29 October 2021

Bodies and Artifacts (interlude)—Freud's Body-Ego

The Ego and the Id (orig. 1923)
trans. Joan Riviere, ed. James Strachey

I think we shall gain a great deal by following the suggestion of a writer who, from personal motives, vainly asserts that he has nothing to do with the rigours of pure science. I am speaking of Georg Groddeck, who is never tired of insisting that what we call our ego behaves essentially passively in life, and that, as he expresses it, we are 'lived' by unknown and uncontrollable forces. We have all had impressions of the same kind, even though they may not have overwhelmed us to the exclusion of all others, and we need feel no hesitation in finding a place for Groddeck's discovery in the structure of science. I propose to take it into account by calling the entity which starts out from the system Pcpt. and begins by being Pcs. the 'ego', and by following Groddeck in calling the other part of the mind, into which this entity extends and which behaves as though it were Ucs., the 'id'.

... We shall now look upon an individual as a psychical id, unknown and unconscious, upon whose surface rests the ego, developed from its nucleus the Pcpt. system. If we make an effort to represent this pictorially, we may add that the ego does not completely envelop the id, but only does so to the extent to which the system Pcpt. forms its [the ego's] surface... The ego is not sharply separated from the id; its lower portion merges into it.

But the repressed merges into the id as well, and is merely a part of it. The repressed is only cut off sharply from the ego by the resistances of repression; it can communicate with the ego through the id. We at once realize that almost all the lines of demarcation we have drawn at the instigation of pathology relate only to the superficial strata of the mental apparatus—the only ones known to us. ...

We might add, perhaps, that the ego wears a 'cap of hearing'—on one side only, as we learn from cerebral anatomy. It might be said to wear it awry.

28 October 2021

Bodies and Artifacts (iii)—Jones' Voice

LeRoi Jones
Blues People (1963)
For a Westerner to say that the Wagnerian tenor's voice is "better" than the African singer's or the blues singer's is analogous to a non-Westerner disparaging Beethoven's Ninth Symphony because it wasn't improvised.
(p. 30)
So what if a Westerner says this about Beethoven? What if a small but vocal subculture emerges within the Western world itself where this disparagement of Beethoven is nothing less than the storefront signage, the secret handshake, and the honor code all rolled into one? What if several such subcultures emerge independently, and what if they have little else in common among them besides this?

What tf then?

The Western concept of the cultivation of the voice is foreign to African or Afro-American music. In the West, only the artifact can be beautiful, mere expression cannot be thought to be. It is only in the twentieth century that Western art has moved away from this concept and toward the non-Western modes of art-making, but the principle of the beautiful thing as opposed to the natural thing still makes itself felt. The tendency of white jazz musicians to play "softer" or with "cleaner, rounder tones" than their Negro counterparts is, I think, an insistence on the same Western artifact. Thus an alto saxophonist like Paul Desmond, who is white, produces a sound on his instrument that can almost be called legitimate, or classical, and the finest Negro alto saxophonist, Charlie Parker, produced a sound on the same instrument that was called by some "raucous and uncultivated." But Parker's sound was meant to be both those adjectives. Again, reference determines value. Parker also would literally imitate the human voice with his cries, swoops, squawks, and slurs, while Desmond always insists he is playing an instrument, that it is an artifact separate from himself. Parker did not admit that there was any separation between himself and the agent he had chosen as his means of self-expression.
(pp. 30-31)

27 October 2021

Bodies and Artifacts (ii)—Partch's Corporeality

Harry Partch
Genesis of a Music (1974, orig. 1949)

