Saturday, September 23, 2017

links for the weekend on the subject of mother! film critics discuss what it's an allegory about, if it is an allegory, and whether Aronofsky's invocation of biblical tropes works or constitutes incompetent cultural appropriation without calling it that

One of the real joys of reading arts criticism is that it can save you the trouble of going out and seeing or hearing things yourself that you're not sure you have the time or money you want to spare for thing X or experience Y.  This is not supposed to be the purpose of criticism if you were to talk amongst cinaphiles but it is one of the very real practical purposes of film criticism. And thus film criticism serves the role of explicating or not explicating Aronofsky's recent film.  But first a prelude in the form of a musing at Slate about how major film festivals may be creating a hype problem for film in general by having people lavish praise on films at the festival level that tank at the box office or maybe even tank at the box office and get embroiled in controversies. 

I'm the sort who believes in spoiling pretty much everything about a film.  The way I see it, if a film can't withstand a spoilerific review then the film is ultimately probably not worth the time.  So if you don't want the new Aronofsky film spoiled don't read the rest of this links-for-the-weekend post.
The way films are received at major festivals, most of which date back to the 1960s and ’70s (Venice, one of the oldest, celebrated its 74th anniversary this year), dictates how independent and prestige titles will be positioned for the rest of the year. That positioning will then influence the Oscars, which govern in turn the types of films that get made and celebrated. While most big film festivals are built on good intentions, the atmosphere around them has become oddly reductive. The same tightly knit group of critics gushes over the same dozen or so films, while ignoring movies that have no star power or a guarantee of later wide release. Sometimes this hype fails spectacularly: The Birth of a Nation was met at Sundance with standing ovations, only to wind up generating more controversy than box office dollars or awards nominations. [emphasis added] And for every wave of breathless hype, there are strong films that fall through the cracks, either because their premise is unsexy or the performances are workmanlike. A United Kingdom, a superior historical drama about race relations, arrived in theaters without much fanfare months after its Toronto premiere. It was too straightforward and understated to leave a mark in a festival environment where strong impressions are everything.
Telluride, Venice, and Toronto are the most egregious offenders of a culture that values hype over quality. Summer blockbusters needn’t rely on effusive praise to drum up hype, but festival attendees suggest that medium-sized films practically depend on them. The trailer for La La Land, which screened at Venice, Telluride, and Toronto, informed us that it was "A Musical Masterpiece," "Soaring and gorgeous," and that "They don't make movies like this anymore." You have to wonder if those critics blush at those quotes now, especially after the multiple backlashes that followed the movie’s anointment as a presumptive Best Picture winner. The reverse effect—an overhyped movie that turns out to be a fiasco—is even more maddening. There were breathless reports about Ben Wheatley’s violent action comedy Free Fire after its premiere at Toronto in 2016, and it ended up being one of the dullest, most meandering films of 2017. The theatrical reviews of The Beguiled roundly criticized Sofia Coppola’s decision to excise a female slave from the original novel—something the glowing reviews out of its Cannes premiere rarely saw fit to mention.

With La-La Land there were the controversies about the "mansplaining" of jazz and a few other things, but since I generally make a point of never watching fictional narratives in film that purport in any way to be about music I never bothered to watch the film.  I don't plan to catch mother! either.

But ... it's interesting to read about the film, particularly since one of the pieces about it has proposed that it's symptomatic of a potential problem in criticism these days, "explainer culture".
With the release of mother!, though, I fear that we find ourselves at a crossroads. Here stands a movie that revels in its allegorical power, a film that laughs at single-minded interpretation and objective truth. Why, then, are we scrambling to explain it to people? Why are people scrambling to have it explained? Are we now to a point where we have begun to reject the notion of art being different things to different people? Has the death of the author led not to the embracing of personal points of view but rather the birth of the explainer?

These are reasonable questions given the speed with which these articles hit the web. A person who saw mother! on opening weekend already had options for where to turn for an explanation of the film. They could go to Collider, The Telegraph, Vanity Fair, ScreenRant, or IndieWire, among many others. After watching one of the richest, most layered allegorical exercises in modern popular cinema, an audience member is just a few clicks away from finding out everything that they could want to know, never needing to work a single synapse under their own power.

There's no shortage of attempts to explain what the film is supposed to be an allegory about.  There's plenty of talk about what the film is purportedly about but the camps are basically two-fold:  spoilery and non-spoilery discussions.  The critics who don't want to spoil the film tend to be the sorts of critics I find hard to take seriously.  For that kind of film critic I might suggest that these are the sorts of people whose primary commitment as film critics is to the priestcraft of criticism as a sacred rite rather than telling prospective audiences whether they might want to watch the film.  And yet the complaint above that film criticism and television criticism may have devolved in a post-Inception scene to over-explaining everything might still be a good point; it may also be instructive that whether or not the masses even bother to go watch Aronofsky's film the film critics as the veritable priests of the religion of cinema still get to do their thing.  If anything the great obstacle to such unfettered allegorical musing may not come from the public but from the director himself, who keeps insisting on explaining what the film is supposed to mean.

Love Darren Aronofsky’s mother! or hate it, and you will have plenty of company either way, it’s a movie worth thinking and talking about. At The Film Stage, Brian Roan rails against the attempts to decode its meaning as a pernicious outgrowth of “explainer culture,” in which art is approached as a puzzle to be solved rather than a mystery to be pondered, but one of the things that’s exhilarating about the movie is the multitude of plausible but apparently incompatible interpretations it’s spawned. Is it an ecological allegory, with Javier Bardem as an absent-minded god and Jennifer Lawrence as a frazzled Mother Earth? A horror movie about egocentric male artists and the women who thanklessly support them? Or are Bardem and Lawrence playing two halves of the creative psyche, he the public-facing glory hound, she the tender of fragile ideas? Maybe it’s about gaslighting, or the trauma of unwanted houseguests, or what a shitty partner Aronofsky was to Rachel Weisz. Or the Bible? (Definitely the Bible.)
Mother! is evocative enough to sustain all these explanations and more. But there is one person who needs to stop explaining what Mother! is about, and that person is its writer-director, Darren Aronofsky.
In the buildup to Mother!’s release, Aronofsky kept mum about the movie’s subject, and Paramount’s marketing followed suit. (The “F” grade the film received from the audience-rating service CinemaScore is a good gauge of how little theatrical audiences knew what they were in for.) But since its premiere, he has scarcely been able to keep his mouth shut. Aronofsky has been vague about minor details like why the title’s “M” is lowercase or what the yellow tincture is that Lawrence keeps pouring into her water glass, but he’s talked at length, if not always consistently, about the film as a parable of climate change and impending environmental catastrophe—an issue that frequently engages Aronofsky in his time between films. As the New York Times summarizes it:
“Mother!” is about Mother Earth (Ms. Lawrence) and God (Mr. Bardem), whose poetic hit has the weight of the Old Testament: hence all the visitors clamoring for a piece of Him, as his character is called. The house represents our planet. (Walking the wooden floorboards in bare feet is what finally got the part to click, Ms. Lawrence said.) The movie is about climate change, and humanity’s role in environmental destruction.
Mother’s plot draws heavily on the Bible: Ed Harris’ character, identified in the credits as Man, shows up alone, then manifests a wound where his rib might once have been; he’s followed by Michelle Pfeiffer’s Woman, and then by their two sons, one of whom kills the other. But there’s no Biblical analogue for Lawrence’s character, and Aronofsky, who is not religiously observant, has played down the Biblical parallel as more of a structural gimmick than an end in itself.  [emphasis added] That goes too for what seem to be its unavoidably autobiographical elements, which Bardem’s poet neglects his wife while catering to the adulation of his fans, whom he can’t bear to turn away even as his long-suffering wife begs for a little piece and quiet. “The fame stuff is purely a side effect,” he told IndieWire’s Anne Thompson. “When I was writing I wasn’t seeking comment about that, it was about the allegorical sense of worship.”

A structural gimmick rather than an end in itself?  Couldn't that come off as "cultural appropriation" if this were some topic besides religion?  This will keep coming back up as we go.  But let's get back into this piece:

Humans being fallible creatures, artists’ explanations of the work they intended to make are often more intriguing than the work itself. But one hallmark of great art is that it’s about more than its creators intended, or at least that it allows people other than the artist(s) to find their own meaning in it. To his credit, Aronofsky isn’t shutting down alternate interpretations of his movie, but he also can’t resist providing his own: He’s like a magician so pleased with his own trick he can’t wait to show you how it’s done.
Besides indulging the intentional fallacy, Aronofsky’s willingness to provide a decoder ring for his own movie robs its of its richness, and tying it to a single overriding theme exposes, or even creates, flaws in its overall schema. If Bardem is God and Lawrence is Gaia, then what are we to make of God’s vanity, his lust for adulation and his willingness to ignore his greatest creation’s cries for help? (What are the Judeo-Christian God and a pagan personification even doing in the same story?)  Doesn’t it undermine the movie’s environmental message to suggest that our present earth is only the latest in an apparently infinite cycle of creation and destruction? Even more than the holes in its plot, the narrow parsing of Mother! as an ecological fable doesn’t account for its off-the-wall style [emphasis added], its free mixture of horrific and comic tones, or the bravura complexity of Lawrence’s performance. (According to Aronofsky, fully 66 of its 115 minutes are a close-up of her face.) Aronofsky’s description of Mother! is a lot duller than the movie he actually made.

