23 October 2020

The Mind on Furlough

I am still furloughed and still on the public dole. It has been just over six months, and if it goes on for only another six that will hit the under for most people's bets. I have been tremendously productive in ways which probably don't count for much. The first thing that happened was that my apartment got very clean; now it is extremely messy, even by my standards. I stopped practicing on July 1 and have not yet resumed. Instead, I have torn through books and records, scrabble word lists and annotated games. I have given the life of the mind due regard. I would rather have my job back, but I also could never relate to those who found themselves "bored" or stir-crazy when the first lockdowns hit. Privately I already had enough on my plate for ten lifetimes, and much of it was going to require a lockdown of one sort or another anyway. Be careful what you wish for, I guess.

The immediate future is very uncertain, but I have become more preoccupied with the long-term. Specifically, I cannot fully repress the thought that as I have just begun to find full self-actualization in the cultivation of the mind, the efforts and the thrust of the wider world are all directed toward rendering the human mind obsolete. I am reminded of this by things as varied as: Quackle simulations (a Scrabble computer program which plays quite well but not infallibly, and which almost every serious player now uses to self-evaluate); a podcast about the uses which VR and game engines are finding far outside of their conventional bailiwicks; the need for constant rule tweaks just to keep pro sports entertaining now that minds real and virtual have been unleashed upon them, thus exploiting the existing rules so brashly and effectively that the "product" suffers; and of course, the LAX jetpack stories, which remind us of just how far behind schedule we have gotten in fulfilling bygone pop-technological prophecies.

We may still be a long way off from the singularity, but I don't know that we are all that far off from a world where all of the mind-based abilities I have so enjoyed cultivating are either superfluous, obsolete, or politically retrograde. Life will surely go on, but I will look awfully silly. Silly, and incapable, and certainly unnecessary. Because this relates to closely-held values and to identity, I do care what people think about me in this respect. What the man-without-god question was for my god-oriented forbears, so the man-without-mind question has become for me. Of course we did get some good philosophy and cantatas out of the old paradigm; the bygone prophets of doom would probably be surprised to know just how much mileage we've gotten out of these old things even without an imaginary friend to guide us. Yet these too are mind activities, which just makes the analogy more troubling, makes it harder to imagine that life will indeed just go on, because it has to, just like it had to when god (and the author close behind him) died or were killed.

Aside from a couple of college summers, I have never had so much time to devote to my own work. I have often found myself thinking even so that lack of brain has been a far greater obstacle than lack of time. There are days where I can find 9-letter words through disconnected tiles, and there are days when I can't keep my 3s straight. There are days when I can read for 12 hours and other days when I can barely focus for more than a few pages. As for my former work life, there were days on the ol' Metrolink where I could fully absorb a difficult book chapter and other days where I had to punt and aim for a much-needed nap. I have always been this way, regardless of what else is going on in my life. Where I am almost inhumanly consistent is that I wake up every day, regardless of how much brain I have, with a burning desire to progress, develop, actualize. Like my coworker's old Powerbook G4 which I coaxed into running Lubuntu, my own power module flashes the message "No Kernel Support," which means I eventually overheat and have to rest. This can be demoralizing. The occasional triumphs are gratifying. But they seem increasingly like triumphs which technology will soon render superfluous.

12 October 2020

Facts and Fancy

(from my Goodreads review of Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960 by Nicholas Sammond)

The overall posture and style of this study are so self-consciously disinterested and relativistic as to read like a caricature of postmodern academic writing. This pastiche has lost not merely its sense of humor but its sense of purpose too. The fear of letting a stray value judgment slip out seems to have stultified the author's analytical capabilities. And yet values per se are largely what the study is about. The superficial irony of this is plain enough, but I think it is more than ironic. It is at least mildly disingenuous. In some respects it is cowardly.

The disinterested empirical scholar is discouraged from bringing their own values into the mix because disinterested empiricism cannot, by its own inner logic, operate that way. This book stumbles its way into a subdiscipline where disinterested empiricism is thought to be especially de rigeur but where it is actually quite inadequate. Sammond repeatedly invokes something like "the dominant presence of members of the white, Protestant, progressive middle class in the study of childhood." (7) He repeatedly names and specifies these agents of institutionalized moralization, repeatedly inviting us to consider them by profession, race, and class. Their work, he tells us, was profoundly shaped by classbound values. The fact of classboundedness and the identity of the classes in question are unequivocally named and reiterated. But Sammond seldom names the values themselves, and when he does name them I found it difficult to conjure much righteous indignation.

