Wednesday, August 23, 2017

over at The Daily Beast Candia Moss summarizes the appeal ubranites keep finding in the pristine primitive society, despite the recurring debunkings the existence of any such society gets

http://www.thedailybeast.com/the-dangerous-myth-of-utopian-societies

In 1971, Manuel Elizalde, a government official in the Philippines and crony of Ferdinand and Immelda Marcos, announced the discovery of a previously lost “stone age tribe” of indigenous people on the island of Mindanao. Known as the Tasaday, the tribe became overnight celebrities, especially when it was revealed that they didn’t even have a word for “war” and were pacifist cave dwellers. They became the poster children for railing against the decadence of modern civilization. 
As it turned out, however, the Tasaday were a hoax. Linguists first became suspicious when it emerged that this group of supposed cave dwellers had a word for “roof.” Then, in 1986, a Swiss reporter discovered that the Tasaday weren’t living “like our ancestors” at all, but rather in typical houses in which they dressed in blue jeans and T-Shirts. Elizalde had convinced some members of local tribes to pretend to belong to the tribe in exchange for money. The villagers never saw any support and in the early 1980s Elizalde fled with (reportedly) $35 million of funds ear-marked for minority groups and a harem of teenage girls. Recent anthropological work has suggested that while some of the local tribes in the region were more isolated than others, there was no “stone age” group that was untouched by the modern world.

In the past three hundred years, as the British, the Dutch, the Spanish, the Portuguese, and others trawled the globe colonizing the world and exploring areas that were previously unknown (to them), they have often discovered groups of people who seem to them to be a throwback to the prehistoric world. While the majority of European propaganda caricatures foreign groups as dangerous savages to be subjugated, they were also described as “pristine tribes” as noble, simple, fierce, spiritual, and somehow more authentically human than those of us corrupted by  “civilization.”  

The idea of a group of people untouched and unblemished by modernity encouraged social scientists to see them as a control group when it came to asking questions about whether humans have an original nature that has been somehow sullied by civilization. Among the most popular questions are ones about the human capacity for violence and war. Are people inherently violent or was the slow march away from hunting and gathering that left us war-mongering and conflict-ridden? 

...

An American variant of this myth is that American Indians were more in touch with nature and each other than whites.  It isn't really the case but it was relatively easy to fabricate such a mythology.  After all, if a group of people has successfully wiped out a majority of a people then retroactively imputing to them a fabricated utopian social system isn't so hard, because it's not like enough of the besieged group survived to contest the credibility of the myths.

Moss mentions the Eden and Fall narratives, though without mentioning the most salient element of the stories, that there's no going back to Eden.  If anything Moss' articulate implies that the Genesis narrative played a bigger role in the myth of the noble simple savage than seems plausible.  If that were really a plausible account why was it that Genesis says the founder of the first city was Cain?  The impulse to what we can now think of as urbanization goes all the way back, but it's not necessarily an indication that the innocence lost can ever be regained. 

Working my way as I am through Jacques Ellul's book The Meaning of the City, Genesis describes the first city having been built as early as Cain, i.e. the very first generation after Adam.  A certain megachurch pastor taught a bit more than ten years ago that Cain building a city was what Cain did after he repented and felt regretful over his sin.  That seemed ... implausible at the time.  It seems wildly absurd now.  But then Driscoll tried to make a case that Abishag was Solomon's first love and probable first wife (over against the actual biblical narrative literature that mentions Solomon forming an alliance by marriage with Egypt as the earliest mentioned marriage in the canonical texts). 

The idea that hunter-gatherer societies were more equal and fair and in touch with nature will remain popular in every generation, it seems.  That the hunter-gatherer societies of the Pacific Northwest could still have class systems and slavery throws a monkey wrench into the idea that pre-industrial and even pre-agricultural societies had more equality.  Maybe some did ... .

But there are so many threads in the nostalgic utopian fantasy that have to be cut they probably have to be taken and cut through one at a time.  As Qoholet warned in Ecclesiastes, do not say to yourself "Where were the old days that were  better than these?" because it is not from wisdom that you ask that question.

over at The Guardian, Andre Spicer proposes that universities have been transformed into administrative rather than pedagogical institutions over in the UK.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/21/universities-broke-cut-pointless-admin-teaching
...
 
