the music might still sound different than if the composer had provided the same information to them from the outset. But this amounts to normalizing/conventionalizing what was non-normative about the piece in order to make it easier to play. That maneuver is the domain of Jobbing, not of Artistry. Shedding also makes any given piece easier to play, regardless of notation, and invites the reflection which breathes life into Dead Tree composition. It is socially ungraceful to point this out in a world where Everyone Is Busy and there is already plenty of music to listen to. I accept that judgment on a cosmic level. On an earthly level, meanwhile, I see unexplored/neglected aesthetic avenues hiding in plain sight and conjecture that they might be fun to explore. So come fly with me, or whatever.

Reflection tends to be baked into the process of aural transmission, and it tends to be eschewed (usually almost totally) by users of notation. This I do not deny, but I do choose to find fault with the users rather than with the notation. Thus for me the basis for preferring one mode of transmission to another is a matter of what I might want to do with it, not what everyone else thinks everyone else is doing with it. Modes of transmission are mere vehicles for the realization of the abstract concept of a work; it is the concept which indicates favorably or poorly for either process, not the other way around. Notation is all about expedience, and this is both its best and worst quality. Notation allows Eye Players to realize music without reflecting on it, perhaps even, as the figure of speech would have it, without even thinking about it. Owing to innumerable big-picture factors which are best set aside for now, this is normally exactly what happens (or doesn't happen). Certainly no one is more puzzled by or discontent with this situation than I am, and I will not be out-discontented by partisans of Ear traditions who choose to resolve this structure-agency question one-sidedly. It is true that the structure here (the notational system) is what enables users to become passive re-creators, but it is not true that it imposes passive re-creation, nor that the etiology of passive re-creation is entirely or even mostly a matter of the notational system, nor that the notational system has nothing more to offer us than the shortest on-ramp to the path of least resistance. If any given Eye Player chooses to reflect upon their Eye Music, they will find every bit as much to reflect upon as will the ear player upon theirs. If they neglect to take this opportunity where it presents itself, then my heart bleeds for them.

Writing without barlines aims at imposing a process that is intermediate between the rhetorical extremes of the Ear Player who is forced into a reflective outlook by the laboriousness of their process and the Eye Player who habitually tears through piles of written music without any reflection whatsoever because Everyone Is Busy and reflection would slow them down. Writing without barlines aims at imposing selective reflection by omitting small pieces of customary information, while nonetheless providing all the other information that written music customarily provides.

Notation doesn't breed soulless performance; rather, soulless performers gives soulless performances. Unfortunately this conclusion has become unavoidable as Ear Playing increasingly carries the day and soullessness remains rampant. Yes, Everyone Is Busy, and so there aren't too many bands around today where everyone really commits to the Mingus process. We're so Busy, actually, that the dwindling repertory has moved decisively away from anything even as structurally specific as Haitian Fight Song. The overdetermination of musical structure by social structure is a material question, not an expressive or metaphysical one. You cannot claim the exquisite-corpse process as an affirmative creative decision when your five band members have moved to five different states! You cannot claim notational or conceptual simplicity as an affirmative creative decision when you know that no one is willing to rehearse! I am not saying that you cannot succeed under these circumstances. What I am saying is that you cannot claim success.

When process is materially circumscribed from the outset, concept can only trail at a distance. It is unideal for process to lead concept in this way because all processes are conceptually limiting. Ideally the creator of the work would have taken account of this from the embryonic stage of creation, identifying a process which best serves their concept while working around the inevitable potholes. That is, ideally the mediation between process and concept takes place though the creative process itself, not in sequence with one consideration leading the other around by the scruff of the neck after the piece is "done." When process dictates to concept, its flaws and slippages are foregrounded anywhere the creator is unwilling to sacrifice concept to expedience. On one hand, this unwillingness is socially maladaptive; on the other hand, it is one leading indicator of the presence of a soul. Hence owing to unconscious self-other identifications that even educated citizens of enlightened post-industrial societies are subject to, this unwillingness to compromise tends to be rewarded by the soulful and punished by the soulless. And that's where we're at!

28 May 2020

Pre-Endgame Strategy

In my current situation I find the long-term rather than the short-term impacts of the quarantine most concerning, and perhaps for this reason I've frequently found myself thinking about one particular long-term concern.

Stay-at-home orders are nearly superfluous in my case, hence the lockdown has, for me, so far been little else than a welcome sabbatical from rat-racing, and a fruitful period of study (both self- and other-). The near-total lack of structure is nonetheless something which I've always found slightly hazardous. And so here is one extrinsic benefit of music education that I'll toast to: as a brass player, I figured out even before the clickbait psychojournalists did that having a routine would be essential not just to parochially musical concerns but to the general preservation of sanity. Thus the tuba hour commences at noon daily. It is really more like 20 minutes and almost never starts before 1pm. I hesitate to call this "discipline," since the timing is too loose and too brief to qualify. If it is "maintenance," then disrepair carries the day. The main objective is not to forget how to play. There are a couple of mild conceptual challenges involved and no technical ones. Part of me laments that this is what it has come to for someone who veritably haunted the practice rooms in college, and who, gun to head, still claims the tuba as the center of his increasingly entropic intellectual and creative universe. All of those misgivings being as they are, I have no doubt that I'm making made good on my frequent admonitions to young students that even this amount of practice, when it is logically structured, narrowly focused, and adhered to daily with the devoutness of a sacred ritual, can be productive and worth the trouble.

It never occurred to me to promote this ritual as a prospective lifeline to structure, invocable if the rest of the world seems to have frozen in time. Maybe I'll try that if and when I next return to teaching, since none of my other spiels have ever been the least bit effective in inspiring commitment where it did not previously exist. I am of course reluctant to expose students to the multi-layered ambivalence of the mid-career professional; that sort of radical honesty might be a bit too radical even for me. To take music and, more specifically, a musical instrument as not just a specialty but an identity, to face society as a tooba player, encompasses, as I have probably already written enough about, quite the dizzying array of privileges, struggles, and absurdities. In the present absurd conditions I do feel quite fortunate to have a readymade vehicle of routine, and I do believe the sanity-preserving function to have been borne out by this experience, but all of that merely represses the reality that it has been a decade and a half since I last found rigid adherence to a practice regimen fun and fulfilling for its own sake, and that both the duration of adherence and the intensity of "fun" have steadily diminished with time. This, taken together with the long-term inevitability of physical and mental decline, paints quite the discouraging picture of the aging brass player. Can this downward curve ever be flattened?