For the essentially vocal and verbal music of the individual—a Monophonic concept—the word Corporeal may be used, since it is a music that is vital to a time and place, a here and now.
(p. 8)
Hmm. I thought corporeal meant something like "relating to a person's body, especially as opposed to their spirit." (-Google)
The epic chant is an example, but the term could be applied with equal propriety to almost any other important ancient and near-ancient cultures—the Chinese, Greek, Arabian, Indian, in all of which music was allied with poetry or the dance. Corporeal music is emotionally "tactile."
So, as regards emotions, this music is "of or connected with the sense of touch?" (-Google again) That's pretty weird, because we feel emotions but we can't actually touch them. Also, some people are known to feel emotions apart from poetry or the dance.
It does not grow from the root of "pure form." It cannot be characterized as either mental or spiritual.
Yep, that's what google says.
The word Abstract, on the other hand, may be used to denote a mass expression, in its highest application, the spirits of all united into one and transported into a realm of unreality, neither here nor now, but transcending both.
Already Harry is kicking the cigarette machine, or perhaps just stuffing strawmen. None of these presences (mass, highest, united, transported, unreality) follow necessarily from the mere absence of corporeality.

26 October 2021

Bodies and Artifacts (i)—Sennett's Graffiti

Richard Sennett
The Conscience of the Eye (1990)

I often saw this graffiti [of the New York subways] in my mind's eye when I listened to my son play the violin. The Suzuki violin method teaches a child to play music before he or she knows the names of the notes; the method stresses beauty of tone and expression from the first lesson. When a pupil first begins the violin in the Suzuki method, the teacher therefore performs a generous act. On the neck of the violin the teacher tapes down two little strips of blue plastic, so that the student knows exactly where to place his or her first, second, or third fingers... The beginner is thus spared that excruciating experience of playing sour, out-of-tune notes. By converting the violin into something like a guitar, the teacher makes the student the gift of pitch.

At first the student accepts this gift without reservation. You put your fingers down exactly where the tapes are and that's that—you've solved the problem of pitch. In this early stage one of the tapes on my son's violin once came off by accident; he asked me to fix the instrument so that he could play again. I suggested, with the parent's knowing, infuriating helpfulness, that he find instead where the finger goes by listening to the sound it makes. This proposal would have robbed my son, however, of the certainty with which he began.

As the lessons went forward he learned more and more to listen to how he sounded, and in the process those little bits of tape began to annoy him too. There was the day that he learned that the violin, made of natural materials, changes its tone according to the temperature and humidity of the weather; some days the blue plastic bands were accurate guides, other days not. Then he learned that the same note has different shades, depending on the key in which it appears. Perhaps his most decisive experience in using these tapes was the month in which he found out how to create vibrato on a string. ... As he moved through each of these stages, hearing more, the plastic tape seemed an arbitrary answer, precluding the ear's discoveries. About a year after he began, he removed the plastic tape with which I once refused to "fix" the violin.

Such progress on the violin is what musicians call learning to listen with a third ear. It can be described more philosophically: the student learns there is a correlation between concreteness and uncertainty. In music concreteness means the student hears as if he or she were listening to another person playing; one's playing then becomes a tangible thing to be studied. Uncertainty means, in music, that the more the student can hear himself or herself in this way, the less satisfying musically are gestures that are at first easiest for the hand. My son, once he began to listen with a third ear, experimented with holding his left hand in odd postures that produce sour notes under some conditions and sweet notes under others; when he conducted these experiments on his left hand he was less concerned with problem-solving than with problematizing.

It was, as I say, as my secretarial self wandered over the relation of the concrete and the uncertain in music during those scrapings necessarily attendant upon executing "Twinkle, Twinkle Litle Star," that the graffiti of the subway appeared in my mind. The metal subway walls or the brick walls of buildings had no inherent character for those who sprayed them; these were planes to write over, whereas my son was learning to explore things for their own properties. But the exploration of his materials had a disturbing result. What made him engage even more concretely with them was uncertainty about how to draw sound out of a wooden box fitted with strings. This education was turning him outward, to judge his own expression, orienting his senses to results rather than intentions. It was an education in the "it," whereas the children making graffiti knew only the declarations of the "I." To speak of making things in an exposed condition...is to talk about creating uncertainty and possibility in a thing. An untaped violin makes, in Hickeringill's diction, discoveries to its player. And there is a virtue to making something as an exposed, uncertain "it" rather than a declarative "I": the violinist became more critical of the quality of the expression than the graffitist, for he could judge the sounds as things in themselves.