As students have been celebrating their exam results, pundits from across the political spectrum have been commiserating the state of British universities. Andrew Adonis, an education minister during the Blair years, has excoriated universities for offering costly courses while jacking up the pay of their senior leaders. Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s ex-advisor, thinks UK universities are an unsustainable “Ponzi scheme”. The universities minister, Jo Johnson, has written about the need to put further pressure on seats of higher learning so students get good value for money.
 
Behind the political point-scoring are more serious issues. The university sector has been growing for decades, but now that growth is going into reverse. The number of undergraduates applying to universities has fallen by 4% this year. Although close to 50% of the population goes through higher education, only about 20% of jobs require an undergraduate degree. One US study found that 46% of students showed no improvement in their cognitive skills during their time at university. In some courses, like business administration, students’ capacity to think got worse for the first few years. And after they graduated, many struggled to find full-time work while being loaded down with debt. Nearly a quarter of graduates were living with their parents or relatives. [emphases added]
 
... 
 
Underlying all this bad news is an often overlooked fact. Universities have been growing for a decade, but most of the resources fuelling that growth have gone into expanding university administration, not faculty. One US study found that between 1975 and 2008, the number of faculty had grown about 10% while the number of administrators had grown 221%. In the UK, two thirds of universities now have more administrators than they do faculty staff. One higher education policy expert has predicted the birth of the “all-administrative university”.  ...
 
As opinion pieces like these go, the comments show pushback, disagreement, and argumentation.

In the US educational system the thing I recall being annoyed at decades ago was the sheer range of general education requirements.  Those might be useful for those people who have been sent to college with no idea what they're going to study or why they're even in college beyond parents sending them (i.e. almost every character in the Whit Stillman film Damsels in Distress).  But for people who work out fairly quickly what they want to study in college and why the general education requirements can come off like forcing you to spend twice as much time and maybe three times more money on a raft of courses you have no choice but to take so as to require administrative requirements that you show yourself to have earned a well-rounded education.  That seems to have evolved under the idea that the American college student got a liberal education to be one of the leaders of the future. 

Years ago I had a coworker who was originally from overseas ask why Americans don't just have the government pay for all education.  My reply at the time was that I learned from a friend from Germany that while the government paid for his education the government also ran him through a ton of tests; figured out what he tested best at and was best at in measurable terms; and then steered him into that line of professional work through the educational process.  I.e. Americans would not like an educational system  where the opportunity cost of the government paying for it is the government telling you what they will pay for.  My hunch at the time was that Americans would love the part where the government pays for them to study but would bristle at the part where the government would have the power (let alone the right) to decide what educational avenues they could pursue that were worth paying for.  We could call it a kind of middle-class religion of self-determination or something like that.   Non-Americans could be happy with the trade-off but Americans ... I doubt it. 

Easy as it is to talk about a military-industrial complex it's been harder and harder to shake the impression that in the United States there's an educational-industrial complex and that it is no more benevolent or benign in the end than the aforementioned military-industrial one.  This isn't a knock on education as such but on the nature of the combined lending industries and academic industries that provide what is called education.  It's hard to forget that Supreme Court has heard cases where debate about the nature of right of first sale has come up.  I have my doubts that the problem is necessarily copyright as such, and that licensing is part of the issue--but where public education is concerned we can put it another way, textbooks have seemed like a scam for decades and it seems that educational institutions should consider the possibility of having as much of the reading course-loads as possible consist of public domain works.  How much do we really suppose anatomy and physiology for the human body has actually changed since the dawn of humanity?  A survey of literature class is probably as expensive as it ever was if "everybody" has a smart phone or a mobile device then couldn't a huge swath of reading be available via Project Gutenberg or archive.org?  Not speaking as an expert here, more just remembering stuff that drove me up the wall as a college student twenty years ago--it would seem as though we live in an age when the cost of reading materials that would have been college requirements decade in and out should be cheaper than ever.  It seems impossible to believe that that's the case, though.   The college textbook scam is probably still in place.    But I digress. 

Monday, August 21, 2017

If Scott Timberg's book was Culture Crash, about the destructionof the creative class, some folks think it was precisely the creative class that partook of the destroying of the old economy ... cue up Jacobin

For a while I read Scott Timberg's blogging and journalism but I eventually gave up.  He's attempted to articulate how and why he thinks the United States went so far off the rails.

http://www.artsjournal.com/culturecrash/2017/07/the-mess-were-in-politics-economy-and-journalism.html

He's also written about what he's regarded as the destruction of the "creative class".  I'd never heard of this "creative class" before about roughly four years ago, maybe five.  For long-time readers of the blog you'll recall that there were far, far more compelling and interesting things in Puget Sound to document and consider than what Scott Timberg defined as the creative class for Wenatchee The Hatchet.