I do not wish to suggest that there actually is a universal morality. That is not what I believe. I don't think you have to believe it, though, to trip up on the idea that "truthfulness" and "unselfishness" are "middle-class virtues" (85) which cannot be reasonably expected of other classes. To me that sounds a lot like, say, reading being a White thing. Sammond himself probably believes no such things, but he is not allowed to say so, because this is scholarship and mere opinions aren't worth anything. The hubris of progressive sociologists, on the other hand, is an objective fact which can be presented as such, for if there is no universal morality then all progressivism is just a stillborn moral fallacy. Even "truthfulness" cannot mooch a provisional exemption. Truthfulness!

Naturally, the chickens of relativism roost in the hencoop of hypocrisy. What are the moral implications of accommodating the actions of a dishonest or selfish poor person? Does this help them or hurt them? Is it justified merely by the fact that they are poor and you are rich? By the right to cultural self-determination? Liberty? Consequentialism? Echoing overzealous committees everywhere, Sammond could claim that these properly philosophical questions are beyond the scope of his social-scientific study. I agree that they threaten to explode any such study into an unwieldy interdisciplinary patchwork; but I would strongly disagree that they are, literally, outside his scope. His own methods have made these questions essential to his scope and he makes no effort to acknowledge or address this. Instead, the really important takeaway is that most of the reformers were white, Protestant, progressive, and middle-class, whereas not all of their objects were these same things. As it turns out, this is not quite worth writing a book about.

Reformers of any slant in any area of human endeavor are vulnerable to the charge that they have put forth their own values as universal ones. Without this fundamental arrogation there can be no collective social action of any kind. The mere fact of arrogation is endemic, background radiation to the perceptible heat and light of social and political life. The arrogation of reformers is not an urgent sociological issue. What is urgent, I think, and what could have been pursued more doggedly here, is a compelling chronicle of the dynamic interaction between values and institutions. Strictly speaking, the thesis that "discursive circuits constructed around and through media-effect arguments sell products and build careers" (360) does describe a dynamic process, but it begs a lot of questions too. My sense is that Sammond forbid himself as a matter of methodology from opining, judging or blaming, and that by proscribing these things he railroaded himself into a static account rather than a dynamic one. (When your first order of business is to name the race and religion of the principals, it's hard to say much of anything more without offending.)

I also am not convinced, either by this account or by others, that the interaction between the Disney Studio and the reformers Sammond identifies was truly dynamic until quite late in the period he covers. In amongst all of the imbrication and commodification, I noticed that the dates, types and sources of the documents he reproduces throughout the book support my skepticism. Concerned parents created the market and Disney, eventually, seized on it. But Disney already had an enormous market, and progressives had a lot of ideas which were oblique to Disney and to media generally. Following academic convention, Sammond takes a laser-focus on the tiny area of overlap. It turns out there is not nearly as much for him to write about as the length of the book would imply.

If you don't already know something about the reformers Sammond chronicles, you still won't have much of an idea of what their values actually were after reading his book. He detects that the progressives have unduly assumed at least one non-working, stay-at-home parent, a luxury which many working class and immigrant families didn't enjoy; and he points out that child labor has persisted in agriculture (and disproportionately among children of color) long after progressives had more or less succeeded in abolishing it for white children. These are sobering reminders for white, middle-class readers; they are nonetheless quite underwhelming in the role Sammond has carved out for them here, where the towering monoliths of American Sociology, Enterprise, and Entertainment have collided in a giant orgy of...what exactly?

"Truthfulness" and "unselfishness" arise in the discussion of Disney's Pinocchio. It is the natural film for Sammond to discuss, since its overbearing didactic moralism stands out even in the Disney oeuvre. Yet transparent texts can be difficult to handle, and Sammond breaks everything he touches. With so much threadbare symbolism sitting right on the surface (Stromboli is literally a puppetmaster), Sammond cannot possibly work his way back to "middle-class values" without committing an act of interpretation. He has previously been too vague about values, whereas this film is explicit about them. Sontag warned us about this: "to interpret is to impoverish." Disinterested empiricism has taken him as far as it can, and now it is his turn to recapitulate in reverse the error of media effects crusaders by projecting upon the text the social location of those most eager to consume it. Consumer eagerness now engulfs the text from without, metastasizing into its organs of content and meaning. Suddenly it is not Edward Filene or Walt Disney but Sammond himself who has elevated consumption to a moral value! Buy a film and you become its content! And its content you! It's cheaper than the naming rights to a distant star or atoll! Hence a fleeting indulgence in armchair criticism is the precise moment when things go off the rails for good, whereby "truthfulness" becomes "middle-class," whereby poor people's untruthfulness is locked away in the black box of cultural self-determination, whereby Pinocchio cannot reflect the values of a solitary poor person unless all of the other poor people are also lining up to view it. Not just a filmic text is impoverished this way but also the "virtue" of everyone who is not "middle-class." That is quite an accomplishment.