Our culture puts a great value on concreteness, at the expense of abstraction. ... The emphasis on making things concrete is a reflection of the value modern culture puts on objects—objects endowed with solidity and integrity. ... The uncertain seems to belong in the domain of insubstantial hesitation and tender-hearted, inward subjectivity. But toleration of uncertainty is as much a part of scientific investigation as of artistic creativity. A scientist who proceeds methodically from one self-evident fact to the next discovers nothing. ... Focusing on the concrete is satisfied by discoveries which reveal the unexpected and the problematic. It is in this sense that there is a correlation between concreteness and uncertainty.

Power enters into this correlation. The implication in a Miesian, sublime object is of domination by the maker over the eyes of those who passively appreciate his or her creations, whereas a more uncertain object should invite reciprocal intervention. Graffiti on a New York street reflects this power relationship: the walls of the "I" dominate others who had no choice in their making, who cannot participate in their form, who can only submit to them—though with no awe. The graffitist repeats over and over again his "I"...he confirms his sign. This "I" establishes an aggressive rather than an exploratory relation to the environment.

(pp. 207-209)

25 October 2021

When More Is Less

E.O. Wilson
The explanation for the rarity of great beauty may be (and I continue to speculate) the behavioral phenomenon known as the supernormal stimulus. Widespread among animal species, it is the preference during communication for signals that exaggerate the norms even if they rarely if ever occur in nature.
e.g. Male butterflies who can be more attracted to mechanical replicas
that have the biggest, brightest, and most rapidly moving wings
than to actual females.
Males [of this species] appear to have evolved to prefer the strongest expression of certain stimuli they encounter, with no upper limit. The phenomenon is widespread in the animal kindgom.
(p. 231)
Maybe this explains the rarity of great beauty. Or maybe it's a warning to all of us in the animal kingdom that we had better hang onto at least the vestiges of medieval asceticism, by way of which certain upper limits are constructively established. Otherwise we'll end up eating and fucking plastic replicas, and thinking we've done well this way.

23 October 2021

Stephenson, PTMC—Postulates

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

1. Play is distinguishable from work.
Play is disinterested, self-sufficient, an interlude from work. It brings no material gain. (Prizes are for show; amateurs play for fun, professionals for money.)
Work is not disinterested, is not an interlude in the day for most people. It produces goods, services or ideas, etc., by application of effort for a purpose.

2. Much work and play is subject to social control, and some, instead, is a matter of convergent selectivity.
Social control is the way in which cultures function from the standpoint of involuntary, categorical imperatives. (It is said that everyone must work, that idleness is sinful, that work is a duty and one's salvation, and so on.) Social control induces conformity, consensus, and established custom or is an outcome of such cultural conditions.
Convergent selectivity is relative freedom from social control, tending toward individuality of choice in behavior. The behavior is more voluntary. Convergencies may be chaotic, as in a gold rush; or they may be ecstatic, as in mountain-climbing. All are directed toward individuality and self-existence.

3. Work and play which are subject to social control are supported by inner belief systems, that is, latent or inner beliefs of individuals, formed by childish introjections and early internalizations in primary group (home) situations. One's religious, political, economic, and other important values and beliefs are fixed early in life and are thereafter largely immutable.
Conditions of convergent selectivity are of a more superficial nature and concern fads, manners, fashions, taste, and the like. Moral and ethical sanctions are largely bypassed, no issues are involved, no deep controversies, but only more or less acceptable difference in taste or minor matters of opinion.

4. Public opinion is subject to social control; advertising, drama, art, and so on involve convergent selectivity.

5. The self is differently involved in conditions of social control and convergent selectivity. I distinguish self from ego. The former is overtly attitudinal, and the latter a matter of mental structure.
Self-attitudes are developed largely in interactions under social control. (The boy who wins a prize at school adds to his self-stature thereby, and almost all that we are in selfhood respects is given to us in relation to social controls.) But the self so put upon us is to a degree false—a façade only. The person has to be what custom or status demands of him.
Convergent selectivity is an opportunity for the individual to exist for himself. Such existence is experienced as enjoyment, contentment, serenity, or the like. Certain free aspects of self are possible outcomes of convergent play.
The mass media, plays, art, and the theater generally offer opportunities for convergent selectivity. The self so involved is enhanced. There is an increase of self-awareness—typical, for example, of the mountain climber. There is no gain in social or material respects but much gain in one's self-existence.