Plus, there were occasional reviews of the Timberg book that made it seem like the book wasn't something I'd find all that compelling.  Sure, other journalists writing about arts journalism could be reflexively sympathetic to Timberg's polemic and points but ...

http://artsfuse.org/120537/fuse-book-review-culture-crash-the-people-who-followed-their-bliss-off-a-cliff/

One way of putting it is that if you lament the loss of the middle class and happen to be a Gen X'er who lost the kinds of jobs that middle class arts reporters were thinking they'd still have in this day and age you might have a bias toward feeling you lost a good thing because bad things happened for bad reasons.

Well ... depending on who you talk to the creative class was not so much the "victim" of the economic convulsions of the last fifteen years as a significant perpetrator of those convulsions. Not too surprisingly ... .

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/08/new-urban-crisis-review-richard-florida

...

Everywhere creativity is expected to do the work that industry once did, sometimes explicitly. For a few months, a vast former warehouse in Manchester was emblazoned with the words “creativity, forged in Manchester on the anvil of the industrial revolution.” The warehouse now hosts “corporate events with an urban edge.” The United Nation’s Conference on Trade and Development has a “Creative Economy” unit, which values the market in “creative goods” at $547 billion.
Needless to say, these initiatives have not solved the structural problems that British cities face. The Sage, a vast concert venue built in Gateshead in 2004, exists just blocks away from desperate poverty.

The results of last year’s Brexit vote show that these communities have enjoyed neither the promised economic revival nor growing tolerance: Gateshead voted leave by 56 percent, and Hull, designated the official “Capital of Culture” in 2013, rejected the European Union by 68 percent. Art is not delivering the goods.

People without independent wealth struggle to make a living from writing or from music. ...

It doesn't seem to even be a question on the left as much as on the right whehter or not making a living from writing or music is something that even "should" be possible.  It may seem terrible to put it that way, and certainly there are those who regard the arts as not really being work.  But let's entertain the notion that the kind of downward mobility the United States has faced in the last twenty or so years is ultimately not reversible.  Let's play, if briefly, with an idea that only those born into middle class white privilege (or significantly above) will have the luxury of thinking they "should" be able to make a living in the arts. 

What leftist writers seem to skirt around is the possibility that global capitalism could manage to survive just fine without the legacies of the Western empires as we've known them.  Any rising (rather than declining) empires will do.  If the left wants to salvage a West that can be a more egalitarian network of social safety networks that still runs into the argument that our collective dependence on fossil fuels means even that "pie" of wealth is ultimately planet-consuming and unsustainable.

So the potential irony of the entertainment industry and its cumulative carbon footprint addressing the problems of carbon footprints may be great.

A century ago John Philip Sousa's worry was that it was precisely the music industry people that were going to end up gutting cultural activity by removing the middle ground of amateur musicianship that existed between those who produced music and those who enjoyed it (i.e. consumed it).  At a cultural level the entire entertainment industry gutted what in an earlier epoch might have played the role of a cultural middle class, i.e. the "middle class" of amateurs.  He may have been wrong about a number of things when he addressed his concerns about the then nascent music industry but it's possible he was on to something in saying it was the great body of amateurs making music because they love making music that truly defined a musical culture above and beyond the vocational musicians and music teachers.  If that has substance to it then the highest the high art of a culture can go will be measured less by where the "ceiling" of the high level achievements are and more by how high the "floor" is from the "ground" of a basically unmusical culture.   The middle tiers of the entertainment industry will be constrained by this, too, perhaps.  If we want higher highs we won't get there by telling people (in what seems to be the arguments of a John Borstlap) that we need to cultivate and promote high culture and focusing on that too exclusively.  We might want to "raise the floor" rather than lament that the gap between the ceiling and the floor is always big or too big. 

If people keep trying to solve the problems they perceive in the arts only at the professional and money-making levels they're probably going to keep on failing.  Paul Hindemith's complaint about American music education was that it seemed to be little good for doing more than teaching music teachers who would, in turn, teach more music teachers; he also complained that the signal failure of American musical pedagogy was promoting the idea that you or your kid could be the next Beethoven, as if that were simply a matter of your own will and the collective gumption of American ambition. 