If one of the sacred tenets of the religion of film and film criticism were to be presented in its baldest form it's that the film-maker can explain what he or she intends the film to be about but you're not supposed to do so in a way that rejects the interpretations presented by the film critics.  After all, if they're venerating the film by dint of giving it their attention (i.e. entertaining it as entertainment serious enough to be considered) then you're not supposed to give them a checklist of things the film "must" mean.  Aronofsky might be in danger of insisting that what the oracle at Delphi has handed down doesn't need priestly interpretation.  But if he wanted to create a parable about the earth then it seems people have come to different interpretations.  The reason may be simple, when you have generations of custom that permit the film critic to assert over against the director's statements that the film means X rather than Y you can't change that.  We're getting a Blade Runner sequel and Ridley Scott's Deckard-is-a-replicant account of the film flies in the face of Ford's understanding of his own performance, Dick's intention regarding his own story, and the aims of the screenwriter.  There's a point at which what the director claims the film has to be about just has nothing to do with the finished product.  And so ...

Richard Brody says the film mother! is a satirical allegory about fame that is a meta-cinematic musing:

“Mother!” is Aronofsky’s reckoning with the struggles and temptations of the life of an artist, but it isn’t a work of autobiography or a self-portrait. It is, rather, a satire on a syndrome and also a self-scourging confession, not of any actual misdeeds or abuses but of possibilities—a self-cautionary tale that doesn’t have to be rooted in stories to which Aronofsky had unique or privileged access, because it’s the hyper-exaggerated version of stories that more or less everybody knows, even if only from their tabloid distortions. [emphasis added] Aronofsky offers, in “Mother!,” a report from the realm of art, of male artists, and both reveals and admits that many of them draw their artistic and personal sustenance from the blood of young women—that their art and also their domestic comfort depends on their virtual vampirizing of adoring young women who are attracted to their talent, their fame, their experience, perhaps even their money, but whose love is nonetheless utterly sincere and whose devotion is nonetheless utterly unselfish and ultimately proves far more self-sacrificing than they had ever intended
In Aronofsky’s vision, the destructiveness of the artist’s vanity goes hand in hand with the destructiveness of the crowd, of the individuals whose enthusiasm, whose fandom, whose fleeting or symbolic connection to the artist gives them their own toehold on the public realm, on a public identity. “Mother!” is a grand-scale tragedy of the commons, in which an artist becomes a celebrity, a public figure and a public resource, and then gets consumed by the members of the audience who draw upon them for a sort of sustenance, albeit factitious—an illusion that the artist himself fosters for his own advantage and gratification. (Aronofsky also scathingly satirizes the cold comforts of an artist’s works of faux-empathetic pride.)
Though the tone of “Mother!” is one of freakazoidal exaggeration, the film’s underlying subject—borders and boundaries—is unfolded with earnest consideration. The firmness of the boundary between an artist’s private life and public identity is one that Aronofsky imagines, in its absence, as a crucial matter of well-being for the artist, the artist’s domestic partner and family members, and for the members of the public as well (since members of the public, no less than artists, have the capacity to turn into monsters). At the same time, Aronofsky sees domestic boundaries that divide the artist from his partner—the division of domestic labor into the art and the life, the gap between the artist and his partner in matters far more important than age, namely, experience, accomplishment, worldliness, and wealth. If “Mother!” is a vision of an artist feeding vanity through love and fame, it’s also a vision of an artist feeding vanity at home through a love that has its own inequality, its own one-sidedness, built into it. [emphasis added]

As discussion has continued the man/woman, husband/wife relationship has come up as the over-riding metaphor. Someone at The New Yorker felt it was necessary to point out that if Aronofsky thinks his film is an allegory about climate change then the guy just may not understand at the most basic level what allegory even is.

Woe to the woman Darren Aronofsky casts in his next movie. What fresh tortures will he devise for her? In “Requiem for a Dream,” Ellen Burstyn got her brain fried on amphetamines and electroshock, and Jennifer Connelly was sexually abased by sleazy corporate bros. As Nina Sayers, the ballerina in “Black Swan,” Natalie Portman peeled off her own fingernails, impaled herself on broken glass, and was sexually abased by Vincent Cassel. Now, in “Mother!,” Jennifer Lawrence is not doomed by drugs or delusion. She is sane, and extravagantly punished for it: trampled, beaten, burned, and sexually abased by a crowd of fanatics who worship her husband as a god. Lest all that not suffice, Aronofsky also has Lawrence prepare an array of elaborate tarts, savory and sweet, in her farmhouse-chic kitchen, as if she were auditioning for a Nancy Meyers movie. For me, the buck stops with baked goods. If the title weren’t already taken, this film should be called “Get Out
Aronofsky’s allegorical explanation also reveals a common misunderstanding of what allegory is. Allegory gives concrete form to abstract concepts: a snake standing for envy, a toad for avarice. Climate change is anything but abstract; if you’re not already scared witless by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, I doubt that the image of Jennifer Lawrence screaming herself hoarse as pseudo-Satanists toss her newborn baby around like a crowd-surfing rock star is going to do the trick.

And whatever the allegory is supposed to mean, let's not forget that Richard Brody has insisted that once the film is out there a director has to live with the fact that a film critic can say the film is an allegory about whatever it seems fit to say it's about, the director's commentary being more or less beside the point.
wrote earlier this week about “Mother!,” Darren Aronofsky’s new film, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, describing it as the story of an artist who, in his vanity, makes his partner’s life hell. Then, in several interviews, Aronofsky and Lawrence (they’re also a couple in real life) told the public what the movie is really about. On Collider, Aronofsky was quoted as saying that “the structure of the film was the Bible, using that as a way of discussing how humans have lived here on Earth. . . . I sort of wanted to tell the story of Mother Nature from her point of view.” In the Times, Lawrence revealed the allegory in more detail, explaining, as paraphrased by Melena Ryzik, that “ ‘Mother!’ is about Mother Earth (Ms. Lawrence) and God (Mr. Bardem),” and that “the movie is about climate change, and humanity’s role in environmental destruction.”

There’s a special kind of movie that invites questions from viewers and answers of the sort that Aronofsky offered, W.T.F. movies in which the drama itself is utterly unclear. Alain Resnais’s “Last Year at Marienbad” is an earlier example; “Inception” and the Showtime series “Twin Peaks: The Return” are recent ones. The questions that many viewers are likely to come out with are the basic ones: What’s the story? What’s happening? Who’s doing what to whom? Who are the characters? “Mother!” is not that kind of film. Its action is clear and linear; at any given moment, the identities of the characters and their relationships to one another are clear. A woman (Jennifer Lawrence) is renovating the house that she lives in with her partner (Javier Bardem). He is a writer, and when a fan and his wife show up at the house the man welcomes them, because he welcomes the appreciation, and then he extends his welcome to an extreme but plausible extent. Then, in the second part of the film, the woman is pregnant and the man starts writing again. His book becomes a big success at exactly the point that her pregnancy is nearly at term, and, when fans arrive at their house while she’s in labor, horrific trouble ensues.

What renders “Mother!” somewhat difficult to understand isn’t its complexity but, rather, its simplicity. [emphasis added] The action is so far out front, detached from backstory or worldly complications, that the psychology of the protagonists is nearly effaced. The characters are nameless, and their identities are nearly limited to what’s seen of them on the screen. The psychological causality of the action is of a nearly mechanical, windup obviousness—but those relationships are displayed in utter isolation from context and character. Unlike in “Twin Peaks” or “Inception,” what needs explanation in “Mother!” isn’t who or what but why. Yet my feeling about asking a director what a movie’s about is the same as the response, attributed both to Louis Armstrong and to Fats Waller, that is given to a listener who asks a musician what jazz is: If you have to ask, you’ll never know.
This morning, on Twitter, someone asked me, “What was the point of the biblical references if the movie is basically about how much it sucks to be in a relationship with a male artist?,” to which my response was, “Exactly.” In other words, “Mother!” isn’t an allegory except by directorial decree. [emphasis added]
Fortunately, the movie he made is much more interesting than the one he thought he made
What we may be having a chance to rediscover, obvious point though it may be, is that directorial decree is never sufficient in and of itself to establish that a film is or isn't an allegory about what the director claims the film is about, even if the director wrote the script.
But it's Josephine Livingstone, who by her own account has read a bit of medieval literature, who highlights that Aronofsky's attempts to appropriate biblical tropes makes the film's narrative a mess.  The intended allegorical level of the narrative, as stated, simply can't be squared with the literal "reading" of the plot.