7. Ordinary life would be impossible without communication, in school, church, business, on the farm, and so on. ... It is important, however, to distinguish between that part of communication supporting social control and that part of it offering opportunities to convergent selectivity.
... Communication in conditions of social control is a "mover" in national and individual development: it informs a nation of its work, its five-year plans; it teaches literacy and technology; it develops industry and extends markets. Further, it is involved in all urbanization, industrialization, and educational growth.
Mass communication, literature, drama, and the like serve instead for sociability and self-existence. These are vehicles for communication-pleasure—directly in the enjoyment they enjoin, and indirectly in the social conversations they support.

8. Convergent communication, being communication-pleasure, serves mainly as a "fill" in mass communication. The "important" communication concerns social control matters. The "fill" serves to maintain status quo position, since it serves no "work" purposes. It pleases, entertains, and projects fashions and fads. It is basically aesthetical, and amoral, a-ethical. Its function is not to relieve anxieties but to increase the sum total of self-existing possibilites.
(The "human interest slant" given to popular "news" put the reader in the position of a confidant, reflecting inner-experience, inducing reverie about himself and so on—all pointed toward more existence for oneself.)

9. Culture develops in play, and play enters into social control and convergent selectivity situations alike. But the play in religious practices, the armed forces, the law courts, in diplomacy, professional practices, is always more or less subject to internalized belief systems; deeply held values, loyalties, needs, and ethical matters are everywhere evident.
The play in convergent selective situations is at best indifferent to such values, needs, and beliefs.

10. There are correspondences between social character and social control and convergency. Traditional and inner-directed forms of social character, such as Riesman describes, are formed in relation to social controls. Other-direction, instead is fashioned more by convergent selectivity; it is characterized by communication-pleasure.

11. The mass media, in much that pertains to social control as well as convergent selectivity, do not communicate truth or reality but only a semblance of it—of a fictional, representational, or charismatic character. Reaching the truth is a matter for science, technology, reason, and work. Charisma, imagery, and fiction are characteristic of convergencies.
But this is not to be despised. On the contrary, reality is so complex that its symbolical representation is essential to give it meanings that ordinary people can appreciate. Politics is conversation about freedom, democracy, liberty...issues which need bear little relation to ongoing real conditions or legislative actions. But all these can be good fun, that is, good communication-pleasure.
(pp. 192-195)

What is a bit bizarre about all of this, despite Stephenson having prefaced it with seemingly every available caveat, is that it seems not so simple to really draw the line between communication-as-mover and communication-as-fill. Or, perhaps it is not possible to draw this distinction generally, but it is (potentially) possible to draw it with respect to particular individuals, and just maybe groups too, based on their apperceptive profiles, i.e. what they are apt to notice and what they are apt to ignore.

That being as it is, who could deny that music education now takes place almost exclusively in contexts
supporting social control
The final victory of access over elitism cannot be merely to carve out a place for the arts in amongst the elite social control mechanisms.

Rather, arts education must at some point take in the realm of
convergent selectivity
of the
serves no work purposes
which is
basically aesthetical, and amoral, a-ethical
and most of all indeed, whose
function is not to relieve anxieties but to increase the sum total of self-existing possibilites

If Stephenson is so much as in the ballpark here, then one obvious implication of his theory is that the education system (the whole thing, not just music) is a social control mechanism through and through, one which was designed by and for the internalized belief systems of people who are long dead; this then would explain a good deal (not all) of its present dysfunction. Of course we have been hearing this for almost as long as there has been public education, and usually not from the most reliable or disinterested sources. But that doesn't mean it cannot be true now.