But do Americans believe that?  That's not likely if we have books discussing geographies of genius and discussing the exigencies of socialization and education and geography that are conducive to innovation in the arts or technology.

Now maybe having always worked in service jobs or clerical work it's too easy to regard the creative class as most likely a symptom rather than a solution for what ails a post-industrial technocratic society.  It's hard not to agree with something in "You are not an artisan" about how people today value conspicuous high-status production over inconspicuous practical production, aka celebrating the successful bard over the average chimney sweep.  Vestigial romanticism still seems to be with us to the extent that people want to celebrate a Mozart or a Beethoven, musicians born into musical families.  These are the profound and daring composers who have been preferred since the Romantic era to the work of Haydn--sure, music historians would say you have to respect that Haydn defined and consolidated the idioms that Mozart and Beethoven would experimentally expand but he tends to get presented as the one who codified the rules that later, greater composers would break.   This was not how Haydn was perceived in his own era and music theorists have been stymied by the fact that whatever they have tried to teach as the textbook approach to sonata forms was rarely how Haydn chose to write his music.   Whether in the arts or in business it seems we idealize and idolize innovation over consolidation but finding ways to responsibly consolidate and stabilize the good things we see around us might be the more ... responsible approach. 


Sherman Alexie has a Hymn that ... exists. Some thoughts about the oxymoronic nature of atheistic "grace" and a "sacred" collective of humans known for what they oppose

Even someone who didn't vote for Trump and regards him as a propagandist populist agitator of a depressingly predictable sort can, nonetheless, regard a recently published poem by Sherman Alexie as literary tripe.  To be sure, if you haven't read the poem then you should be able to read it over here.

https://earlybirdbooks.com/hymn-a-new-poem-by-sherman-alexie

Last time we looked at stuff to do with a poem and Sherman Alexie was a couple of years ago when there was a controversy involving a white author passing himself as Asian so as to have better odds of having a poem published, which decision was made by Alexie.

 http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2015/09/07/yi_fen_chou_is_michael_derrick_hudson_the_best_american_poetry_from_2015.html
http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/2015/09/like-most-every-poet-i-have-viewed-the-publication-of-each-years-best-american-poetry-with-happiness-i-love-that-poem-je-1.html
  http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2015/09/07/yi_fen_chou_is_michael_derrick_hudson_the_best_american_poetry_from_2015.html
http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/2015/09/like-most-every-poet-i-have-viewed-the-publication-of-each-years-best-american-poetry-with-happiness-i-love-that-poem-je-1.html
Particularly memorable was Alexie's comments:

Rule #9: I don't want to fill the damn book with poetry professors. I really want to choose some poets who work outside of academia. But I also don't want to bias myself against any poems because they happen to be written by poetry professors, so I will not read any biographies or contributor notes about any poets.
...
So, okay, as a result of these rules, what did I do with Best American Poetry 2015?
        Approximately 60% of the poets are female.
        Approximately 40% of the poets are people of color.
        Approximately 20% of the poems employ strong to moderate formal elements.
        Approximately 15% of the poems were first published on the Internet.
        Approximately 99% of the poets are professors.

At the risk of just straight up making Alexie's poetic career a class issue rather than a race issue, that's stuff to keep in mind about the nature of his consumption and production.  Alexie's work can be considered, let's just be willing to stoke a fire here, flamboyantly middle-brow.  Middle-brow isn't even bad a lot of the time but the thing is that I think Alexie is one of the best short-story writers I've read in the last twenty years while his poetry is considerably less amazing even at its best.  That poem he wrote that directly addresses Trump is, unfortunately, the sort of blundering, bloated bloviating doggerel that satisfies those college-educated sorts who view both Trump and any and all who may have voted for Trump with contempt.  My intense dislike of Trump and disagreement with Trump voters doesn't need to be rehearsed much.  I'm not going to tell my black friend who cheerfully voted for Trump that he somehow shouldn't have because he told me exactly why he did vote for Trump and it's not something to just rehearse at length here at a blog.