Director Darren Aronofsky describes the film as an allegory which follows the relationship between masculinized God and a feminized Earth (played by Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence, respectively), complete with biblical stories-within-the-story and suggestions that the Earth is not being treated as well as she deserves. That’s the story occurring on the symbolic level. On the literal level, however, the movie is about a bad marriage between a sexist husband and an oppressed wife. The clanging dissonance between these two levels of meaning—the allegorical and the literal—is what makes Mother! such a confused mess of a film. [emphasis added]
When the Mother is finally driven beyond the bounds of her tolerance and into insanity, we return to the movie’s beginning. The Poet rips her heart out. Her destruction is just one in a cycle, we see: the Poet is the cycle’s creator, and the cycle needs to happen in order for his work to be done.
Aronofsky claims that the film is a biblical allegory, and there are hints of this throughout. The most obvious clues are coded into the intruders who invade the “paradise” of the home. The doctor is an orthopedic surgeon with a ribcage wound. His wife breaks a crystal on the Poet’s shelf, which she has been forbidden to touch. They exude sex and undisclosed knowledge. Whether or not the wife sprang directly from the doctor’s own rib in a surgical setting is unclear, but it is obvious that she brings inappropriate knowledge into the house and is an Eve figure of temptation. When their sons arrive, they fight each other. The blood from their violence spreads and contaminates the Mother’s perfect floorboards.
The Poet is a God figure. He continually offers “hospitality” to the evil forces invading his home, at the expense of the safety and sanity of his wife. In an interview, Jennifer Lawrence has described how the movie “depicts the rape and torment of Mother Earth,” suggesting that the tension is between the divine spark animating humanity and the needs of the world that was created for them. By the end, the home is wrecked, Mother is destroyed, and fire comes to claim all they had built together.
According to Aronofsky and Lawrence’s statements, the Mother symbolizes paradise, and the Poet symbolizes a kind of God character who ironically facilitates the destruction of it (through climate change and other forces) by creating Man. But whatever type of lesson Aronofsky was trying to tell in exploring these deep and mythic themes, he adds a very serious layer of confusion by using a psychodrama about a marriage wracked by gender inequality as the literal level of the story. [emphasis added]
The great flaw in Mother! is structural: Aronofsky uses gender inequality, which is a social problem, as a metaphor for exploring mankind’s place in Nature, which is not—at least, not in the Biblical terms that Aronofsky claims to be working in. The director equates the destruction of paradise by mankind in the Bible with the social position of women, without acknowledging that women’s subjugation is not “naturally occurring” or God-given, but instead the result of social conditions. The symbolic story of the destruction of the Earth and the literal story of a woman suffering under patriarchy do not fit together, and Aronofsky ignores their rather glaring inconsistencies
It may be that whatever Aronofsky thought he was doing at a metaphorical level the social and relational dynamics in the character arcs have inspired a couple of women who work as journalists to say that the bad marriage narrative clashes with the invocations of the biblical narrative allusions in a way that renders the final "metaphor" too mixed to be effective.  Then there's Richard Brody who just declares that the film is an allegory about the vanity of fame and that's that.
If Aronofsky wanted to make a film that directly addressed climate change as a topic he could have directed ... An Inconvenient Sequel, right?  Instead he made mother!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The New Yorker takes a brief trip through pop songs with soaring choral back-ups, mainly just writing about Sam Smith

Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of American gospel music, introduced ecstasy to old religious arrangements in escalating, yearning choruses. His creation, the gospel choir, and its essential juxtaposition of eros and propriety, arguably prefigured the invention of pop. The sound of a choir—whether American gospel, classical, or children’s—has a transformative effect on a pop song, imparting solemnity, tumult, flamboyance, or even eeriness to an otherwise basic arrangement. The British particularly like the embellishment—think of Queen’s “Somebody to Love,” Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is,” The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” George Michael’s “Father Figure,” or David Bowie’s “Young Americans.”

The amplification of a singular voice with many robust black-sounding ones began as an American tradition, but for decades has been incorporated into pop songs to convey over-the-top epicness. Madonna solicited a gospel choir, led by Andraé Crouch, for the chorus and riffs on “Like a Prayer.” In the song, the group picks up for more than a minute once Madonna has finished her last run, owning the song’s rapture as a solo singer never could. The inclusion of a booming gospel chorus is by now a pop-music cliché, and yet its subliminal provocation endures; the visual of a white act surrounded by hardworking black singers is enough to make one reach for Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro.” Adele performs in the same formation constantly, but one of my favorite instances is from a video of Nick Jonas, gregariously singing a “gospel version” of “Jealous” at Westfield’s shopping center in London.
Of a variety of things that seemed underwhelming about Spectre the most resoundingly annoying one for me was the Sam Smith song. Sure, it seemed like the actresses assigned Bond girl duty could be in better films but you can't expect everyone to just mutate a Bond girl role into something two-dimensional the way Eva Green did. 

But the Sam Smith song "The Writing's on the Wall" was a lame Bond song, maybe not as lame as a few numbers I resentfully recall from the Brosnan era but it was annoying in an upper echelon sort of way.

But choral stuff in pop songs has a long history and it might as well be a history that's thought of as going back to opera.  We "could" try to trace the choral back-up of a popular song to black Gospel music in the united States and that's about what I'd expect a New Yorker contributor to do and in an Anglo-American context that's a defensible approach.  Globally, however, this is a trope that just spans the human species. 

More insidious to me is the tendency in film trailers to do unaccompanied choral versions of pop songs, like "Heroes" aka the kid choir take on the David Bowie song, which isn't even really one of Bowie's better numbers.  The song is melodically fairly staic and relies on oblique motion to get its harmonic effects.  If you were going to do a choral version of a Bowie song pick something with a snappier harmonic rhythm and more interesting root movements.  Pick an obvious one like "Major Tom". 

The other memorably lame choral pop song was the take on "Creep" for The Social Network.  I've never liked Radiohead over the last twenty years so I knew I wasn't going to really care for "Creep" in yet a new form but the high-flown childrens' choir version of an already self-pitying-and-not-necessarily-in-a-persuasively-ironic-way pop song is lame.  Choral pop songs in the 21st century seem tailor made to elicit what is hoped to be a Pavlovian response of tears.  Maybe it's because I grew up in a Christian family in the US but you live long enough you hear enough Christian pop music that this is one of those musical tricks that is even less forgivable in pop music of the secular variety than it is in Christian pop.  At least there's, oh, a THOUSAND YEARS of massed voices singing praise to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to make that chorus backing up a cantor make sense.  As an aside, been listening to Haydn's Masses lately.  His masses don't reach the level of Byrd's and the Classic era isn't always ... usually a strong point for choral music ... but Haydn and Mozart at least knew good singable tunes. 

Now I'm thinking of that polemical book by I think it was Thomas Day called Why Catholics Can't Sing, about how the Irish sweet song tradition, so obviously fantastic for solo voice, has completely ruined Anglo-American Catholic musical culture. That's a decades-old book by now but it reminds me of how about 12 years ago there was a bit of a flare up at Mars Hill where the people at large rgistered some complaints about how difficult it was to sing along with a lot of the songs a few of the bands regularly performed.  Tim Smith let the entire church have it for not being willing to go along without any reservations, although some of the musicians who were in the bands that got complained about said they'd look into making stuff that was easier to sing along to. 

Of course that was back when there was a Mars Hill in which such a thing could happen. 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

the golden calf vs the tabernacle, some thoughts about Exodus and the arts, and on idolatry as the veneration of holy things as distinct from a sacred way of life, plus some stuff on Francis Schaeffer and Adorno

I'll admit to being pretty anti-Romantic in my sympathies as a writer, musician and when I was into visual media I liked some of Friedrich's stuff but I was more into Rembrandt.  Whether in art, music or literature I tend to dig the 18th and 20th centuries and like selections of the 19th.  I dug Melville and Dostoevsky, for instance.  But I didn't much care for Whitman and I hardly ever came across a Transcendentalist axiom I didn't find at least vaguely dumb.  I can try to be more generous but basically I'm not hugely into the Romantic era or 19th century.  Romantic era music seems bloated, self-important and lacking in focus, using sheer size to disguise what for me is a lack o freal invention.  So I don't care much fo rBerlioz or Wagner and just some of Lizst to the extent that Lizst inspired Bartok.  The Romantic era or 19th century composers I've liked are Mendelssohn, Chopin and Brahms ... not coincidentally the ones who most often paid tribute to J. S. Bach and/or Haydn. 