Where I personally really start to have trouble here is with the statement that
reality is so complex that its symbolical representation is essential to give it meanings that ordinary people can appreciate
First off, from the bird's eye view, the main reason that social reality is now too complex for even extra-ordinary people to grasp has nothing to do with media per se; rather, it is that we today suffer from towering edifices of, in Talebian terms, connectivity without responsiveness. When it is impossible to know the consequences of your actions, it is impossible to act ethically. Not even an ideal media can resolve this problem in its present complexity, and so media is ultimately just another sideshow to the far broader (ultimately broad) issue of recovering humane conditions of scale, materially and psychologically. (No, I'm not holding my breath.)

Moving to the level of national and regional institutions, and notwithstanding the above, I do think Stephenson underrates how the mass media intentionally withholds great swaths of reality which are in fact rather simple and easy-to-appreciate but which conflict, one way or another, with the media's commercial imperatives. If you've grown skeptical or numb in the face of such statements as this, Matt Taibbi's recent book Hate Inc. is worthy of your attention, even if he does gild the lily just a bit.

Finally, considered on the local and microsocial levels, the statement is really just a slightly dressed-up version of the lie that tells the truth trope which prevails in middlebrow literary circles, and as such is subject to all of the same critiques. (See this massive thread for a head start.)

Stephenson is correct that play is essential to a humane existence; but he does not adequately consider that playing with social reality is inherently distorting of that reality and that this cannot, no matter how much fun we have or how hard we try to be mindful about it, truly be free from ethical and moral ramifications. Playing with social reality is playing with fire. It's much safer to play with, say, artistic abstraction or low-stakes athletic competition. Perhaps Stephenson thought he was being pragmatic here. I would contend that such a statement is only truly pragmatic in service of elitism itself.

Stephenson's caveats:
None of these [postulates] is axiomatic. The postulates are not analytic propositions, capable of precise definition. All instead are synthetic complexes with excess meaning. Theorems or hypotheses cannot be derived from them in any logical order.
(p. 192)
Well, okay. But it's not too sporting to offer up such a detailed analysis while maintaining that none of it is axiomatic.

22 October 2021

Stephenson, PTMC—Work and Play and Work

William Stephenson
The Play Theory of Mass Communication
(1987 edition)
(orig. 1967)
The child at play, Freud writes, is like a poet; both "rearrange things" in their worlds "to suit them better." Both child and poet distinguish between the real world of painful emotions, frustrations, hurts, and obduracies, and the play world, where these real-world fears and hurts are transmuted into humor, pleasure, and delightful wish-fulfillment. Play is escape from what goes on painfully in the real world. That something of the kind occurs is certain. But Freud overlooked the other half of fantasy, which "rearranges" not only things but the self to suit itself better. The self may grow, develop, and restructure itself in daydreaming and fantasy. The emotions that we did not realize we were capable of, the very things that Freud set out to explain, are an intimation of a growing self, of rearranging within oneself, rather than transmogrifications of painful experiences. Freud saw only mental sickness in daydreaming. The child wants to feel "grown-up," and thus plays. The adult gives up such playing, he thinks, but may daydream instead. We all create fantasies, as long as we live; but, for Freud, the more "normal" we are the less daydreaming we do. I would rather say that the more we work and live by work, in Freud's inner-directed world, the less we have time for daydreams. But by the same token the development of self is likely to have stopped when we lose ourselves in work.
(pp. 200-201)
This is an odd turn near the end of the book. Suddenly Stephenson has performed the same historically-specific pigeonholing of
from which he has been seeking the whole time to liberate
Would it not be better put to say that truly
losing oneself
affords one much the same potential for
development of the self
as does the ideal of
subjective play
And by way of much the same process?

It seems to me that the anti-ideal of work to which Stephenson appeals here, to work as pure necessity imposed on the self from without by the dark forces of social control, this anti-ideal need not be accepted ipso facto, and indeed is not accepted now nearly as readily as it was in 1967. Work-as-pure-necessity sounds terrible, sometimes it is actually terrible, but it is still possible to lose yourself in it, to be constructively "rearranged" in and through work, whether or not the overall experience is pleasant or even tolerable. This, at least, has been one of my enduring takeaways from several stints in the security industry, and from inumerable musical engagements which had me pining for my old TSA job by the time they were through. I can't really manage pure play-escape either, though I suppose it's time to accept that I'm in the minority (while nonetheless holding out stubborn hope that this reflects a culturebound rather than an essential condition of humanity). The maintenance lady at the Resort who enviously tells us we're "working at playing" is not all wrong; and it is precisely this rare opportunity for balanced playwork which I so value about the job from which I've been furloughed for the past year and a half, much to the incomprehension of both co-workers and outside acquaintances who know just how individualistic and self-regarding I am.