Alexie's poem is a piece of junk, the sort of shrill sanctimonious self-congratulatory rant you might expect from an egotistical teenage boy submitting an ostensibly powerful poetic statement to a high school literary magazine.  Coming from a celebrated author it seems shabby and smug--we might want to ask whether writing a poem that even names and addresses Trump isn't giving him a credit he might not entirely deserve.  This could be okay if we were talking about Stevie Wonder writing songs against Richard Nixon but Alexie's poem is more like Stevie Wonder lyrics stripped of every musical possibility.

It's not impossible to imagine this ...

I am one more citizen marching against hatred.
Alone, we are defenseless. Collected, we are sacred.


in a Stevie Wonder lyric, for instance.  But the question of why a collective would be sacred to someone who confesses to atheism seems patently absurd on its face and the more sincerely the bromide is meant to be and the more seriously it is meant to be taken the more absurd it becomes. 

Something else stuck out:

I'm an atheist who believes in grace if not in God.
I'm a humanist who thinks that we’re all not
Humane enough.  ...
While the poem is, overall, basically too junky to discuss in much detail that's an interesting claim.  Now decades ago Alexie gave an interview where he claimed to be Spokane Indian Catholic.  Maybe he still is, maybe he's an atheist now.  In any event, the sincerity of Alexie's belief or unbelief shouldn't automatically matter for the poem in question.  There's a question that can be asked regardless of sincerity or intent about the nature of the rhetorical flourish. Why an atheist should believe in grace would be the sort of thing that might be a fascinating question to answer rather than merely assert.   In a poem that explicitly addresses Trump and "hate" in pretty generic terms the possible answers to this question seem more open-ended than the poem and the poet might want them to be.  If the axiom to show rather than tell were the measure of a poem this poem is all telling rather than showing; and if art is thought to constitute asking questions rather than making statements then Alexie's poem isn't even really art in the end. 

And if brevity is truly the soul of wit this recent poem by Alexie is witless.  Comparing Trump to a caveman is as witty as British satirical cartoonists depicting George W. Bush as a chimpanzee.  The process of dehumanizing hasn't changed, Alexie has just opted to regard Trump as someone from the proverbial Stone Age.  A more humane humanist might even be able to get some dim idea of why somebody might have voted for Trump that has something to do with a more clearly defined hate than a nebulous and presumed white supremacist ideology.  I don't happen to agree with my black friend who cheerfully voted for Trump but I heard him out about his distrust of the banking regime we have and how the Clintons seem too cozy with it, or how he said that if Sanders had actually gotten the nomination he would have totally won.  It's impossible to know if Sherman Alexie really can be humane enough to imagine that not everyone who voted for someone he wishes weren't in office did so because of a particular ideology. 

Now the question of what "grace" is to an atheist is a question, indeed.  Does Alexie mean poise or elegance?  No, probably not. What is probably meant in a pandering and rambling poem is something vaguely like a religious concept of grace that conventionally means unmerited favor.

There could be a problem with believing in unmerited favor in strictly materialistic and atheistic terms.  In more traditional Marxist polemics wouldn't these people be considered ruling classes?  In our particular moment of combating hate, couldn't the simplest way to describe extravagant and unmerited favor be what many college students and professors have called it, white privilege?  After all, that's what "grace" can be in a material world where some people have benefited from generations of unmerited favor.  Does Sherman Alexie believe in that kind of grace?

There's no reason to think he does but any group can decide that though individually they are helpess that together they are sacred.  White supremacists view their collectivity as sacred, too, don't they?  Why should Sherman Alexie's numinous notion of the sacred collective mean anything as an opposition to the self-selected sacred community of white nationalists as they regard themselves?  If the community against hate is sacred then the atheist in Alexie's poem has just lapsed back into "our god is more holy and righteous than your god" and has done so apparently without the slightest trace of self-awareness or irony.  The poem is an ostentatious exercise in bad faith if Alexie is really an atheist, because the poem is a shambolic and cynical appropriation of religious ideals and idioms he doesn't believe in. There's some passage in one of the apostolic epistles about how there's a form of godliness that denies the power thereof ... .  

Hymns are, on the whole, far more concise and more memorable whether or not you agree with the religious dogmas articulated in those hymns.  All in all this Hymn was a long rambling hymn in praise of people who, as best can be discerned, simply didn't vote for Trump and are angry that white nationalists still exist.  Okay, then, amen. 

But if Alexie wants to sing the praise of those who aren't like him he could start with Trump voters and it looks from the spleen of the poem that he won't.   So the poet asserts that together "we" are sacred.  Big deal.  Even Nazis can do that. 