For all that I've invested in book learning, I am guided on the endgame question almost exclusively by two fond anecdotes which I've never bothered to investigate. First: a friend is fond of remarking that 50 year-old drivers have the fewest accidents and the lowest insurance premiums. They sit at an optimal point on the x-y graph of accumulated experience (lots) against physical decline (not yet). This seems to me a supremely relevant consideration for brass players as well, i.e. with an eye toward balancing cumulative achievement with quality of life by determining the optimal time to walk away. On which point the second, more morbid anecdote is salient, a nugget of my mother's dime-store-Marxist antisheltering, and a burden which more conventional American parents would never reveal to a pre-adolescent child: when all people do for 50 years is work, they often don't know what to do with themselves upon retiring, even if they thought they would; and when people don't know what to do with themselves in this profound sort of way, even when they thought they would, they often just die.

If the "x-y graphs" and "optimization" of the first anecdote sound too fully rationalized or mathematical to be useful in Real Life, then the urgency of death inspired by the second anecdote ought to be motivation enough to embrace them. Overlaid on all of that, for me at least, is the question of what Erikson called "generativity," essentially the province of culture's 50 year-old drivers, and for me split (not always happily) into generativity that pays the bills and generativity that feeds the soul. While I certainly tend to look forward to a day when I have played my last corporate ice cream social, even I would grant that a withdrawal from that kind of work represents a certain loss of identity in a society where your work defines you. (I think I want to live in a society that is not like that, but this is unlikely to happen.) By the same token, having developed out of tuba playing all kinds of peripheral intellectual and creative interests, the thought of someday making those peripheral interests central, without the tuba there to ground them, has always been both superficially appealing and deeply scary. Be it a privilege or a chore depending on the day, tuba playing is both the initial inspiration and the ultimate outlet for those other pursuits. Hence I fear equally the old-age regret of having stopped playing too soon, leading to a loss of focus in the other areas, and that of hanging on too long, wasting time doing subpar tuba work when that time could be more fruitfully devoted to the other areas. To be sure, both of these prospective regrets seem, literally, deadly. Thus I think it is reasonable to consider such scenarios ahead of time, before moments of choice are upon you. Tweeting about having a "no regrets" outlook regarding the things you can't control is no substitute for seeking foresight and taking initiative regarding things that are very much within your control.

To wit, I would conjecture that the optimization function f(tuba) is bimodal: either (a) give up playing young enough that a new generative identity can form, or (b) hang on to the one you've got til the bitter end, perhaps reinventing your aesthetic as your declining technique dictates. The third, more conventional option, as mutually determined by social and structural norms, is Retirement at the socio-structurally appointed Retirement Age. Many musicians simply aren't able to pursue this the way people with real jobs can, and some who could and should pursue it neglect to do so. The denouement of COVID will have a lot to do with whether or not this course is even available to me. That aside, I think that Retirement is plainly incoherent with not one but both of the above anecdotes; it is incoherent with considerations of identity, aesthetics, and achievement alike; in a word, it is incoherent with psychobiology itself. And so without denying that Retirement represents a privilege of sorts, I think it is my third choice. I view it as a privilege only relative to the fourth option: working myself into the grave. And so as events continue to unfold, I will be focused on playing a good pre-endgame.

11 May 2020

Bananaphone -- Quarantine Edition

10 April 2020

Mumford -- Art and Technics (xv)

"As against a single person who could use a brush passably, there were thousands who could take reasonably good photographs. Here the first effect of the machine process was to deliver people from the specialist and to restore the status and function of the amateur. Thanks to the camera, the eye at least was reeducated, after having been too long committed to the verbal symbols of print. People awoke to the constant miracles of the natural world, like an invalid long secluded in a dark room, able for the first time to breath fresh air... But though the art of taking pictures is necessarily a selective one, the very spread and progress of that art, not least with the invention of the motion picture, was in the opposite direction; it multiplied the permanent image as images had never been multiplied before, and by sheer superabundance it undermined old habits of careful evaluation and selection. And that very fact, which went along with the achievement of a democratic medium of expression, has raised a whole series of problems that we must wrestle with today, if, here as elsewhere, we are not to starve in the midst of plenty." (94-95)

"What has been the result of the mass production of esthetic symbols that began in the fifteenth century? ... [The good:] By means of our various reproductive devices, a large part of our experience, which once vanished without any sort of record, has been arrested and fixed. Because of the varied processes of reproduction that are now at hand, many important experiences, difficult to transpose into words, are now visible in images; and certain aspects of art, which were once reserved for the privileged, are now an everyday experience to those who make use of the resources of printing and photography." (95-96)

In other words, reproduction is also, in many instances, record-keeping. All of the oppression and dispossession which inhered in denial of the right to have a past, a heritage, a discrete culture, and indeed the very right to collective introspection vis-a-vis these identifications, to have a hard look in the mirror on the cultural level, all of these privileges have been progressively democratized by the ever-increasing ease and ubiquity of this "mass production of esthetic symbols."

To understand the bearings of this change we must realize that it was at once a technical innovation, a social device, a means of popular education, and a way which the monopoly of art by a small group was broken down. With the invention of graphic reproduction, pictures could go into circulation like any other commodity; they could be sold at markets and fairs so cheaply that all but the poorest classes could afford to own them. (87)

From the fifteenth century onward, the picture was not merely something that you saw...[Rather,] in the cheap medium of an engraving it could be carried home; and so, in a sense, what it lost in uniqueness it gained in intimacy and variety and wide distribution. ... If they [reproductions] lacked pretentiousness, they gave to the unpretentious moments, the common occupations, the daily scene, the common pastimes, the dignity of being sufficiently memorable to be preserved. That was a victory for democracy, achieved in the arts long before its proposition, that all men are created equal, was put forward in politics. (88)

But here is a supremely pessimistic phylogenetic observation: aesthetics and memory became democratized before many more basic, essential forms of power. And so nowadays the homeless have smartphones but no homes; perhaps this is not an anomaly but in fact reflects a basic reality of Technics-driven civilizations.

[The bad:] The fact is that in every department of art and thought we are being overwhelmed by our symbol-creating capacity; and our very facility with the mechanical means of multifolding and reproduction has been responsible for a progressive failure in selectivity and therefore in the power of assimilation. We are overwhelmed by the rank fecundity of the machine, operating without any Malthusian checks except periodic financial depressions; and even they, it would now seem, cannot be wholly relied on. Between ourselves and the actual experience and the actual environment there now swells an ever-rising flood of images which come to us in every sort of medium... A picture was once a rare sort of symbol, rare enough to call for attentive concentration. Now it is the actual experience that is rare, and the picture has become ubiquitous. (96)

Indeed, and I would extend this observation of Mumford's to the aforementioned photo-will too. Universal photorepresentational agency is only democratically salutary at a much smaller social scale than the one which currently presents itself; in other words, IRL accountability is a necessary check upon antisocial uses of photorepresentation. At present, meanwhile, the prospective subject-as-object is too likely to remain a mere abstraction to the photographer even (perhaps especially) beyond the curation and transmission stages. This begets alternately anarchistic and fascistic phenomena, here defeating by brute force any conceit to order or reason, there furnishing the proprietors of so many top-down, self-dealing orders with the best tools yet for exploiting anyone less powerful than them.