Stephenson again:
No doubt all this can be projected upon the poem [Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock], metaphysical, Freudian, Marxian, and the rest. But I would agree instead...that the poem is largely unadulterated fun. ... The incident is trivial, but the human delight is enormous. ...

Instead of dull Marx, nasty Freud, or ponderous metaphysician, all dealing with problems in the real world, Pope gives us a poem to play with in the mind, with joy, wit, fun, delight, freedom...all in step in unalloyed fantasy.

This is subjective play, regarded as pure communication-pleasure. Pope wrote with no thought of hurt or gain...he was having fun, as a child has when it plays. If we are so minded, and so open to joy, reading the poem gives us the selfsame satisfactions. And this is the core of our theory.
(pp. 199-200)
So the poet was merely
having fun, as a child has when it plays
This commits precisely the fallacy Sennett warned against in his Debussy anecdote. It is as if the obvious speciousness of so many accreted interpretations has cowed the author into an equally severe overeaction in the other direction.

One can only hope that somewhere between the too-knowing interpreter and the blissfully ignorant child there is a whole world of what can only be called adult self-development, conspicuous by its absence here just as it is in most academic/educational settings.

From Sutton-Smith's introduction (1987):
We live in a world in which the economic distinction between play and work exercises its own evaluational coercion; where the scientific distinction between object and subject also exercises its epistemological coercion over the way we come to think about play. But, to the contrary, the movement of players in and out of play is often much more indistinct...
(p. xiii)

[Stephenson] would find little disagreement if he stated that the individual purpose in all of this is self-enhancement. There is not much power to the "explanation," however, since little is known about self enhancement. Stephenson does stress the importance of the player's freedom of choice in self-enhancement and that concept has become a salient twentieth-century way of defining a person at play: Play is something one does with freedom, or when one is moved by intrinsic motivation. This was also a major point made by Huizenga.

The problem with this stress on freedom of choice, however, is that it is also a culturally-relative reflex to our traditional distinction between work and play—assigning pain to the former and pleasure to the latter. ... Since the event of philosophical, political and poetic romanticism at the turn of the Nineteenth century, Western culture has idealized the freedom supposedly found in art and play... The contrary case would seek to show that although modern play is not usually seen as an obligation, its players are often coerced by their own addictions to the excitements of gambling and contests of a physical or intellectual nature. Inner compulsions may still exact what society may not longer require. None of this need deny that subjective play is what mass communication is about, though it does suggest that we need to modify Stephenson's defense of his position.
(pp. xiv-xv)

The most serious recent critique of Stephenson's work is simply a reiteration of the view that he overlooks the great extent to which the public is manipulated through the mass media, something of which he is quite aware. He does not suggest that this does not occur only that, even if it does, the populace is also engaged in mass communications for the purposes of its own play. It is a fact that those who are addicted to certain kinds of play are made vulnerable by their own enthusiasm... They are exploited...but they are still at play. Once we divorce play from the romanticism of free choice and idealistic notions of value, there is less need to see any contradiction between a player's addictions to his or her own excitements and the efforts of others to manipulate those needs for their own profit.
(p. xvi)

21 October 2021

Stephenson, PTMC—Building a Culture

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

Parts of this book are veritably littered with sigmas and derivatives, reflecting an avowed "preoccupation" with methodology. The layperson nonetheless can find their way into Stephenson's basic thesis rather easily by way of some of his own public opinion research, which he shares.

e.g. Senator McCarthy's approval rating was virtually unaffected by his censure.

e.g. In the U.S. Stephenson finds there are two completely contradictory definitions of "democracy" each of which perseveres in rather total ignorance of the other.