Without a plausible explanation as to why "we" are more sacred than "they" are the whole poem is a waste of time.  It will also fail because to the extent that an atheist traffics in religious imagery and themes the whole thing is self-attesting its bad faith.  Are we afraid of the virulent ideas of white supremacists and fascists gaining more public currency and access to institutional powers?  We have reason to be and yet ... can somebody answer the question as to what powers Trump has now that Obama didn't have a year ago? 

There's a problem in this poem, which is a problem of belief.  Alexie's poet tells us he's an atheist who believes in grace but not in god.  There's a reason this should be creepy to anything thinking reader.  If you believe in the "grace" but not in a god who could grant it then you're explicitly admitting to bad faith.  The scary thing is that the white nationalists most certainly mean it.  Alexie's atheist who believes in grace is automatically poetizing in bad faith as if he is in solidarity with a group of people who are against hate but on what basis does this mean anything?  As asked earlier, can't white supremacists regard their collective as sacred?  What counter-sacred does Alexie's poet have to appeal to?

That's the problem. That's not just a losing argument, to the extent that it's even an argument, it's an implicitly self-defeating argument.  There's nothing an atheist can appeal to as being sacred that won't need a defense of the sacred itself, and the idea that an atheist could regard something as sacred is paradoxical in a way that might call for a better poet than Sherman Alexie can possibly be.  He's basically blathered a poem in which he doesn't believe in gods but he believes in grace, even though we've considered the possibility here that "grace" in secular material and economic terms might be explicable as "white privilege".  White supremacists can believe in that kind of grace and they damned well want to hold on to it.  Appealing to the sum total of humanity as "we're better than this" seems to fly in the face of a history of humanity that suggests we're not, in fact, better than "this". 

Whatever Alexie hopes could possibly be "sacred" in his hymn to loving the stranger, it is parasitically dependent upon the ethical teaching inherent in ancient near eastern religions that extolled hospitality to strangers.  Alexie, who once identified as Spokane Indian Catholic when he did an interview with The Door decades ago, can't be so uneducated as to forget that loving the person you consider not only not your neighbor but your mortal enemy is just boiler-plate application of Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan.  Leveraging the ethical import of an ethical lesson preserved as the teaching of Christ as though it were something an atheist can invoke asks for something like an approximation that could have been given in the sprawling morass of the hymn but isn't. 

Alexie may still be regarded as one of the nation's great writers and poets, and if you were to stake that claim on his short stories I'd still say "yes, he's a brilliant short-story teller."  But if as a poet this recent poem is what he has to say at our current moment of crisis, then we might as well concede the poets have failed in the most miserable way possible.  If great poetry didn't stop Hitler from rising to power (and who in their right mind would have thought that it could?) then there's no way cut-rate boilerplate self-congratulatory doggerel is going to change things here and now, is there?

Saturday, August 19, 2017

after seeing a trailer for American Assasin, a thought or two on American exceptionalism as a spectrum-spanning thing, we get trailers for American Assassin, not American Court Stenographer

Whether it was "make America great again" or a rejoinder of "America is already great" the exceptionalism itself was beyond question.

This year I saw a trailer for a film I don't have any plans to see, called American Assassin.  It looks for all intents and purposes like one of those films where once you see the trailer you've seen the entire film. 

I think I might have seen the trailer before some friends and I were catching Dunkirk and I leaned over to tell one of the friends that it's always something like an American assassin or a sniper or a glamorous this or that.  We don't get films like American file-clerk or American stenographer.  Nobody's going to go out and make a movie called American piano tuner or American line cook or American forklift operator.

But even if there were a movie called American crossing guard, and let's say it was made ten years ago, it might have starred someone like Shia LaBeouf and there'd have been a trailer that would read vaguely as follows:

We might hear some voice over that says

VOICE-OVER:  In a world as big as the world we live in, even the simplest seeming jobs can have stakes of life ... and death.

CROSSING GUARD: [to children]  GO! GO! GO! GO!
children diffidently walk across the street
CROSSING GUARD: EVERYBODY NEEDS TO CROSS TO THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STREET NOW!!!!!

CROSSING GUARD braces for an impact off screen and is standing in front of children who have crossed the street

cut to pillar of fire explosion

Don't let anyone tell you to not dream big, after all. 