Photorepresentation was long ago made technically accessible, and some degree of curatorial agency has always been baked into the photorepresentational process; but reception, be it a matter of contemplation or gainfulness or anywhere in between, cannot (has not yet been?) Technically enhanced. The individual human being remains the basic unit of reception whether subsumed among ten thousand or ten billion others, and whether subsumed in a real or virtual community. The potential expansion of the capacities of the subject are, as the passage above hints at, wildly incommensurate with those of the subject-as-object. Vis-a-vis photorepresentation, what power we gain as desiring subjects we cede proportionally as we are threatened with photo-objectification at the hands of others. It is not merely that "progressive failure in selectivity and therefore in the power of assimilation" is an imposed failure at an impossible task, but also that the consequences of failure have changed. Overwhelmingly for the worse, I would say.

That said, I find it highly counterintuitive, actually, if I may be permitted a temporary flight of ivory tower rationalism, that conditions of scarcity would be the ones under which powers of discernment would be sharpened. Insofar as scarcity means taking what one can get, do we not thereby become eminently undiscerning and less picky? Hunger is the finest sauce. A recipe for ascetic inner peace, perhaps, but not for sharpening the powers of discernment. It doesn't make sense that "old habits of careful evaluation and selection" could be superior to new ones when there was previously far less to evaluate and select from.

In fact Mumford does later make a remark more or less to that effect:

As long as a work of art was an individual product, produced by individual workmen using their own feeble powers with such little extra help as they could get from fire or wind or water, there was a strict limit to the number of works of art that could be produced in a whole lifetime... Under such a system of production there was no problem of quantity; or rather the problem was that of too little, not too much. Natural and organic limitations took the place of rational selectivity. Only those who exercised some special political or economic monopoly were ever even temporarily in a position of being threatened by a surfeit; and so the appetites remained keen, because only rarely could they be sated. Under such conditions, there was little reason to exercise a vigilant control over quantity, for fostering a discipline of restraint and a habit of studious selection; such discrimination as was necessary was that exercised on a basis of quality alone. (106-107)

This seems to me closer to reality, though I'm still not sure that the last line follows from what precedes it. It is not so much that pre-industrial culture begot well-balanced standards of discernment as that industrial modernity leads us to pine for them. In the speculative realm such standards are thus made conspicuous by their absence in present reality; as to whether they were ever part of any bygone reality, that is a rather different question.

Perhaps the pre-industrial epoch which Mumford (and I myself along with him, I confess) is tempted to idealize is in fact worth idealizing only for the happy accident that certain Technical capacities had stabilized at a level which was somewhat in harmony with Human capacities. If it was the aristocrats, then, who were first in human history to be "threatened by a surfeit," this is to say that they were the first to illustrate how easily human beings are seduced by abundance, how easily the conceit to a discerning posture is revealed by circumstance as merely a conceit.

Expressive art, just in proportion to its value and significance, must be precious, difficult, occasional, in a word aristocratic. (108)

Not that I disagree much with the broader sentiment, but is there anything whatsoever "precious, difficult, occasional" about aristocratic consumption patterns? Or is this merely an ideal which human beings of all classes are hard-pressed to live up to unless it is immutably (i.e. materially) imposed on them? Only by a sensitivity to the finer distinctions among "precious" morsels coupled with what Mumford unabashedly calls a "puritanical" ethic of consumption might an "aristocrat" live up to their station; but we might more profitably label this achievement based on observed behavior rather than caste.

In such small rhetorical inconsistencies lies a crucial underdeveloped theme: perhaps the crediting of aristocrats with blazing the trail of refined taste is a narrative peddled by and for aristocratic interests. In fact the aristocrats' well-known lack of restraint was the first, best warning of what sins of excess would befall the rest of the human race should things like photorealistic generativity, fatty foods and sexual indulgence ever become available to them in abundance. This seems to me (I speak conditionally here as I am rather out of my depth by responsible academic standards) to comport better with the actual historical record, but also to thoroughly undermine any attempt to valorize the standards of those who have the most above those who have less (and certainly, I hasten to add, vice versa). To the extent that humans of every nation, class and epoch have consistently succumbed to such excesses as were available to them, to that same extent the evidence in favor of considering this an absolute human characteristic approaches an incontrovertible preponderance.

To complete the strictly rationalistic line of thought, abundance should be the condition which imposes this "aristocratic" posture by brute force; the condition by which we should be driven by threats to sanity and survival, no less serious than that proverbial marauding lion was to the bodily integrity of the caveman, to evolve on the fly our powers of discernment. If instead of a heightened sensitivity we find a mere numbing effect, if instead of a seasoned palate we find a mere retreat from the stimulus, if all it takes to bring about "a progressive failure in selectivity" is for us "being overwhelmed by our symbol-creating capacity," then perhaps "selectivity" per se is a secondary rather than a primary psychological phenomenon. We don't live to discern, we discern to live. And that is to say that we are eminently un-discerning.

We are rapidly dividing the world into two classes: a minority who act, increasingly, for the benefit of the reproductive process, and a majority whose entire life is spent serving as the passive appreciators or willing victims of this reproductive process. ...an endless succession of images passes before the eye, offered by people who wish to exercise power, either by making us buy something for their benefit or making us agree to something that would promote their economic or political interests... (97)

As a result of this whole mechanical process, we cease to live in the multidimensional world of reality, the world that brings into play every aspect of the human personality... We have substituted for this, largely through the mass production of graphic symbols...a secondhand world, a ghost-world, in which everyone lives a second-hand and derivative life. (97-98)

Indeed, the "wish to exercise power" and the acting "for the benefit of the reproductive process" have only grown closer together since these passages were written. The class angle is crucial, reflecting as it must barriers both economic and social. Unlike those more basic concerns, however, photorepresentational class boundaries are increasingly permeable; or, if that is going too far, it is at least increasingly possible even for agents who have very little overall power to nonetheless wield the technics of photorepresentation against those even less powerful than they are; similarly for the utterly powerless to wrest a modicum of power via the increasing accessibility of photorepresentational record-keeping. All of which is to say that photorepresentation is a form of power, one of the few which occasionally begets drastic (if temporary) inversions of seemingly insurmountable power gradients: think undercover cameras in a corporate slaughterhouse, or in an extra-marital dalliance with the chairman.

The Deep Fake phenomenon is the dialectical fissure here: in one respect it threatens to facilitate an ultimately powerful merger of surface photorealism with willful/gainful wholecloth creation; in another respect, as the technics of Deep Fakes gradually become more accessible, we will have no choice but to cease to trust photorealistic documents merely because they are photorealistic, and undoubtedly this would upend most of what we (think we) know about the place of photorepresentation in society and culture. It could, theoretically, mostly undo the aforementioned "democratization" via a total "devaluation" of the image-as-epistemic-claim. At that point, only "the actual experience" will count. A wonderful situation, it may seem, for artists with shows on the books, but a terrible one for epistemic and intellectual life, so terrible in fact as to threaten dignified existence and art along with it.