Tragically, as in so many such inquiries from this era of social science, the total political polarization of the 2010s is already fully visible, awaiting only the structural evolution which would enable it to ramify into full-blown feedback loops. It is already visible, and I think Mr. Methodology also explains it quite well.

Without having to deny that inner-direction has its roots in history the facts for other-direction suggest more immediate causal agencies. ... New Yorkers moving to California or Texas want to behave like everyone around them; they do so in terms of the trivia of modern consumer goods—cars, homes, dress, barbecue pits, swimming pools, and the rest—not out of any sense of shame but out of dissonance, followed by self-expansion, self-respect, and self-expression. They change their ways, and their social character follows suit. Whether their deeper value-systems fall in line as well is another matter; our own view is that it would be well to recognize that early internalizations remain untouched.
(p. 83)

In short, Stephenson proposes that
Inner-direction, as it is described by Riesman, is dependent upon inner beliefs, upon early internalizations which fix the person's character. ... Other-direction, instead, is much more in relation to mass communication—to what is "popular," to new experiences, to fads, and so on.
(p. 80)
And again,
There are some who look with an uneasy eye at these mass pleasures; behind them they see the lurkings of "hidden persuasion" and "tyranny over the mind"... Mankind, these critics feel, is being painlessly put to sleep... This, it seems to me, is a jaundiced view. I suggest, instead, that often it is the very beliefs that mass communication cannot change that keep mankind out of step with the times.
(p. 1)
I wonder if today we do not suffer much cognitive dissonance on this last point, despite the fact that this is exactly what we think we see when we look across to the other side of the present political divide. In any case, such a conclusion permits neither of the extreme positions on Media Effects to which we have become unhappily accustomed.

Advertising has been blamed for social effects that belong, instead, to the contrary principles of social control.
(p. 203)
...why television can sell soap but not, it seems, citizenship. The reason lies in the part played by mediating mechanisms in advertising; in between the advertisement on the one hand and the consumer who reads it there are the facilitating factors of supermarkets, shopping habits, and the ready availability of spending money which make it relatively easy for a consumer to be "sold" a new brand of soap. It is the absence of such mediating institutions that makes it very difficult for a society to "sell" citizenship.
(p. 204)
Or indeed, for band directors to sell practice.

When a new band teacher talks about building a culture within their program, they are talking about appealing to students' other-direction, i.e. appealing to the part of students that is susceptible to behavioral change. I suspect that even the humble high school band I passed through had several kids join up mostly to be with their friends; whereas to build a culture means kids practice because their friends practice. At that point, in theory, we are freed from the tyranny of the social control method. But this is not so easy to achieve. I think most band directors and even a majority of parents and administrators probably understand why, but few are willing to reckon with the loss of mediating mechanisms here, probably because the fact of such loss calls into question what is known, often pejoratively, as the relevance of high school band, of Mozart, of the bassoon, etc. And, if indeed we create what we need, then the fact that said mediating mechanisms have not been replaced probably means that most people's inner-direction can direct itself just fine without them. That is just reality. Add to this the fact that the usual extrinsic-benefit suspects are not exclusive to music, and you have a situation where music education can no longer be prescribed on universal grounds. Where it can be prescribed, though, is where its benefits are unique and exclusive to music; and so the task remains of exposing (ideally) all children to some version of music education, and then figuring out who really needs it.

In this latter task the lack of mediating mechanisms is no hinderance, and it might even be preferable. In these (admittedly rather stilted and academic) terms, one might observe that the reason most every kid in the 1993-94 Anwatin Middle School 6th grade beginning band was fired up to play saxophone or drums but tepid-to-frigid on all of the other options is due to the abundance of mediating mechanisms favoring the image (if not the reality) of the saxist or drummer, whereas the euphonium and the euphoniumist, e.g., enjoyed no such support.

This is too obvious of course, but it makes explicit the analogy I am attempting to salvage here, at which point various other observations Stephenson makes here could be illuminating for music educators in some less-obvious ways.