Perhaps no mainstream art is particularly concerned with capturing and exploring the humdrum in our era but if there is an art form as practiced in the United States that seems most explicitly inimical to the truly quotidian that would be film.  Nobody really wants naturalistic realism in film because all that would require is watching eight to twelve continuous hours of surveillance camera footage in a grocery story.  That might have been something of an Andy Warhol era experimental film, perhaps, but not something anyone would do either within mainstream Hollywood or even in what is ostensibly independent film-making. 

Concerns about American exceptionalism that have been expressed in editorials and articles of late seem too bound to consider a Trump administration rather than Clinton administration and, worse, too apt to consider the vices of American exceptionalism as emblematic of society rather than of the individuals who make up that society.  There may be no more street level American exceptionalism comparable to the exceptionalism of the corporate office than the conviction that rules should exist and people should be held to them ... except ... maybe ... for me. 

As easy as it is to make fun of mainstream American film for transforming our collective imagination into a big adventure of explosions and speeches and being true to ourselves this isn't necessarily not the case in other settings.  When The New Yorker has features on innovative developments in the adultery novel that presupposes that novels about adultery or so commonplace that the only reason to discuss yet another adultery novel narrative is for what makes it special compared to all the other ones already out there.  Book reviews of reasons people choose to not have children don't seem, as best I've been able to infer from reviews, to be collections of the reasons virgins have explained for why they don't believe they would ultimately make good parents. 

But on the whole the exceptionalism seems to work itself out in the arts through the exceptions that can be considered historic.  In a lot of ways that makes sense.  The exceptions that come to define whatever becomes a shared history is what we could expect of the arts.  We may not have epic poems and epic songs but we have epic movies just as in earlier days there were epic novels.  But can anything be epic and quotidian at the same time?  That may be an oxymoron greater than the oft-alleged oxymoron of military intelligence.  Then again ... I don't want to be too confident in such a surmise since Don Quixote might well be simultaneously quotidian and epic and I just don't know this for sure because that's one of the classics I haven't gotten to. 

But I would venture to guess that that's not an American approach to the arts.  The quotidian so often seems to be presented as a basis for suffering in American popular art, whether that art is considered lowbrow, middlebrow or highbrow.  If Jesus' instructions warned us that whoever is faithful with a little will be faithful with much the American response has so often seemed to be "Whatever, I want much now, already." A certain former megachurch pastor from the Seattle area relaunched himself as a preacher elsewhere and one of the axioms he had was you have to dream so big that if God doesn't make it happen it can't even work.  Yes ... that does sound like the American way a little bit, doesn't it? 

I've noted in the past how some authors have asked why science fiction can't seem to find a future beyond capitalism and I think that kind of question might be the sort that contributors to The Baffler would reflexively ask.  I think a more pertinent question, in light of the longevity of a franchise like Star Trek is whether Americans can envision a world worth living in and a human race worth saving that isn't ultimately the distillation of American mores and social values.  We've kept coming back to the dystopian and utopian science fiction tropes of the Reagan and JFK/LBJ eras, as though our collective national imagination is trapped in the red state and blue state civic religious eschatons without any room for a futurism in which the United States is altogether as has-been civilization. 

Who's to say whether or not it already is a has-been civilization?  We're a culture that may be determined, in our art if not necessarily always also in life, to stick to the rock and roll axiom that it is better to burn out than to fade away when the more equitable path that would benefit the most people would be to choose to fade away rather than insist on burning out.  Seeing trailers for films this year, whether high or low or mainstream or indie, it seems that that will not be the American way.  We'd rather imagine the end of the world than a world without US.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

a guest piece at Mere Orthodoxy regarding social conservatives vs tribal nationalism name-drops Edmund Burke but I wonder whether some of Burke's ideas have been summarily dropped by neo-cons long ago (as in never held to to begin with)

https://mereorthodoxy.com/social-conservatism-vs-tribal-nationalism/
...
Specifically, social conservatism was the political theory of Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Russell Kirk: the belief that tradition, family, mores, and religion are essential for justice, liberty, and flourishing. Law should protect and favor them. And government governs best when it governs closest to the people. William F. Buckley, a Roman Catholic, introduced the Burkean approach to the emerging conservative movement starting in the 1950s.

Now I admit, I really like a couple of things Edmund Burke wrote.  He's not always the easiest to read but you don't exactly expect a treatise on the distinction between the beautiful and sublime to be page-turning material, do you? 