I mention all that by way of saying that even though I feel like I'm something of a musical hermit I'm not, in fact, a hermit, and I think that all art is in some sense a social activity.  I don't believe in art for the sake of art and I don't think artists should be able to do whatever they want as though artists were the prophets and priests of our age even if the professionals tend to have that kind of entitlement about them.  The idea that a film maker and a movie star can make a film that's supposed to be a parable about the Earth choosing to fight back against us seems daft.  The carbon footprint involved in making such a film might be better used to do anything else.  I sometimes wonder whether after some future ecological crash some people might not come together and make the observation that if Hollywood weren't so busy embodying the waste and exploitation it claimed to decry the world could have been made a more beautiful and fulfilling place for the rest of the world.  An entertainment industry in which a Woody Allen or Roman Polanski can still be celebrated is not necessarily an entertainment industry that has clearly retained the moral high ground from which to lament the predatory behavior of some Catholic priests.  It is possible to embody the vices and ideas of the very thing you subject to criticism without realizing you have done so. Alternatively, it can be possible that something or someone you critique can turn out to embody your highest stated ideals better than you whether you recognize this or not.  This will take a while but it will involve a ramble through the end of Exodus with some occasional thoughts about Richard Wagner.

I was reading through Exodus earlier this summer and was reading about how Israel went to Aaron and said they had no idea what happened to this Moses fellow.  They insisted upon a god to go before them. Aaron asked them for gold rings and fashioned the calf for them to worship for their deliverance from the hands of the Egyptians.  While this was going on, it seems, Moses was receiving instruction from Yahweh as to how to assemble the Ark and the Tabernacle and the cultic tools of worship for Israel.  The Lord describe who he had given gifts of skill to build things according to His aims.  Aaron fashioned the golden calf himself at the request of the people. 

I wonder if this is a possible point for reflection on idolatry and the arts, since it seems the idolatry of the solitary genius couldn't sound more Romantic.  The one who fashioned the idol gets named and gets the credit.  The one who fashions the idol does so to appease the demands of the people who want a god to go before them.  This calf is then presented as the one who delivered them from Egypt.  Art, as many a person would like to believe, constitutes a path to salvation or a means of redemption.  it is not necessarily the case.  Aaron fashioned the calf because the mob insisted upon it.  Maybe he had the power and will to say "no". We're not really told that part.

But what I'm mulling over is that Aaron made the calf at the behest of the crowd when the Lord had been instructing Moses as to how to build the instruments of worship in a way that would require the contributions of everyone in Israel across their range of abilities and resources and to fashion these instruments of worship after the design the Lord would show them.  After the calf is destroyed and the people rebuked the people are given the opportunity to build everything the Lord commanded in the manner He commanded.  The people skilled in working with metal and wood are given the opportunity to work together to build the Tabernacle and the Ark and the priestly vestments as the Lord instructed through Moses. 

As I've been reading about the history of the total work of art in European avant garde thought it has been interesting how Wagner berated Jews for lacking a real grasp of what makes for "real" art.  Yet he aspired to create a total work of art that would unite every possible art into a new form of redemptive art that could take the role that had previously been played by religion.  Yet within the Jewish literature the god fashioned by the one is the idol that is condemned while the tabernacle and the instruments of worship for Israel are the total work of art created by all the people and overseen by skilled laborers, aren't they?  This just seems like a strange, ironic juxtaposition of anti-Semitic sentiments in European artistic thought despite the fact that it wouldn't be hard to present the instruments of worshipping the God of Israel as a total work of art devoted to worshipping Yahweh and commemorating His deliverance of His people from slavery to the Egyptians.  Yet in Israel's idolatry they turned to one man to fashion for them the god they would venerate and that would go before them, whom they would thank for delivering them.  Wagner wanted his total work of art to play a role in catalyzing a revolutionary moment that would change the world.  Yet in the span of world history I would propose that the Moses who put together the instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle and the Ark and the priestly vestments made the total work of art millennia earlier. 

Now Wagner did want the total work of art to be the product of the genius of the people and not merely the egoistic vision of a single artist and in that sense the juxtaposition of Wagner's operas with the Jewish instruments of worship in the tabernacle, the ark and the priestly vestments can be seen as even more acute.  For in Judaism these were made according to the design and instruction of Yahweh and while Moses conveyed the instructions this was all the work of the people and a reflection of their gifts and skills, we could say, in a phrase, a reflection of their genius as the people chosen by God. 

I spent this summer reading through some books by David Roberts.  I started with The Total Work of Art in the European Avant Garde.  Then I got to Art and Enlightenment: Aesthetic Theory after Adorno. Finally I got to the David Roberts and Peter Murphy book Dialectic of Romanticism. While it's futile to try to summarize hundreds of pages in a few sentences the case Roberts makes is that Adorno was trapped in the mental straitjackets of Romantic era historicism and Enlightenment assumptions about the linearity of history and progress.  The sense of crisis that all art was kitsch after 1910 and that the only way forward was through the repudiation of bourgeoisie aesthetics was itself borne of that aesthetic it aimed to repudiate.  Roberts' proposal about the nature of Adorno's aesthetics, to attempt to formulate this in Christian theological terms, is that Adorno rejected the arc of art history across media and replaced it with an ideal of art in which aesthetics had to be conceived of in strictly apophatic terms.  Whatever true art is it must be a negation of the clichés and kitsch of earlier epochs of art.  So Schoenberg was a true path forward where Stravinsky's conscientious stylistic formalism and eclecticism was dishonest and Bartok's folklorist work was problematic but at least less so than Stravinsky.  In the end an Adorno and a Spengler agreed the West was in inexorable and unavoidable decline and the new era was dark and barbaric. 

But ... Adorno's unexamined acceptance of an essentially romantic/enlightenment narrative meant that he did not grasp that Stravinsky's subversive appropriation of any and every stylistic idiom from the past that he liked meant that the past was allowed to be present. Stravinsky approached his music with a kind of detachment that is less typical of music as we colloquially think of it and more typical of what might be called a literary irony.  Famously, Stravinsky claimed that music was powerless to express anything beyond itself.  Now there are those who insist that the modernists and the avant gardists in the 20th century embraced materialism but the speciousness of this claim seems too easy to refute.  Stravinsky was a wild child for a while but came back to the Orthodox fold and Messiaen was an observant Catholic.  The same could be said for Penderecki if memory serves. 

Back to Roberts.  He's proposed that Adorno and many criticisms of modernism in both its romantic and enlightenment forms are still ultimately beholden to a historicism that we should reconsider.  Again, in an attempt to articulate this in what might be thought of in Christian terminology, a lot of eighteenth and nineteenth century European thought retained a vestigial postmillennialist utopian drive, one that is not put in those terms by David Roberts himself but that could be translated into those terms by, say, a Christian writer attempting to describe what Roberts says is the shortfall in Adorno's analysis of Western civilization.  In the end Adorno's condemnation of the entirety of Western civilization is too sweeping and too beholden to the historicism he criticizes in others and yet at the same time his aesthetics are too clearly steeped in nineteenth century Romantic era arts for him to see that bringing back earlier styles in the mode of Stravinsky is not "inauthentic" or "dishonest". 

For want of a better way to summarize Roberts' books, he proposes that in some sense we need to remember the distinction between historicism and history.  He proposes the Jena Romantics have been sufficiently misread in the last two centuries that where they thought they were going is not necessarily where "we" took their ideas.  Post-modernism isn't in fact the end of modernism at all so much as a new phase of modernism in which it is forced to contend with its existence after the death of the viability of the master narratives of history that guided European modernism in earlier times.  To repeat my translation of this proposal, post-modernism can be thought of as a modernism in which its postmillennialist utopian narrative has been dismantled but the project of modernity itself going back to the enlightenment and romantic ideals has remained. To the extent that Adorno's quasi-apophatic aesthetics found their foundation on such an unexamined narrative of the arc of history they need to be abandoned in favor of something else, whatever that something else might be. 

All that said, I think Adorno was absolutely right to warn that the idea of "naïve" art is an absurdity, that in modern parlance we must always remember that there's an organic relationship between scientific understandings of the human condition and the arts on the one hand and, on the other hand, that art cannot be reduced to some strictly 'right brain' approach without leading to junk--both hemispheres of the human brain must be involved in creating art.  On those points the problem is that Adorno has not been appreciated enough, I'd venture.  Just because Adorno's "On Jazz" is one of the most infuriating, condescending pieces of literary tripe I've read in my life doesn't mean I can't grant that he had a couple of really good ideas about aesthetics in spite of his shortfalls. I can't really hold it against him if he admired the music of Bach and Beethoven, either.