From Sutton-Smith's introduction (1987):
According to Stephenson the reader or the viewer of mass communication conducts a conversation with himself or uses his information for conversation with others. He participates in the community of gossip and value that is represented in the various media, and from all of this he gets a sense of self enhancement and improved morale. But his mind is constantly at work freely translating or transforming this material according to his personal predispositions. The play of his fantasy and his wishes are at work. This is an active and constructive constitution of the self. It is not just an escape, although it may be that as well.
(p. xiv)
I agree that this does happen. I don't see at all how we should simply assume that it is always happening, as Cultural Studies people seem to assume.
Unlike much of the rest of his work or ideological life, in this case the person is under less control. He can select the programs or the media he wishes or he can tune them out.
What if (s)he wants to create them?

More to the point, what if (s)he only ever wants to select and has no desire to create nor any awareness of the concept of creating and what distinguishes it from selecting? What if (s)he got through high school band without ever being asked to create, nor even to select for that matter? And/or what if (s)he subsequently believed (t)he(i)r 1980s-bred Cultural Studies professor that selecting and creating are morally and functionally equivalent and anyone who says they're not is a fascist? And, tragedy of tragedies, what if (s)he believed this precisely because it was consonant with so many early internalizations which are bound to remain untouched?

It seems to me, in such cases, and even in the face of the significant limitations already given, that it's time to get just slightly prescriptive, judgy, universalistic, etc., to go rather 1940s on shit vis-a-vis what this means for such people, why it could (potentially) mean badly for them individually, and why it (probably, and in either case) means worse for their social surroundings than it does for them. Per Stephenson, we cannot expect a social control regime to prevail here, and it would be well to recognize that early internalizations remain untouched by any such efforts. But if New Yorkers can get into grilling just by moving to Texas, maybe we can start by making high school band into a more Creative State. And maybe then we can at least do some good on behalf of the aforementioned social surroundings.

Jorn, modified: "Critique Selection is a secondary reaction to something primary which already exists. What one expresses through artistic creation is joy of life. Art is primary action in relation to the unknown."

(Tuning out would then be...tertiary? Now that is some thin ludic gruel indeed.)

14 October 2021

Sutton-Smith—Intro to Stephenson, PTMC

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

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

Is this perhaps
we describe only
what can be described


subjective play

is simply

not so accessible


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

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

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

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


is a fine proxy but hardly the only one.

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

observable behavior


functional value

have asserted a comparable tyranny over our efforts as well.

The final sentence above hones in on the corrective


some transformation takes place

clearly the involvement has not been merely



only where
no transformation is


is the interpretation
true passivity


Leaving aside the devil's advocate question as to whether

some transformation

necessarily equates to the very specific positive


which have been ascribed to arts education,

it nonetheless follows that:

in absence of *any*


in the student,

such (any?) benefits have not been reaped

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

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


while at work in their (literal or proverbial) laboratories

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


of any kind

not quite so opaque to the context-dependent


skills of
Practice-Led Researchers

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

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

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

You're going to learn why teachers drink.

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

observable behavior

and to finally access the glorious reality that music indeed engenders


in everything and everyone it touches

(and that these


are indeed of the positive variety).

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

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

you get out of it what you put into it

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

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

everyone has

a part of themselves

that is



a part

that is



12 October 2021

Two On-the-Spectrum Vignettes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 October 2021

So-Called Patterns in So-Called Jazz

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

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

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

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

The notions of the

appropriate occasion
and of the
slip[ping] into




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


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

And if we do

really want to,


one option among several


the oft-repeated social
(and/or musical)


05 October 2021

Heigh Ho, Pomo

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

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

(pp. 70-71)

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

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

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

04 October 2021

signals have meanings but stimuli need not

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


The meaning of a signal


the intended and agreed mental action
of that signal.

is bound up with

, so that

signals have meanings

, but

stimuli need not


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

meaning is reserved

for cases where

the action is intended


It would not make

much sense to allow

the sender


claim some meaning

to a signal


no recipient would be


of that meaning

, and so

meaning is restricted

to cases where

the recipient


the sender



what the intended action should be

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

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

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

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