08 June 2021

B.W'd.Y.G addendum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

07 June 2021

McLuhan—Mass as Simultaneity, Simultaneity as Fragility

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

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

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

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

06 June 2021

McLuhan—The Great Withholding

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

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

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

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

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

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

05 June 2021

McLuhan—Kicking the Cigarette Machine

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

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

Kicking the Cigarette Machine
MUST enter the lexicon!


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

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

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

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

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

All of that being as it is...

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

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

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

04 June 2021

Bro, where'd ya go?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Business Extending Peacefully

The Illusion, The Understanding

Exchange Value Destroys Use Value

The Truth About Tuxedos

Large Fry, Small Fry

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

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

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

Capitulate Before the Superior Power / Purchase Spiritual Peace

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

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

The Younger Generation, Rowing for the Older Generation

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

This is also awesome.

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

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

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

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

Part 1

Part 2

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

Also of this variety, re: judging competitions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Abstract comics!!

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

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


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

03 June 2021

[sc]airquotes (viii)—The Determinist Connexion

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

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

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

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

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

of a work of art on any particular recipient


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

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

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

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

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

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

certain orderly and analyzable average properties

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

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

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

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


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

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

02 June 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A more fitting credo:

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

01 June 2021

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

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

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

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


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