At a very practical level, and writing as a musician and a composer, Adorno's problem was that when it came to the art of music there was, for him, nothing before J. S. Bach.  A history of Western music without Josquin, Palestrina, Tallis, Byrd, Schutz, Sweelinck, Buxtehude and many others is a history that shouldn't be trusted!  But to make that kind of move Adorno and other 19th century-inspired thinkers made is a grotesque historical oversight ignoring centuries of musical art and centuries of cycles of style change and form change.  In that sense I would say the fatal flaw in the thinking of both Adorno and Francis Schaeffer is that they were both sentimentally beholden to 19th century art forms whether they recognized it or not.  Adorno advocated a type of apophatic modernist aesthetics that despairs of the legitimacy of Western-ism as a whole while Schaeffer seemed to want Christians to reclaim the glories of an essentially pre-Enlightenment command of the arts.  But history hasn't ended on the one hand and, on the other hand, we can't go back and recover that magical era of Christendom that a certain strata of American Reformed types imagine they would enjoy seeing come back if only we had enough Christians making great art.  I am, as a matter of fact, sympathetic to making the best art, music and literature we can manage to make but absolutely nothing about that stuff will make it sacred. 

One of the things he highlighted in his book on European modernism was that Germans tended to venerate Athens while the French tended to venerate Sparta. The given was the Greek city state.  If Christians want to participate in a recovery of classical aesthetics and if conservatives want to recover a classical idiom (I did just finish reading John Borstlap's The Classical Revolution lately) I have my doubts that we're going to get "there" by simply going back to Greek ideals.  Let's say the Germans venerated Athens and the French venerated Sparta. But when the tabernacle was built it was built by people wandering in the wilderness and the tabernacle would be where ever they were.  The tabernacle was not a city state with a cult but a tent that is taken where ever the Lord's people travel and they would set up and tear down the tabernacle based on where the cloud traveled and stayed.  If you were an Israelite you had to go where ever Yahweh would go, where ever the cloud would descend and stay and to where ever the cloud of His presence might rise and depart to.

At this point it seems worth noting that when the kingdom divided Jeroboam created two golden calves to be venerated as if they were Yahweh who delivered Israel from Egypt.  Jeroboam feared that if there were not an alternative cult that as all Israel returned to worship the Lord in the temple they would turn against him.  He feared that if Israel stayed on the path that led them to worship Yahweh where Yahweh chose to be worshipped then he would ultimately lose his kingdom. 

I guess what I'm struggling to articulate is the in the temptation to idolatry Israel told Aaron to give them sacred things while Yahweh was instructing Moses on how to enlist all of Israel to travel a sacred path. Sacred things as an alternative to a sacred path was also what Jeroboam set up to create an alternative cult to ensure that Israel did not keep going down to Judea to worship the Lord there lest they forsake Jeroboam as their king. We know from the prophets that the Lord would bring destruction on Shiloh and let the instruments of the tabernacle and temple be carried off by warlords and the people cast into exile.  The things in themselves were not finally so sacred that they imparted any divine protection.  They could serve as reminders to Israel of the Lord's presence and were commanded to be made and used in offering worship to the Lord but I guess I'm proposing here that they are prescribed means. There is a right way to offer worship to the Lord and those who offered unauthorized fire were slain. 

Across the centuries we get people invested in the arts who disdain religion but are excited to create cults around things.  Wagner had his opera cycle and Joss Whedon invented the cult of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Men who would disdain religion as a whole if by religion we meant the existence of divine beings are excited to share how across decades they have successfully made cults of people devoted to the things they have created and what they believe these things mean.  There may be all sorts of benefits in studying those artistic creations if you make stuff in that field but in a sense what these kinds of men are boasting about is that they have fashioned golden calves to address what they regarded as demands made by the masses.  The irony of a guy like Joss Whedon being a self-identified atheist who is, nonetheless, proud of the cult that formed around a TV show he made seems hard to overstate.  That may be one of the trippier things about this series of reflections, the observation that even atheists are excited to report when they have successfully created a thing, whatever that thing of art may be, that inspires decades of cultish devotion.  Thanks to fan fiction these shows can become iterations of the total work of art, tabernacles to ideals, perhaps, or perhaps ways for everyone to build their own version of a golden calf. 

I'd try to explore these ideas a little further but it's kind of late.

... there was a Nasvhille statement ...

Ah ...

Having largely come to regard the CBMW as a bunch of blowhards with a disastrously tautological set of hazy definitions about what it means to be male and female it's hard to take anything they do especially seriously.  John Piper has rarely failed to miss an opportunity to take a natural disaster as an opportunity to "gently" remind people that we all deserve disasters but for the grace of his particular vision of God. 

Among the initial signatories it's hard not to notice some guys who used to be in leadership at Mars Hill Church.  Take James Macdonald, for instance.  The presence of C. J. Mahaney's signature is a reminder that Sovereign Grace Ministries had its own controversy surrounding allegations of how it did and did not properly handle reports of sexual abuse. 

I've got John N Oswalt's commentaries on Isaiah, come to think of it, so it's not like all the names that jump out only jump out for bad reasons. 

But seeing how the CBMW scene influenced Mars Hill generally it's hard to take them seriously.  I'm not the only person who has, from time to time, mulled over the largely negative influence Mars Hill has had about a range of topics dealing with gender and sexualityThen there's this.

The topic at hand in the Nashville Statement involves homosexuality and transgenderism. But those who have espoused and followed CBMW dogmatically over the years should confess their own complicity, at times, in gender confusion, in pushing conservative followers to not trust their own body’s revelation of their biological sex. I ministered at Mars Hill Church for years and witnessed for more years after I left the harm done to individuals’ understanding of their God-given sex by the hyper masculinity and hyper femininity that were taught through CBMW literature and leaders (along with Doug and Nancy Wilson and Martha Peace) who “discipled” Mark Driscoll and our congregation. Though many attendees certainly entered Mars Hill with a misunderstanding of sexuality, the teaching they received there often contributed to GREATER sexual confusion. I can not tell you the number of conversations I’ve had with folks wrestling with their sexuality in light of the ways they didn’t fit Mark’s caricature of the manly man. And all this happened under the discipleship and influence of the former leaders of CBMW, many who remain on its council and whose names are on this new document.

The gist of the Mars Hill approach to gender and sexuality and marriage might be most simply summarized as this, all those who experience sexual desire in statistically probable heterosexual ways are obliged to pursue God's design for them, which is marriage.  I've described this approach as heteronormative biological determinism in the past and others might describe the approach as compulsory heterosexuality.  So if you take Article 6 of the Nashville Statement where it may be one of a few moments where CBMW grants that some category of "eunuchs" might exist, that idea brought up in Jesus' teaching is formulated in connection to biology.  But only one category of eunuch was "born that way" of the three categories of eunuchs Jesus described. The other two categories are those who were made eunuchs by people whether or not the eunuchs chose that status, and the other would be those who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of God. It seems weirdly telling that in reaction to a "born this way" stance that can emanate from wider society about sexuality that the only type of eunuch the CBMW crew note in Article 6 is the "born this way" eunuch.  How much practical teaching does CBMW have addressing how to know whether or not you were born a eunuch?  Any takers?  But when Jesus addressed the topic of eunuchs it was in connection to his teaching on adultery.  Not everyone can accept this teaching, only those to whom it is given ... and then we get three types of eunuchs.

Moving forward it can seem as though CBMW is too Protestant to feel comfortable actually invoking Thomistic natural law on the one hand yet on the other hand it'd be naïve to forget that there's been a secularist variant of natural law taking shape with the topic of sexuality.  It's not exactly a natural law or a law of nature but more like a hybrid in which, so long as all pertinent parties negotiate mutual consent do as thou will. 

The controversies that surrounded Mark Driscoll are impossible to separate from a CBMW statement and the same goes for controversies that surrounded SGM.  Individual signatories don't automatically have to get implicated in all that because, for instance, I don't see how most of them had any direct or even indirect connection to Mars Hill Church.  But for those that did, their names are easy to look up.  Have any of the signers of the Nashville Statement considered the implications of Article 9 for a retrospective on things published by Mark Driscoll in Real Marriage about how his mood swings were able to be stabilized by more frequent sex with his wife?  How about the "Can We _____?" chapter?  Certainly Heath Lambert registered his objections but CBMW as a whole, that's another matter.