That these possibilities were latent in the medium of photography from the beginning is no reason to tar the entire field with the brush of disenfranchisement. But I do think that the difference between Mumford's classical-functional conception of photography and photography in a world of fully-subverted Deep Fakery is one of degree rather than kind. The degree in question is that to which morality leads or follows the id; that to which gainfulness leads or follows aesthetics; that to which the subject chooses to represent the object based on unmet psychological/individual needs rather than social/collective ones. In this respect, the fact that you can no longer trust even a timestamped, photorealistic document could ultimately mean the subversion of entrenched power, or it could mean the ultimate triumph of it. Again, responsibility is a human burden no matter the machines we may invent.

08 April 2020

Freud — The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (ii) — Superstition and Suspicion

[244]I would distinguish myself from a superstitious man, therefore, as follows: I do not believe that an event not caused in any way by my own mental life can tell me any hidden facts about the future structure of reality, but I do believe that an unintentional expression of my own mental processes can reveal some hidden factor which itself belongs to my mental life alone. I may believe in outer (real) chance, but not in fortuitous inner (psychic) actions. A superstitious man will see it the other way around: he knows nothing of the motivation of his fortuitous actions and slips, he believes fortuitous psychic factors exist, and he is inclined to ascribe a significance to outside fortuitous events that will make itself felt in reality, and to see chance as a means of expression for something hidden that is outside him. There are two differences between me and the superstitious man: first, he projects a motivation on to something outside him, while I look for it within myself; and second, he interprets chance as some incident that has happened, while I derive it from an idea. However, what seems to him concealed corresponds to the unconscious in me, and we share an urge not to see chance as solely accidental but to place some kind of interpretation on it.

I assume that this conscious ignorance and unconscious understanding of the motivation of psychic fortuitous events is one of the roots of superstition. Because a superstitious person is ignorant of the motivation of his own fortuitous actions, and because that motivation is clamouring to be recognized, he has to accommodate it in the world outside himself by displacement. If there is a connection of this kind it will scarcely be confined to this one case. In fact I believe that a large part of any mythological view of the world, extending a long way even into the most modern forms of religion, is nothing but psychology projected into the outside world. The vague recognition (it might be called endopsychic perception) of [245]psychic factors and circumstances in the unconscious is reflected--it is difficult to put it any other way, so here I must call on the analogy with paranoia--is reflected in the construction of a supernatural reality, which science will transform back into the psychology of the unconscious. The myths of Paradise and the Fall, of God, good and evil, immortality, and so on, could be understood in this way, turning metaphysics into metapsychology. There is less of a gulf between paranoiac and superstitious displacement than may at first glance appear. When human beings first began thinking, as we know, they felt compelled to resolve the outer world, anthropomorphically, into a diversity of personalities in their own image; the chance events that they interpreted in superstitious terms were therefore the actions and expressions of persons. They were just like those paranoiacs who draw conclusions from the trivial signs they observe in other people, and like all those healthy people who, correctly, judge character by the fortuitous and unintentional actions of their fellow men. Superstition seems misplaced only in our modern, scientific but by no means complete view of the world; as the world appeared to pre-scientific ages and peoples, superstition was legitimate and logical.

Relatively speaking, therefore, the Roman who abandoned some important enterprise if he saw birds flying in the wrong formation was right; he was acting logically in line with his assumptions. But if he abstained from the enterprise because he had stumbled on the threshold of his door (un Romain retournerait [a Roman would turn back], as they say), he was definitely superior to us unbelievers, and a better psychologist than we are, despite our current efforts. His stumbling showed him that some doubt existed, something in him was working against his enterprise, and its power could impair his own ability to carry out his intention just as he was on the point of performing it. One can be sure of success only if all mental forces are united in making for the desired aim. ...

[246]Anyone who has had the opportunity of studying the hidden emotions of the human mind by psychoanalytic methods can also contribute some new ideas about the quality of the unconscious motives expressed in superstition. It is particularly easy to see how superstition arises from suppressed hostile and cruel feelings in neurotics, who are often very intelligent but afflicted with compulsive ideas and obsessions. Superstition is to a high degree an expectation of bad luck, and anyone who frequently ill-wishes other people, but has repressed such ideas because he has been brought up to wish them well instead, will be particularly likely to expect bad luck to descend upon him from outside as a punishment for his unconscious ill-will.

The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, trans. Anthea Bell, pp. 244-246

The crucial distinction here is inner- as opposed to outer-directed psychology. Freud here quietly levels a devastating critique of those who project their otherwise healthy skepticism exclusively onto the outside world and not at all back upon themselves. In today's colloquial terms this amounts to worrying about things you can't control, a sure recipe for frustration if not for madness itself, as well as for the peculiar condition, raised earlier in the work, of social actors who know (or seem to) others better than they know themselves.

I don't know that I myself can make any exceptional claims to self-knowledge, but as an introvert mired in lifelong estrangement from the tyranny of extroversion which seems to run the world I was foist into at birth, I certainly am apt to posit a privileged position here for my comrades in inner-directedness, and I can certainly conjure my fair share of anecdotes in which excess gregariousness is accompanied by obvious deficits of self-scrutiny. And since introversion and gregariousness are, of course, not mutually exclusive, I would head the list with my own more gregarious moments, which seem not merely to suggest but in fact require a temporary relaxation of filters. As pertains specifically to public social interaction I indeed identify unapologetically with that ever-trendy neologism, the "ambivert," and as I have slowly learned to negotiate the social world and become more familiar (if not truly more comfortable) with its demands, the compulsive talker has made ever more frequent appearances and the wallflower ever fewer. This has indeed been profitable for both my self-knowledge and my relationship to this external social world; but it has also confirmed for me beyond a reasonable doubt that I am almost sure to regret the things that pop out of my inner extrovert's mouth, and often times profoundly so. I definitely like myself less as the filter has become leakier with age, and I'm afraid that is probably a meaningful observation.