I'm not a critic or a sociologist, but I feel like there has to be a better way to go about this. Fromm defined ideologies as "socially patterned rationalizations." Say we take those three concepts, pair them into three dyads, and then study each dyadic nexus; each one generates a limited but salient field of material which is relevant to our topic, and also a sprawling field of extradisciplinary connections. Given the organic limits of human cognition and the profusion of published research, each of the outward-facing fields is functionally unbounded; but they are perfectly finite in number (there are three of them), and this makes it possible at least to momentarily stare into each abyss and admire what makes it unique from the others and from the original topic. Then we return to the inside, reassemble the triad, and look for the triadic nexus. A geometric analogy to planes, dimensions and wormholes suggests itself. This is just silly stuff I think about, but it seems to me that this book has done none of this nor anything remotely resembling it. It is not even a one-dimensional sociology, because it has not even the first prerequisite for the dimensionalization of sociological thought, namely a sentient authorial being. The strict repression of authorial slant in this area of scholarship is quite ironic given one of Sammond's key takeaways from the inconclusiveness of Media Effects research: even children do not simply swallow whole everything they are told or exposed to. I think we can assume this of readers of scholarly publications as well. A profusion of value-oriented scholarship could actually be the best way to achieve the "parallactic" ideal that some postmodernists have put forth, whereby observation from a variety of angles permits a clearer view than any single one of them can alone. The first step towards that ideal is not to give up on fixed moral positions but rather to stake them out. A moral position can be the second point which defines a line of inquiry. This poses methodological challenges, to be sure, but there is a payoff for surmounting those challenges, a payoff with which studies like Sammond's cannot compete. Fromm and Maccoby made a blind stab in this direction which is simultaneously comical and profound: they constructed numerical scales of psychoanalytically-defined traits by which to measure the Mexican villagers they studied, they took the measurements (basically they made them up), and they performed some conventional statistical analysis of these figures to look for Results. To a self-loathing postmodernist this looks like pure arbitrary slant, the methodological equivalent of intentionally exceeding the speed limit at first sight of a cop. My contention is that if hundreds or thousands of diverse minds were to construct their own numerical scales and take their own "measurements," the aggregated results would be as meaningful as the minds are diverse. (This diversity would need to be more than skin-deep.) Against this backdrop, Sammond's approach looks like another fruitless search for perfect objectivity, distance, disinterest. If the slant is always there anyway, we might as well turn it to our advantage.

At great semantic and rhetorical pains, Sammond does eventually work his way around to some interesting big-picture theses about commodities and the social construction of childhood. For reformers and parents alike, the erroneous belief in strong media effects
"smoothes over some unpleasant contradictions in the construction of personhood and identity in democratic capitalist society. Quite simply: the child as susceptible to commodities stands in for the child as commodity-in-the-making...[whereby] persons must be simultaneously and impossibly unique individuals and known quantities." (360)
Ay, that's the stuff! But by this time the sins of omission are piled high, reflected in the endnotes by a veritable profusion of beyond-the-scope apologias which I literally lost count of. I'm reasonably sure I have never seen so many in one place, actually, and I think that is a singularly meaningful reflection on the nexus of topic and method here.

09 October 2020

City Living

"By and large working artists seek privacy and anonymity. But they also require exposure to all sides of life. These two benefits are available jointly only in the city. For artists solitude is not a vacuum, empty and meaningless. Isolating oneself in the country is contrary to experiencing and feeling the realities of the human condition, as beautiful as the country might be. Though it sounds contradictory, isolation in the midst of hyperactivity paradoxically means a chance to create one's own beauty, or to react against one's own choice of exposures; a little understood phenomenon among nonartists."
Robert Perine
Chouinard: An Art Vision Betrayed

31 May 2020

Three Views on Competition


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.


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?


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."

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)

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."