To the extent that Driscoll and Mars Hill relied on CBMW materials and the praxis in the trenches tilted toward a heteronormative biological determinism one of the puzzles about this neo-Calvinist scene has been the distinction that has to be made between guys with boners who are straight and guys with boners who aren't--because the practical teaching has tended to be that straight guys with boners must ensure their penis finds a home, to use Mark Driscoll's memorably terrible locution as William Wallace II, whereas gay guys need to repent.  As with a great deal published by CBMW the double standard is so obvious the only slightly puzzling thing is how little Christian writers who aren't already progressive have noted the double standard.  It's not like double standards only exist on a conservative/right side.  It's hard to remember when Rachel Held Evans said anything of note about the conduct of Tony Jones toward his ex-wife, for instance.  The larger problem is that among those who more or less appoint themselves to play the role of public figures in mass media Christendom in the United States, whether we're talking pop blue or pop red, the interest in assessing whether "we" are living by the standards we expect people to live by regardless of whether or not "they" do doesn't seem like it's a high priority.  Since I spent about a decade inside Mars Hill I focused more on the issue of transparency in the leadership culture I was more familiar with, having met the co-founding elders of what used to be Mars Hill so many years ago.

So in the case of Mark Driscoll in particular separating his views on what constitutes a sufficiently manly man in pulpit preaching should not be viewed in isolation from his various accounts of his marriage on the one hand or, more pertinently, his history of investment in real estate on the other.  That's stuff you can read about here at this blog at your leisure--the point I'm bringing up is that if you don't already know the extent to which richer and more established men were willing to bankroll Mark Driscoll in formal and informal ways despite what he jokingly regarded as a bad credit history and some troubles with his marriage then you'll only get the "presentation" without the historical information that highlights to those who were inside Mars Hill for a decade or more that the public presentation didn't match reality behind the scenes. 

Over the last twenty years I've seen the neo-Calvinist scene freak out about how boys aren't growing up and manning up and becoming men the way they used to.  On the other hand, there's few statements as clear as the Nashville Statement to remind us that for the CBMW folks the double crisis is not just that the straight kids aren't rushing to get married as fast as they were thought to half a century ago, it's that all the gay kids want to get married and they aren't supposed to. 

Where I live, here in Seattle, it's not clear to me that the statement has any relevance at all.  I don't doubt that for people in more progressive Christianity the easiest way to describe the Nashville Statement might be as a "dog whistle", though amongst progressives a dog whistle isn't a dog whistle, it's clothed in Aesopian language.  That the respective red and blue partisans at this point are probably less concerned with biblical texts and traditions and more concerned with totalitarian ideological stances seems hard to ignore for me at this point but I've struggled with being pretty pessimistic about the human condition lately.

So ...  the statement has inspired internet debate among Christians on the internet even if it isn't even worth talking about beyond that sphere.  Compared to fires in the Pacific Northwest or Korea or a number of other more pressing matters what CBMW does within its bubble of prestige would hardly matter at all but for the impact of intra-group and inter-group debates.  I.e. whether left or right or red or blue the Christian internet bubble in Anglo-American discourse is "just" small enough that this statement is considered news.  At the risk of seeming a bit jaded it has been "made" news by those who want it to be news.  I wouldn't have signed the thing but I don't really hold it against Alastair Roberts that he did decide to sign the thing.  I've read enough of Roberts' work to know that he's not going to be a John Piper as such about men and women.  I don't always agree with him but he attempts to disagree and discuss in the public sphere in a way that doesn't quite strike me as the stentorian megaphone admonitions of CBMW in general. 

While it's possible to theorize that rebuttals to the Nashville Statement are ultimately aiming at polyamory that seems improbable.  This isn't necessarily because Americans won't argue for the long-term option to have a few partners but because a more realistic and plausible understanding of American behavior would highlight that lots of Americans have multiple partners but in serial monogamy over against polyamory. 

An argument that to sign the Nashville Statement on the one hand and back the current president on the other smacks of a nakedly brutal realpolitik that in the past would have been thought by red-state Christians to be a sin of blue-state pragmatist can and has been presented.  although not necessarily in the most direct way.  Decades ago when Bill Clinton's infidelities were making headlines one of the rebuttals was to say that how he behaved as a husband should not be thought of as indicative of his handling of the power of the state.  With Trump the tables were turned and turned in a case where the question of mutual consent became pointed for blue state and progressive advocates with respect to Trump ... although the question of just how mutual and equal consent could be in the case of a head of state doesn't seem like it was less significant for Bill than for Donald.  The trouble for me is that when I think about how partisans of Bill Clinton (as distinct from his wife) and Donald Trump have fielded matters of sexual conduct there are just a bunch of people who think that ultimately what these guys did shouldn't render them unfit for high office but perhaps should render the other guy unfit for high office.  Was Kennedy a saint himself?  The trouble with the red and blue mythologies is that it's not clear to me any of these guys were good guys. 

It hasn't been the greatest year for me so maybe I missed the "news peg" that would explain why the Nashville Statement should even be newsworthy within the bubble of the Christian blogosphere.  Somebody can fill me in, I suppose.

So as a former Mars Hill member who has seen how CBMW ideas played out in that scene I'd venture to propose that one of the basic problems of the Nashville Statement, not as understood by individual signatories so much as the gestalt presentation of the organization presenting the Statement, is that the straightest possible reading of the Statement (pun intended, obviously) traffics in a double standard which has not necessarily been addressed, which I've labeled heteronormative biological determinism.  You are in some sense vaguely obliged to follow the lead of your genitals only if your genitals inspire you toward actions that are regarded as salutary by the book.  This isn't a positive articulation of all the ways you can choose to be a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom of God in expansion on Jesus' direct teaching, it's more like a signal that trans and gay Christians still have to decide between following Jesus and following sexual desire that, at least within the neo-Calvinist scene that instructs straight people, adheres pretty strictly to an ideal that if you experience straight sexual desire in any capacity at all that essentially obliges you to pursue marriage.   So, yeah, Matthew Lee Anderson can pick up that there's double standards at work in the aims of the Nashville Statement

But what if there are double standards at play from both left and right.  The right has a double standard that is easier to identify, in which straight boners are proof of a need to marry while gay boners are proof of a need to repent, but the left double standard is less likely to be examined.  It's one thing to say that everyone should have an opportunity to explore the possibilities for relationship within their natural sexual orientation but, in the end, this is simply imploring that everyone follow their boner and should get the rights that are thought to accrue from the contractual relationships of marriage by dint of civil rights.  But there's this thing called "sexual market value" social psychologists have come up with in the last generation or so. As fewer and fewer middle class and working class people find that marriage is even something they can afford the sexual revolution may ultimately yield a liberated sexual praxis of a sort that only a burgeoning aristocracy can afford to employ. 

While authors at The Stranger can celebrate that those who "can" negotiate a sex life "should" have all the rights that they believe should be associated with that those who can't can still be regarded as in some sense asocial and contemptible.  Take the casual line about how the villain of last year's Ghostbusters remake was presumed to be some middle-aged guy who couldn't get laid. If we take it as a worldly praxis that those men and women who aren't hot enough or prestigious enough to get sex are contemptible there's a corresponding axiom within American Christianity in its red and blue variants.  It isn't just ostensibly conservative Pentecostal preachers who cheat on their wives, get divorced, but still want to claim they have an anointing, progressives can do this, too, and what may be most instructive is not "their" double standards on these kinds of issues but "our" double standards. 

Or, as I've said a few times, guys like Mark Driscoll and Dan Savage are ultimately not so different from each other in how they have chosen to use the public space and their roles in mass media.  If there's a discredit to Seattle and Puget Sound as a region it's that we let these two guys dominate so much of the proverbial left and right or blue and red discourse in this region.  Sure, Driscoll was saying twenty years ago-ish that he used to have political views to the right of Pat Buchanan but that was probably flourish, not unlike how he's begun to say in the last few years that before he considered himself a Christian who was totally Malthusian and pro-choice and pro-gay marriage and into liberal politics.  In sum it may only turn out to be clear that depending on what audience he's trying to curry favor from he'll present himself as having formerly embraced whatever he thinks is the ideological "opposite" of what he figures his target audience is into.  When currying favor with charismatics it's not a big shock if the guy who once claimed to be Reformed talks about how judgmental the Reformed are as if he weren't the one who said Hutch and Dobson sold out the Gospel for political expediency--ironically, that might be exactly one area where old Mark Driscoll and current Wenatchee The Hatchet do still agree.

Where was I ... ah, it was something about a performative of salvation through sexuality on the part of CBMW and progressives, maybe?

In a way, in a civic religion of Aphrodite there might be a unifying thread, those who have will be given more and those who don't have, even what they have will be taken away, it's just Aphrodite rather than Jesus at work, even if some of the acolytes of Aphrodite are ostensibly Bible-believing Christians. 