16 March 2020

Mumford -- Art and Technics (xiv)

"As with printing, photography did not altogether do away with the possibilities of human choice; but to justify their productions as art there was some tendency on the part of the early photographers, once they had overcome the technical difficulties of the process, to attempt to ape, by means of the camera, the special forms and symbols that had been handed down traditionally by painting. Accordingly, in the nineties, American photographs became soft and misty and impressionistic, just when impressionism was attempting to dissolve form into atmosphere and light. But the real triumphs of photography depended upon the photographer's respect for his medium, his interest in the object before him, and his ability to single out of the thousands of images that pass before his eye, affected by the time of day, the quality of light, movement, the sensitivity of his plates or film, the contours of his lens, precisely that moment when these factors were in conjunction with his own purpose. At that final moment of choice--which sometimes occurred at the point when a picture was taken, sometimes only after taking and developing a hundred indifferent prints--the human person again became operative; and at that moment, but only at that moment, the machine product becomes a veritable work of art, because it reflects the human spirit." (93)

"in conjunction with his own purpose"
In other words, this is where willfulness and vanity are turned to constructive ends; or at least the artists themselves are bound to think so, since these are their "purposes" and not someone else's. Ideally the audience/recipient also has an active part to play in assuming the same discriminating posture vis-a-vis any transmission they might choose to receive; but the question of direct communication of messages and ideas, of the equal validity of myriad contradictory interpretations of the transmission, looms large here. What if the recipient's purpose is, from the outset, somehow at odds with that of the artist? And even where their purposes are in fact aligned precisely, who is to say that this happy accident could not still get lost in the aesthetic shuffle?

Indeed, the skeptic is wont to intone: If you really need to send a message, write a letter. To decode that saying in terms of the present discussion: a language (one worthy of the name and shared by the parties concerned) is the most functional Technical means of comunication (worthy of the name), and photography is not, quite, a language. In Technics, initial design choices determine the use dynamics of a machine, which in turn determine an essential purpose for it. Similarly, the very notion of message or purpose seems to dictate that there is, whether really or merely ideally, an essential standard against which efforts of realization can be judged. All together now: Communication is a branch of Technics, not of Art. Aesthetic productions, meanwhile, say what words alone cannot, which is fine if the substance of your message or purpose is vague or negotiable. If your purpose is in fact deathly important, then you should get Technical and exclude a large part of your human personality from the transmission. If your personality is the message, then it's fine to use Art, but you had better be an unusually interesting and deep person if you expect anyone else to care.

From any position short of full comminicative potential, the aesthetic distinction between impressionistic photography and photographic photography (what else to call it?), between machine art which "attempts to ape...the special forms and symbols that had been handed down traditionally by [handicraft]" and that which "depends upon the [machine artist's] respect for his medium," between art which subverts mechanical function and art which affirms it, this distinction comes to seem rather arbitrary. In this passage it is implied, and elsewhere asserted, that art which subverts Technics is less successful across the board, including (perhaps especially) aesthetically, than art which affirms Technics. Mumford puts forward "machine art" as the clearest illustration of this dynamic, but ultimately I think that the distinction between functional art and recreational/contemplative/aestheticist art is most meaningful here. In other words, where there is a clear, objective standard of success or failure against which to measure the artist and their work, a standard which is borne of quotidian matters rather than hedonistic or metaphysical ones, then I would expect a pattern to emerge whereby affirmative machine use begets demonstrably higher functioning products than does subversive machine use. Art for its own sake, meanwhile, is definitionally oblivious to process, cares only about results, and imposes no (or at least many fewer) absolute standards of success or quality. This is why, from the standpoint of an aestheticist artist, Mumford's stricture against subversive machine use seems more like axe-grinding than meaningful analysis. I for one consider there to be no remarkable deviation in quality along the distinction between affirmative and subversive technicians; I do, however, see a certain path dependence as inhering in each way of working, with subversion leading not, as is so often claimed for it, to a broad flowering of untapped possibilities but simply to more or less equally narrow set of possibilities dictated by the initial design of the machine.

As such, the lesson I would take from the example of nineteenth century impressionistic photography is neither that it is doomed aesthetically nor that it can find no function, but merely that the desire for social acceptance under a very particular rubric is itself quite the arbitrary consideration vis-a-vis Art, arising as it does from neither aesthetic nor from functional demands but from social insecurity. It would be totally unsurprising, then, if art issuing from this quite unartistic mindset would fail at fulfilling roles which it was neither conceived nor designed to fill. In my own bailiwick there is no shortage of analogous examples: there are instrumentalists who turn to extended techniques and avant-garde performance practices simply to draw attention to themselves, to stand out, to be contrarian, or to conceal other deficiencies; and there are those who make their names and careers as earnest, compelling avant-gardists who subsequently choose to cash in on the mere spectacular potential which inheres in a drastic reversal of course. And then there are musicians like Robin Hayward and Vinko Globokar who have built compelling practices on technical subversion and succeeded on most every critical level all while sustaining a sincere posture. That they are exceptional examples is, I think, a function of the overall poor signal-to-noise ratio in the contemplative arts, and not necessarily a function of how contemplative artists use or misuse machines.

If all of this is so, then it would be absurd to claim that the "human person" is less "operative" here than elsewhere. I've known some profoundly deficient, supremely operative human persons, and I think we can all be thankful, actually, that they've gravitated toward the contemplative arts and away from the functional ones.


"that final moment of choice"
Perhaps the photorepresentational will has just recently found its Technical apotheosis in the smartphone and its various space-age cameras, in the "burst" and the "moment," functions which have done for curation what the camera itself did for representation. This seems a near-archetypal instance of an innovation which was technically achievable decades before social conditions led it to be advertised widely on television. Similarly, it is just the latest instance of the problematic, the others, the imperfect rejects, being at minimum more interesting, and often enough also more artistic, than the acceptable, the idealized, the perfect, which it is the contemporary will's social duty to prefer. The proof: these others are so good, in fact, that a recent TV commercial leads with the outtakes rather than with the choice cuts. In instancing the "final moment of choice" as a normative (non-)choice, it becomes undeniable that the outtakes are more interesting than perfection even if they are not necessarily better.

If there are device- and marketing-specific reasons, as well as social ones, that two-factor photo curation has just recently come (back?) into popular consciousness, this practice is incidentally also extremely relevant to the dynamic Mumford outlines here. These technologies themselves now make more transparent than ever before the possibility that this "moment of choice" can just as well come after the properly technical concerns and the gadgets themselves have been powered down and returned to the shelf. Curation is at that point not merely more accessible but, given the wide reach of these devices materially and socially alike, very nearly an essential part of photography, much as music production and post-production are, despite the prodigious recent growth of specialized credentialing therein, more likely than ever before in the recording era to be handled by the performers themselves. In one sense the counterproductive elisions of agency Mumford writes against have been made harder to accomplish; in another sense this has come about via a new regressive disenfranchisement within a formerly "democratized" art form, whereby social stigma and normative thinking pre-determine artistic choice that formerly lay more wholly with the individual. If you don't believe me, try playing raw sessions for an audiophile.

For those of us who wish to present ourselves to the world as artists first and foremost, there are two ways to interpret all of this vis-a-vis the will. Perhaps a compulsory choice is no choice at all; or perhaps this choice was always implied/tacet and by being made conscious makes (gently enough) a genuine agent out of the formerly passive recreator. Perhaps production responsibilities are imposed on music performers via an unfortunate confluence of economic, material and cultural forces; or perhaps musicians have thus wrested control of something they can do for themselves as well as anyone else can do it for them, thereby cutting overhead and regaining agency where usury and abdication and previously prevailed. As for photo-representational art, perhaps the social world thus represented is, essentially, a play of wills which is only made stronger by diversity; or perhaps this social world is a war of wills where greater technical power makes possible ever greater mutual destruction.