It may be most unfortunately telling that when American Christians want a controversy they still turn to sex even though shoddy scholarship and spin are also topics.  When Driscoll's reputation was embroiled in controversy about whether or not he was a plagiarist the left and right were more interested in what he had to say about sex than about whether or not he had suitably footnoted those whose work he relied on in the first print editions.  It's like the red and blue Christians in Anglo-American pop media want to get straight to the sexy stuff and never mind the details.  The Driscoll case may be instructive for what didn't happen, a more in-depth examination of the basic ethics and competency of mainstream pop-level Christian publishing in both is red and blue varieties.  A handful of folks I know of on the internet asked a question or two about, say, Tim Keller did or didn't know about Mark Driscoll's conduct inside Mars Hill, but when Kellerism comes up as a point for discussion it's more likely to be general.

I've complained a couple of times that it seems that when (or, more often, if) evangelicals have intellectual capital they squander it on laments about how Christians aren't taking the role of being public intellectuals anymore. If the track record of Mere Orthodoxy in the last few years is an indication of where evangelicalism wants to go it's apparently still a whole lot about sex, sexuality, and properly pursuing the rites of passage that indicate being grown-up, which still comes back to sex.  The possibility that people go through their adult lives not actually even having seex seems to be off the table.  It's not that family life as a means of spiritual formation is a bad thing, far from it, but that in some sense even when evangelicals attempt to articulate a critique of culture they do so from within a perspective that takes the constancy of sex as a given.  And yet many of the men and women who made lasting contributions to what used to get called Christendom were men and women who took oaths to never get laid.  American evangelicalism and socially conservative religion that isn't revanchist Catholic seems dead set on the idea that we should have al that cultural productivity to show we have brains while still getting all that hot sex action, too.  Sometimes I wonder if in attempting to have both Anglo-American Christianity in its left and right variants ends up having neither. 

Friday, September 15, 2017

comparing writers at Slate and the New Republic on Clinton's What Happened

There have been moments over the last three to five years where I have tried to articulate to conservatives an observation I've been making that they don't seem all that open to, which is to say that "liberal" and "left" are not at all the same thing.  There's a comparable error on the "left" or "liberal" side, too, of tending to collapse all "right of me" categories of thought and people into "fascism". 

But in the wake of Clinton's electoral defeat at the hands of the Trump campaign there may be a few glimmers of opportunities to articulate the distinction between a "liberal" publication and something more like a "left" publication.   For "liberal" it would be hard to top either The New Yorker or Slate.

A few weeks after the election, I was hit by a sickening realization. Not only would my children have to learn about Donald Trump in school, but by the time they are old enough for college, there will probably be whole academic departments devoted to the study of him. (That is, assuming we still have colleges, and America, by then.) Before Trump was elected, the United States was a deeply imperfect democracy. Afterward, it became a shitty kleptocracy, run, against the will of the majority of the American citizenry, by a cruel, gaudy, grandiose lunatic. Overnight, the very texture of reality changed, becoming surreal and dystopian, like an episode of Black Mirror or a far too on-the-nose imitation of a Don DeLillo novel. Whether or not this new dispensation is here to stay, many of us will spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out one thing. What happened?

Why it was only the election of Trump rather than Clinton that signaled the United States having become a kleptocracy is assumed rather than explained.  For a publication like Slate it's impossible to shake off altogether the impression that any variant of "what happened?" is less a serious question than a rhetorical one.  This being Slate, the transition in mind is not so much to an actual explanation as it is a transition to ...

What Happened, of course, is the title of Hillary Clinton’s new book about the 2016 election. It is, by turns, fascinating and boring, enjoyably caustic and irritatingly insipid, frank and guarded. But as a historical record, the book seems undeniably important, which is why it’s bizarre that so many people who are interested in politics seem angered by its existence. In a Los Angeles Times piece headlined “Hillary, I Love You. But Please Go Away,” author Melissa Batchelor Warnke allows that the book is “much better than I expected” but laments Clinton’s divisive re-emergence onto the political scene. In a Chicago Tribune column titled “Hillary: How Can We Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?” John Kass writes, “The vibe I’m getting is that Democrats wish someone would just lock her in the basement indefinitely.”

... There’s something faintly medieval in this need to make an epic civilizational disaster wholly the fault of one person [emphasis added] and to demand that she retreat into internal exile until she has sufficiently flayed herself

Yet Trump becoming president would seem to also perpetuate the allegedly medieval need to make an epic civilizational disaster wholly the fault of one person, as though the mere election of one person over another to an office that has not lost a whole lot of executive power in the last fourteen months constitutes in itself the transition from a representative democratic republic to a fascist state.

The fact is: No one knows exactly why Clinton lost. We’ll never untangle precisely what combination of Clinton’s personal failures, Democratic campaign missteps, Russian intervention, FBI sabotage, media malpractice, misogyny, xenophobia, and nihilistic social breakdown led to our current nightmare. But the struggle to understand all these interrelated factors will be ongoing. Clinton was at the center of a uniquely terrible and baffling episode in American history. She has a perspective no one else does. Why shouldn’t she share it?

So a hawkish Democratic mainstreamer with ties to high finance and a record of backing Gulf War 2 with a history of alienating swaths of the electorate running against a populist agitator who threw his hat in the ring with a party that spent the last few election cycles redistricting so as to improve their odds of regionally narrow but cumulatively significant electoral victories is really beyond explanation?  That explanation could be disproven, of course, but it's as though authors at Slate are incapable of imagining cumulative, multiple variables that could explain Clinton's loss at an electoral level because that kind of thinking is .... above their pay grade. 

But her limitations as a candidate are not the whole story. For Trump to become president, many different people and institutions—the Republican Party, the press, the FBI—had to fail. In What Happened, Clinton directly takes on the obsessive demand that she assume monocausal responsibility. “If it’s all my fault, then the media doesn’t need to do any soul searching,” she writes. “Republicans can say Putin’s meddling had no consequences. Democrats don’t need to question their own assumptions and prescriptions. Everyone can just move on.”

But we can’t move on. We don’t even know if the election was fully legitimate. “After a presidential campaign scarred by Russian meddling, local, state, and federal agencies have conducted little of the type of digital forensic investigation required to assess the impact, if any, on voting in at least 21 states whose election systems were targeted by Russian hackers,” the New York Times reported earlier this month.

A candidate who could not surmount those separate, let alone cumulative, obstacles was not someone who was going to get the job, let alone get the job done, which is hardly to say that Trump will get the job done as it is to say that a Democratic National Convention that seriously thought "I'm with her" was going to work as a campaign slogan is probably still not willing to learn any lessons from 2016 that aren't dangerously self-exonerating.  In traditional Christian terminology the operative term for what the DNC might want to consider at this point is called "repent".

Not that I'm particularly fond of The New Republic at multiple levels and for multiple reasons but ... since Clinton's memoir is a topic it may be a useful example of a way that conservatives could learn that liberal and left are not the same thing if they aren't busy being ensconced in the bubbles that writers at The New Republic might suggest they already exist in.  You'd think after just one controversy from a few years ago about how evangelical authors turned out to be using tools to rig spots for their books on The New York Times bestseller list that there'd be little point in claiming that the problem with conservatives is that by turning their back on the NYT best-seller list they're putting themselves in some kind of bubble.  If a conservative publisher were to decide to NOT make a bid at rigging a spot on the list for a change that might feel like it was a new thing.  But then it seems that mainstream press coverage isn't the least bit interested in the implications of controversies for popular Christian publishing on the nature and scope of American mainstream publishing in general. 
It's like the consolidation of publishing and media into a smaller and more powerful coterie of big-name players is a problem unless in this or that case a conservative publisher decides that there's no point in being identified with that coterie?  Nonetheless, this short reaction to Clinton's new book may still be instructive about the difference between a writer for Slate and, well ... :

In the first hundred pages of What Happened, Hillary Clinton writes that she decided to run for office during a vacation with the designer Oscar de la Renta and that when she lost she received an invitation from George W. Bush to get burgers. These bookends are an early sign that there is something amiss in this much-anticipated tell-all of the 2016 campaign, which attempts—and fails—to offer a diagnosis of how Clinton lost an election to the most unqualified and most loathed presidential candidate in modern history. These anecdotes suggest a fatal lack of awareness, an inability to see that she and her party may have grown out of touch. To the contrary, she says. She was the victim of forces beyond her control. Journalists, Russia, Bernie Sanders: These are a few of her least favorite things.

This book is precisely what her critics predicted it would be. What Happened suffers from stilted prose and insipid inspirational quotes, but that is par for the course for a political memoir. The real problem with What Happened is that it is not the book it needed to be. It spends more time on descriptions of Clinton’s various post-election coping strategies, which include chardonnay and “alternative nostril breathing,” than it does on her campaign decisions in the Midwest. It is written for her fans, in other words, and not for those who want real answers about her campaign, and who worry that the Democratic Party is learning the wrong lessons from the 2016 debacle.