Presumably photogs still need the skill to account for many of the same variables Mumford lists even if their timing no longer needs to be perfect. There is even the possibility, which I assume has by this time been realized thousands of times over if not necessarily under the auspices of the formal art world, of a firmer division of labor between moment photographer and burst sorter, between Technician and Curator. In such a scenario, neither person is able to lay a whole claim to Mumford's conception of artisthood independent of the partnership, much like a termite colony in which the group demonstrates the characteristics of a complex organism but the individual bug does not. Termites get a lot of work done this way, but a human society committed to any degree of individualism might think twice about the implications of such extreme divisions of labor for the fate of the individual. Is there not a point where lifting the burdens of agency itself becomes oppressive by stunting development? And is this not intrinsically what Technical advances do in spite of their many more salutary aspects?

"his interest in the object before him"
The object which is mechanically reproduced by the photographic image has, as far as I can tell, no sentience or agency in Mumford's account; but in fact this object is quite frequently, perhaps even paradigmatically another human being, another citizen, social agent, desiring subject; and this means that the advent of photography greatly intensified a conflict of rights between the subject's freedom of expression and the object's freedom from it.

Mumford speaks to the possibility that the moment of choice can occur at two different stages of the process, either in the moment the picture is taken or as it is selected from among many such options. This two-part process of generation followed by curation is hardly unique to the photorepresentational arts, but the unique political dynamics of the representation of one subject by another are multiplied, literally and figuratively, by it. The object-agent can now be violated not just once but twice: first they can have their image captured for purposes over which they have less control or certainty than they are justly entitled to; next, they may see this image reproduced, deployed, distorted in all kinds of ways that may be more specifically violating. As photography becomes faster, more powerful and more precise, it requires a lot less skill than it used to capture the object in an unflattering moment; rather, you simply need enough time and a fast enough camera. The narrow area into which the expressive personality of the subject is channeled by this technology is coextensive with the area where the object-agent can be violated. Just as machine art has unique and distinctive aesthetic and functional qualities, so it enables unique forms of violation which humanity didn't have to wrestle with back when it was far more difficult and technically inaccessible to hand-draw someone's spitting image quite so well. And so the internet is full of clickbait portals which compete for our attention this way: football game wrap-ups which lead with piles of players in unfortunate positions, political coverage leading with spitting-mad stills of unsympathetic figures who may merely have been speaking a prosaic word that happens to begin with a hard consonant. If representational mediums do not quite lead inexorably to these sorts of outcomes, nonrepresentational mediums do lead inexorably away from them. It seems to me (still) that this fact has not been adequately considered or elaborated by scholars of art's place in society.

15 March 2020

Mumford -- Art and Technics (xiii)

"...by perfecting a mechanical method, the "taking of pictures" by a mere registration of sensations was democratized. ... What had been in the seventeenth century a slow handicraft process, requiring well-trained eyes and extremely skilled hands...now became an all-but-automatic gesture. Not entirely an automatic gesture, I hasten to add, lest any photographers in this audience should squirm in agonized silence... For after all it turns out that even in the making of the most mechanically contrived image, something more than machines and chemicals is involved. The eye, which means taste. The interest in the subject and an insight into the moment when it--or he or she--is ready. An understanding of just what esthetic values can be further brought out in the manipulation of the instrument and the materials. All these human contributions are essential. As in science, no matter how faithfully one excludes the subjective, it is still the subject who contrives the exclusion." (92)

There is, internecine politicking aside, a squirm-worthy element of these developments nonetheless: the inaccessible Technics of "a slow handicraft process" can indeed be elided via mechanization, and said process thereby rendered superfluous; but the choice and responsibility of Art, as Mumford speaks to earlier on, cannot be elided. (And why would we want them to be?) This "democratization" is thus constructive only insofar as the old Technical barriers prevented latent Art from being realized; insofar as they were concurrently preventing vapid or destructive impulses from manifesting in the material world, they were at worst neutral and at best critically important. Who is to say, really, how much of which kind of desire is latent at any given time?

The chance of gaining generative power without first passing through a protracted period of struggle and introspection is bound to be irresistible to many people, at least to the extent that they are consciously aware of this dynamic. Struggle and introspection themselves are, if inherently resistible to most people most of the time, nonetheless endemic to a certain small cross-section of the personality spectrum from which the master handicraftsperson tends to come. I say this not to valorize these traits but in fact to de-valorize them. In value-laden notions of art's place in society, such formative factors have a way of becoming value-laden too. By positing certain deep-psychological traits as conducive to artisthood and others as anathema to it, we run afoul of the distinctively American (and it is this even now, actually) belief in total freedom of vocational choice. But if artists did not place themselves on such pedestals to start with, then the assertion that not everyone is fit to be an artist ceases to be offensive, even under a regime of totally free choice1.

And so, if the imposition of handicraft morality at a certain point came to look like a mere protection of entrenched gerontocratic interests, if its effectiveness in jump-starting a concurrent development of moral sense was habitually overstated by those same interests, if it truly is functionally dispensable, if it is a mere antiquated roadblock to self-actualization which is best bypassed altogether so as not to delay consummation, and if distribution channels (i.e. the Internet) have now belatedly undergone the complementary democratization necessary to complete the two-way artistic transaction, then I would expect great democratizations such as the one under discussion here to have begotten far greater and broader progress than they have. It seems instead that the extent of the progress has been to initiate an ever-ongoing Marshmallow Test whereby successful passage of the test has over time become defined by ever-shorter intervals of delayed gratification. For Mumford here, to the extent that it is a basic human need to be generative in some capacity or other, the ever-escalating development of the technics of reproduction has enabled this need to be met more fully, a profound social gain purchased at the equally profound cost of a correspondingly massive devaluation of the resulting products. This confounds the technocratic-progressive conceit to "a steady climb upward", pointing instead to "a series of flat plateaus" (84) borne of a complex web of concurrent microtrends. Threads of progress and regress thus swirl together in ways that can be quite confusing to the human subjects swept up in them.

To note just one much-discussed current, there are of course those whose subsistence labor commitments occupy virtually their entire lives, who simply don't have time for introspection, but who may also avail themselves of these shortcuts to generativity. There is an ever-present temptation to valorize their output (and its lack of refinement) as the essential expression of a particular oppressed class or ethnic group; yet such work surely also reflects, regardless of its other good or bad qualities, the condition of oppression itself and thus an intolerable stunting of human potential. The full introjection by the oppressed of the very artifacts of their oppression is precisely the condition in which said oppression becomes self-perpetuating. Certainly the degree of refinement needs to be a choice freely taken and not imposed from above, but therefore also not merely foreclosed by structural barriers. Short of that, who can say where the dynamic interaction of personality and circumstance, of nature and nurture, might deliver any given person who is afforded the opportunity to stop and think about all of this more-than-occasionally? Given that most basic right, reflections of identity are bound to look rather different that they do without it. And if we simply elect never to stop and think about what we are doing, then what is the point?

1. Is totally free vocational choice really such a privilege? Is it really quite so kind and caring to let young people figure all of this out for themselves just as it has become too late to change course?

14 March 2020

Mumford -- Art and Technics (xii)

"In the case of photography...there was for long a question as to whether it was or was not art. And the answer to that question is: Is there any leeway for choice and initiative on the part of the photographer? If there is such leeway, there is a possibility of art, that is of success or failure in terms that would have significance to the beholder. Perhaps the best effect of machine art is to make us conscious of the play of the human personality in the small area where it remains free, a differentiation so delicate, so subtle, that a coarse eye would hardly take it in and an insensitive spirit would not know what it meant." (82)

p. 93 -- "As with printing, photography did not altogether do away with the possibilities of human choice; but to justify their productions as art there was some tendency on the part of the early photographers, once they had overcome the technical difficulties of the process, to attempt to ape, by means of the camera, the special forms and symbols that had been handed down traditionally by painting. Accordingly, in the nineties, American photographs became soft and misty and impressionistic, just when impressionism was attempting to dissolve form into atmosphere and light. But the real triumphs of photography depended upon the photographer's respect for his medium, his interest in the object before him, and his ability to single out of the thousands of images that pass before his eye, affected by the time of day, the quality of light, movement, the sensitivity of his plates or film, the contours of his lens, precisely that moment when these factors were in conjunction with his own purpose. At that final moment of choice--which sometimes occurred at the point when a picture was taken, sometimes only after taking and developing a hundred indifferent prints--the human person again became operative; and at that moment, but only at that moment, the machine product becomes a veritable work of art, because it reflects the human spirit."

Here Mumford takes photography's seemingly most obvious bug, the confinement of "choice and initiative" to an exceedingly "small area," and posits it as a feature. That the Technics of the endeavor so strictly circumscribe desire without quite disabling it entirely is, for him, not a limitation at all but in fact "one of the truly esthetic qualities of machine art," of disciplines where the "the play of the human personality" is brought into higher relief precisely for being so narrowly channeled. Though he does not explicitly state the obverse thesis, it is fair to wonder if, by this logic, there is at the other extreme a degree of artistic freedom into which the personality is merely diffused rather than exalted. And though he does not invoke the concept of accessibility, it would not be reading too closely between the lines to theorize a further connection to this most loaded construct, i.e. to posit that strict channeling of the aesthetic impulse has a parallel effect on the reception side as is ascribed to it here on the generative side; that "truly esthetic" reception is borne of intelligibility, and that intelligibility is borne of the strict channeling of generative desire.

Wherever photography's status as art is in fact questioned, indeed wherever the compulsion to settle on a hard and fast definition of "art" is for any particular reason prioritized, Mumford's gloss could be quite compelling in favor of including photography under any definition in which expression and/or communication are the linchpins: whereas conceits to expression and communication through art quite frequently run aground on the non-specificity of abstraction, photorepresentation is supremely concrete in surface content while permitting expressive depth within a managably "small area." If art is to be about sending messages, then photorepresentation is a medium which strikes a rare and delicate balance in this department.

This is certainly an interesting angle from which to consider photography as a medium and as an art form. The question of conclusively defining art is, however, never quite as interesting as it seems like it should be; it is interesting enough to divert Mumford here, I think, for two not-terribly-good reasons. Explicitly, he wishes to gently head off the charge that his hard-functionalist theory of machine art more or less does away with the art part of the question, and as such he wishes not to offend photographers by appearing to deny them their rightful status as artists. Rather, photography is art because it does afford generative-aesthetic choice, and it is not non-art simply because this choice is narrowly channeled by a mechanical intermediary. This point seemingly arises as a procedural matter rather than an essential one. It is a heading-off of offense borne of misunderstanding, a little white nugget of interest-group mollification offered up simply to keep things moving, "lest any photographers in this audience should squirm in agonized silence." Though now living on only in written form, these missives are in fact conceived as "lectures," whereby the lecturer is potentially face-to-face with the aggrieved. In the solitary consumption of formal academic writing, meanwhile, there is nothing but "agonized silence" and, probably, a squirm or two to boot. This is simply part of the readerly deal, and it is easier to accept when the only available recourse is itself a written one1; less so otherwise.

That being as it is, these assertions are actually quite central to Mumford's larger thesis, to his view that the metaphysics of machine usage are settled fact to a degree that the artists in the room may well find, in a word, unartistic, and this no matter their metiers. His is just about as hard and fast a definition of art as is ever put forward either in person or in print, so much so that there can be only "a possibility of art," not a certainty of it, inhering in any given technical medium. Arthood is not (or not entirely) in the subjective eye of the beholder but rather (also) can be objectively deduced from the evidenced relationship between human creator and technical intermediary. If I were a photographer in the audience, the possibility of inclusion under such a strict rubric would not be all that comforting. Nor would the implication that photographs which are "soft and misty and impressionistic" are, as a rule, something less than fully artistic or aesthetic. The overriding need or desire for early photographers "to justify their productions as art" at a time when such status was not yet firmly established furnishes Mumford with a handy example, but it simultaneously evinces a massive confounding factor vis-a-vis the argument he uses it to support. Presumably having judged such works aesthetic failures, he points to the fact that they work against rather than with the designed purpose of the camera. This is solid correlation which is nonetheless still a long way from causation; to take one for the other is to betray the presence of an underlying primary judgment which is far less rational than a fully-rationalized functionalist regime permits.

Further yet, in staking this argument to the concept of narrow channeling, Mumford risks contradicting his earlier assertion that "material and process play this [limiting] part everywhere." If that is so, then what is the significance of degree therein? Can our perception of these degrees of limitation ever be objective and reliable, or is it itself perspective-bound and ephemeral? Is the artistic leeway permitted by machine art truly narrower than in the fine and performing arts, or is its narrowness simply harder to ignore once machines become involved?

As always, the possibility of a global, prescriptive definition of art is rhetorically useful only up to the point where it must be fleshed out; for pragmatic purposes it is at that point elided by instead settling for the inscription of sub-categories within it rather than boundaries around it. This is somewhat less-than-explicit in the text but seems to me nonetheless an unavoidable takeaway. "If there is such leeway [for choice and initiative on the part of the Technician], there is a possibility of art, that is of success or failure in terms that would have significance to the beholder." Ostensibly this question of "success or failure" and that of "significance" would mark the common ground between so-called machine art and all other kinds of art, simultaneously becoming a rather strict prescription for all against which all cannot possibly stack up equally. Crucially, then, material differences among arts determine the ease with which their artifacts may meet this standard, the methods which are available to do so, and the likelihood of successful reception by an audience. Complete automation and wholecloth creation stake out the opposite poles of this continuum, along which various art forms and traditions can be placed. The "possibility of art" is somewhat broader than the possibilities of expression or communication; but wherever expression and communication are the functional mandates of art, the boundaries begin to close in rather precipitously.