When Clinton does discuss what went wrong, it’s mostly to point fingers. Some accusations are valid: Sexism did factor into her negative public image and into her loss. She contributes astute observations about the specific difficulties that America’s presidential system poses for female candidates. She correctly notes that well-funded right-wing actors have spent years weakening American democracy, and that a racist backlash to Barack Obama’s presidency dogged her campaign and strengthened Donald Trump. The press did mishandle coverage of her email scandal, and James Comey’s irresponsible actions helped slow her momentum at a crucial time.

But even taken together, these factors should not have been enough to cost her the presidency. Subscribing to this theory means believing that Hillary Clinton was the victim of a perfect storm of unrelated events, that there is nothing to be learned from the election of a strongman who was part of an ethno-nationalist, revanchist tide that swept across the democracies of the Western world. Clinton cannot admit that she—and her party—bear some responsibility for failing to stem this tide. Did you know she won the popular vote? She reminds us, multiple times. In What Happened, good fought evil, and evil won. It is a fairy tale. The great tragedy is that Clinton seems to think it is true.

Now if the election of Trump heralds, as some have written elsewhere, a decline in the credibility of the United States now might be a time to ask whether or not that loss of credibility has stemmed from generations worth of implications of how the United States has handled foreign policy.  It's not exactly that Vietnam was the loss of innocence we didn't necessarily have, but it could perhaps be said that Vietnam was the start of a process in which it would become impossible to simply keep cashing in on the feel-good vibes of our participation in World War II being all we needed to insist to ourselves we'll always be the good guys.  It doesn't even mean we were necessarily the good guys in World War II. Defeating a dictator is important but not necessarily an indicator of being awesome-sauce in perpetuity. 


Saturday, September 09, 2017

CNN report--Paterno reported to have known about Sandunsky's contact earlier than formally stated

Earlier this year I watched Spotlight, which was a solidly made film but ... Hollywood celebrating the power of the press to highlight the abuses that a church leadership culture subjects people to can start to feel ever so faintly hypocritical given how exploitive the entertainment industry has been towards kids, too.  And then there's institutionalized sports ... which I admit I've never really enjoyed or gotten into.

A tossed off line in a South Park episode had Cartman explicitly and directly equating sexual abuse of kids by Catholic priests with what Sandunsky did as a coach. This was directly countered by another character but the observation got made all the same.  It's application is indirect since the punchline is about how, regardless of what power and prestige culture you set up, predators will figure out ways to rise up through that prestige ladder to target and abuse.  If it's not a Catholic church hierarchy now this may have nothing intrinsically to do with the state of Catholicism or any other religious view as much as it has to do with what systems have the most prestige within the cultural milieu.  In some contexts the prestige ladder "might" be a church, for someone like Beria it could be a political part, for others it could be a university setting.

Sometimes it seems as though one of the lessons people decline to learn is to note that one of the sturdier ways to ensure that "it" can happen here is to assume that "it can't happen here". 

Friday, September 08, 2017

William Deresiewicz on being a Jane Austen fan and the puzzle this presents to the women who don't get why a man would admire her work and the man who think no real man should enjoy her work

September 5, 2017 wasn't just the 25th anniversary of the premiere of Batman: the animated series. It was also the day a piece by William Dersiewicz went up at The American Scholar about, among other things, the bewilderment certain women and men display toward him when he says he admires Jane Austen's work. 

So that interview was not the first time I had had to defend my love of Jane Austen. Nor would it be the last, especially, some five years later, after I published A Jane Austen Education, a memoir of my encounter with the author during those very years in graduate school, and of the way she helped me to become an adult. Every time I explained what the book was about—at a party, or to the friend of a friend—there was always a little pause as they tried to work it out, tried to do the math. Men, in particular, would get this look in their eyes, as if to say, “What’s wrong with you, dude?” And whenever I did a reading or went on the radio, I always felt a subtext, a question hanging over the proceedings.
Sometimes the text was not even “sub.” One host, on a local public radio program, patrolled the gender lines relentlessly throughout our conversation. “I know there are many Jane Austen fans listening, probably women,” she said right off the bat. “I’m curious about the men who may be listening, who may be thinking, ‘Eh, this guy’s a weenie. I don’t care what he says.’ ” So already she was furnishing a script, a gendered script, for listeners to follow.
Which they did. The very first caller criticized the book, which I’m pretty sure she hadn’t read, for not discussing the fact that women in Jane Austen’s day were dependent on men for financial security and therefore occupied a subordinate social position. You’re right, I said, they were and they did, but there are also lots of other things to talk about in Austen’s work, most of which apply to men and women equally—like love, and friendship, and growing up, and keeping your eyes open—and those are the things I discuss in my book. But that clearly didn’t cut much ice with her.
In all this, I think, we can distinguish two impulses. One is a desire to exclude men from the sphere of Austen’s readers—or at least to mark them as resident aliens rather than natural-born citizens and thus to claim Austen as the exclusive property of a female readership.
The other impulse rejects the idea that men—that real men—would want to enter Austen’s world to begin with. We still have trouble with gender, no matter what advances we have made. We still think in terms of “acting gay,” which often, to a first approximation, means acting female: dressing colorfully, or being into musical theater—or loving Jane Austen. Those are all fine, if you actually are gay. But they’re not fine if you aren’t. Straight men are still supposed to act the way they’ve always been expected to (just as straight women are). So for a straight man to express a devotion to Jane Austen’s novels is to fall short of the gender performance that society expects of him. This will almost invariably arouse anxiety in other people, who will feel entitled, like the dean or the radio host, to police the violation. [emphasis added]

Later on Deresiewicz notes that our contemporary reception of Austen has been, in a phrase, Hollywood-ized:
Austen’s novels have also been received, especially in recent years, as feminine in a more stereotypical sense: as romance novels in the contemporary meaning of the term, chick lit in its purest form. The movies do this, and so does the fan fiction. But her stories aren’t primarily about romance. Love comes only at the end—her heroines must grow up first—and when it does, it doesn’t look like Cupid’s arrow. Love, for Austen, is a slow outgrowth of friendship. It’s something you have to prepare yourself for, not something that magically happens to you.

But the movies—the major way that people are exposed to Austen’s work today, and certainly the leading factor in creating her contemporary image—never stand for that. She is always Brontëized, always turned into the exponent of grand and unquenchable passion. [emphasis added] The music swells, the handsome actors and beautiful actresses—always so much better-looking than the characters are in the books—lock lips with hungry urgency. So what’s scrubbed from her stories is not only everything else they’re about, but Austen’s own violations of gender performance. Jane Austen, as anyone who has read the novels (and still more, the letters) knows, was not a good girl. She was cool, sharp, sometimes bawdy, sometimes cruel. Her novels can be gloomy, even sour. In her own life, she chose art over marriage. Yet all this has been airbrushed from the picture.

Or, alternately, people could conclude that she just really wanted to be married herself and didn't "win the lottery" and that she was writing out of her own failed desire to do the normal thing of being married off.  But then, as Kyle Gann noted in his complaints about contemporary historical approaches toward influential figures of the past, we're all trying to psychoanalyze touchstone artists and writers and composers of the past as though we would, in those respective shoes, be better people than them rather than trying to understand the possibilities of how those long dead thought and acted within the confines and also opportunities of their times.  Particularly with music it seems writers prefer to write about the lives than the music for which musicians are known but I digress.  
What occurred to me, as I listened to the panel, was that Austen’s world does function as an arena for the unbridled expression of female desire, but that desire is the reader’s. The impulses that her heroines must conceal or repress, out in the intensely public spaces of her novels, her readers are encouraged to indulge in the privacy, as it were, of their bedrooms. And that indulgence is all the greater precisely because it is denied to the heroines. More demonstrative characters would get between the reader and the hero, would take up all the emotional space. Readerly imagination, as is often said, is incited by what is omitted. Austen’s readers, indeed, can be said to desire her heroes, at least some of the time, even more than do her heroines, because they often get there first. They have no ambivalence about Mr. Darcy, no ignorance about their feelings for Mr. Knightley, no indifference to Colonel Brandon. They are only waiting, as it were, for the heroines to catch up.

Here's my off-hand proposal about why so many men might find the idea of reading Austen, let alone the experience of reading Austen, so distasteful--there's too many men who resent the idea that the man in the narrative can be so easily thought of as the trophy spouse.  There may just be a strata of men who can only imagine a trophy partner being a woman. 

And, of course, there's always the reality that lots of people don't like reading late 18th or early 19th century novels because of a separated-by-a-common-language barrier, too.  But it has been interesting to notice the love or loathe dynamic with Austen and those who have read her work.  My personal loathing is for Hemingway and I also have no use for Twain, but then I don't feign a failure to appreciate that every writer and polemicist is ultimately a moralist and that writers who object to moralists are not objecting to moralism as such but to the morals of a moralist.  And to be deliberately blunt about it, the kinds of men who tend to look down on Jane Austen tend to come across as, well, dicks.