Mumford is thus favorably disposed toward machine arts only insofar as they conform to his prescriptions, those being narrow enough so as to create, ultimately, a taxonomy whereby machine arts play by entirely different rules than do the fine and performing arts. Rhetorically at least, the latter lie towards an opposite pole which could be represented by any of a few wholecloth, "handicraft" archetypes: the lump of clay, the blank canvas, the silence before a musical performance; in other words, by voids, real or perceived, material or intellectual, from which artworks are brought into being, and where the Technics of this process are elementary enough that the Art side of his cosmic duality cannot help but predominate for sheer lack of resistance. The maker of machines faces up to this same void, but not so the end user: this is a void of agency as well as material which, once it has been filled, is not so easy to selectively rearrange without simply emptying it entirely and starting over. This is because in machine art, beginnings determine middles and endings, and path dependency carries the day. A whole array of "choice, freedom, esthetic evaluation, [is] transferred from the process as a whole...to the initial stage of design" (82), that is, to the maker and away from the end user. The maker thus gives the end user just barely enough rope to hang themselves, "leeway" which can be consummated as the freedom to specialize in Art with minimum Technical toil, or as the abdication of Art in mere undirected, sub-Artistic Play. Hence a fork in the road of absolute morality: to have "the right amount of the right quality in the right time and the right place for the right purpose" (110), or to have too much of everything all at once, or to have nothing at all; to sit quietly during the Marshmallow Test, or to devour the morsel at first sight, or to refuse to eat it when ultimately offered.

The same disparity of agency between wholecloth and prefabricated creation of course applies to immaterial inheritances too: to culture-bound conventions and processes, to ideas and ideologies, and certainly, in my own bailiwick, to the established uses of musical machines which themselves define "the small area where the play of the human personality remains free" for even the most creative, expressive or communicative instrumentalists. Even the humble lump of clay has, as its proverb-ization indicates, quite a weight of precedent and convention attached to it, as well as material limitations which I must imagine only seem simple to those who have never had to wrestle with them. This is quite a lot for the artist-technician to take account of as they seek a mediation between the inner and outer world; or, if you prefer, for the naive artist to manage to remain ignorant of lest they see their individuality incinerated in the pyre of received convention. In either case, clearly the old lump presents in a phase where, by Mumford's logic, the available extent of "choice and evaluation" is as great as it can ever be in the mediums of pottery and sculpture. Machines can be used to realize such choices as are subsequently made, but machines cannot be held responsible for them; responsibility is, for better or worse, a human burden, as any frustrated tech support worker will tell you. Certainly there are unique limitations, conventions, perceptions, politics and meanings at play in truly hand-made materials and processes, meaningful differences from works which are more fully machine-aided, where the role of the machine so inheres in the fabric of the work that there is, literally, no use pretending it is not there. But are these differences truly determined by the width or narrowness of expressive boundaries? Or, are we merely better able to see, hear and feel boundaries imposed by machines than we are to perceive those limitations which live inside of us, which inhere in intellectual inheritances we have never sufficiently questioned, which we can scarcely perceive because they have always been there, which are ineluctable laws of "nature," or which are imposed on us unwittingly and without our consent in myriad aspects of "nurture?"

I'm skeptical that degrees of limitation can be meaningfully distinguished when the object of said limitations (the degree to which the human personality roams free) is itself so ephemeral as to be difficult to codify or quantify. But I do think it is informative that the subset of the arts defined by the central role of well-developed machines (represented here by photography and printing) would be thought to confine expressive potential more tightly than those which involve less complex, more transparent technical ingredients (say lumps of clay, plucked strings, or buckets of paint). This Perception may well be incorrect, and it may have become Reality nonetheless. For Mumford, under a machine-imposed regime, such expression as is possible results in, "a differentiation so delicate, so subtle, that a coarse eye would hardly take it in and an insensitive spirit would not know what it meant," this as a direct consequence of the narrowness of the leeway permitted by the machine. Hence a double bind: are both machine precision itself and the general automation of artisanal gruntwork not constructs which appeal specifically to the coarse and the insensitive? Indeed, if this were not the case, then what would be be the point of taking such lengths to counterpoint the narrative of unbroken progress through Technics? If the basis for individual ability and affinity in the "machine arts" was a quality which consummates these arts rather than one which debases them, then would the arc of progress not be more steady and less jagged than Mumford elsewhere suggests it has been? Is the superficial appeal of machine precision not in and of itself the reason why ideal functionalist machine use is the exception and not the rule?

1. The radical empiricists among us badly underrate this aspect of formal academic discourse and its potential, especially now, to elide much of the social friction which inheres in face-to-face interaction. With as much attention as the issue of implicit bias has recently attracted, it is remarkable to me that anyone could consider the failings of abstraction, disinterest, and secondary sourcing to be the greater evil. At the risk of trivializing the issue of implicit bias, I would say that it is a luxury to so much as be able to stop and consider it: we are ruled by explicit biases and by the lizard-brain to an extent that makes all face-to-face interaction risky, with worst-case scenarios in play which are far more severe than being passed over for a job interview.

The possibilities for resolving epistemic conflict face-to-face have always been extremely limited, which is why the academic ideal has evolved to so severely restrict not just the personality but the entire social brain. It is one thing to complain that this paradigm is no fun, quite another to take a hard line for empiricism as against rationalism. Similarly, even as the academic conceit to objectivity has been ruthlessly problematized from an epistemological angle, as a mere conceit it has at least delivered conventions which are quite useful as blinding tools. This is worth keeping in mind as ever-clumsier blinding tools are resorted to in other social arenas. The lizard brain doesn't like to see the productions of the higher cortices forcibly blinded; rather, it wants due credit for them on its own terms; and so at that point it falls to other regions of those higher cortices to intervene.

And so, a thought for campaign season: is the staged debate not first and foremost about the contestants and only distantly secondarily about the question(s) at hand? When the question is actually important, there is a lot to be said for eliminating affect from discourse; it wouldn't hurt to eliminate self-listening, interrupting, and performing too. It is certainly too bad that fewer people will read most academic journal articles than can fit into a booth at the local micropub, but nor does it make any sense to expect superhuman degrees of impartiality and colorblindness in any face-to-face social contact. Wherever the discourse turns fraught, proceeding in writing and out of view of each other has clear benefits: it forces us to take turns, to restrain our affect, and most of all, to think twice or thrice about what we are about to say. That potential is not to be taken lightly.

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.