But I was reading his address to Parliament on the topic of American taxation over the last year and one of the things that jumped out at me is a passage that doesn't get mention in, say, a Wikipedia entry on the address.  It's this part:

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15198/15198.txt

...

But I hear it rung continually in my ears, now and formerly,--"The preamble! what will become of the preamble, if you repeal this tax?"--I am sorry to be compelled so often to expose the calamities and disgraces of Parliament. The preamble of this law, standing as it now stands, has the lie direct given to it by the provisionary part of the act: if that can be called provisionary which makes no provision. I should be afraid to express myself in this manner, especially in the face of such a
formidable array of ability as is now drawn up before me, composed of the ancient household troops of that side of the House and the new recruits from this, if the matter were not clear and indisputable.
Nothing but truth could give me this firmness; but plain truth and clear evidence can be beat down by no ability. The clerk will be so good as to turn to the act, and to read this favorite preamble.
"Whereas it is expedient that a revenue should be raised in your Majesty's dominions in America, for making a more certain and adequate provision for defraying the charge of the administration of
justice and support of civil government
in such provinces where it shall be found necessary, and towards further defraying the expenses of defending, protecting, and securing the said dominions." [emphases original]


You have heard this pompous performance. Now where is the revenue which is to do all these mighty things? Five sixths repealed—abandoned—sunk—gone—lost for ever. Does the poor solitary tea duty support the purposes of this preamble? Is not the supply there stated as effectually abandoned as if the tea duty had perished in the general wreck? Here, Mr. Speaker, is a precious mockery—a preamble without an act—taxes granted in order to be repealed—and the reasons of the grant still carefully kept up! This is raising a revenue in America! This is preserving dignity in England! If you repeal this tax in compliance with the motion, I readily admit that you lose this fair preamble. Estimate your loss in it. The object of the act is gone already; and all you suffer is the purging the Statute-book of the opprobrium of an empty, absurd, and false recital.

There are a couple of passages that are considered wiki-worthy adjacent others that didn't get quoted, but those are the passages most salient to Burke's practical arguments.  Let's see ... :

Whether you were right or wrong in establishing the colonies on the principles of commercial monopoly, rather than on that of revenue, is at this day a problem of mere speculation. You cannot have both by the same authority. To join together the restraints of an universal internal and external monopoly with an universal internal and external taxation is an unnatural union,--perfect,  uncompensated slavery.  [the usual pull-quote stuff] You have long since decided for yourself and them; and you and they have prospered exceedingly under that decision.
Let's zero in on the following passage:

This nation, Sir, never thought of departing from that choice until the period immediately on the close of the last war. Then a scheme of government, new in many things, seemed to have been adopted. I saw, or thought I saw, several symptoms of a great change, whilst I sat in your gallery, a good while before I had the honor of a seat in this House. At that period the necessity was established of keeping up no less than twenty new regiments, with twenty colonels capable of seats in this House. This scheme was adopted with very general applause from all sides, at the very time that, by your conquests in America, your danger from foreign attempts in that part of the world was much lessened, or indeed rather quite over. When this huge increase of military establishment was resolved on, a revenue was to be found to support so great a burden. Country gentlemen, the great patrons of economy, and the great resisters of a standing armed force, would not have entered with much alacrity into the vote for so large and so expensive an army, if they had been very sure that they were to continue to pay for it. But hopes of another kind were held out to them; and in particular, I well remember that Mr. Townshend, in a brilliant harangue on this subject, did dazzle them by playing before their eyes the image of a revenue to be raised in America. [emphases added]

Here began to dawn the first glimmerings of this new colony system.  ...


The Empire had a new bad-ass array of regiments with officers capable of seats in Parliament.  Everyone was stoked about this new development and Burke's wry observation was to say that everyone was all applause so long as they would not be taxed for the upkeep of this notably expanded military presence that would maintain imperial activity abroad. 

The too long/didn't read conclusion Burke reached was to point out that the taxation that was installed and repealed for the purpose of providing the administration of justice and civil government in the American colonies was a sham. The real reason for the taxation was to maintain the standing military presence the English empire believed was necessary to maintain power in the new world.  You can't promise them by dint of an appeal to the need to tax them that they will have the rights and liberties of citizenship if the real reason you're taxing them is because you're treating them like a simple revenue stream.  If you try to do both of these things at once you'll get a rebellion on your hands.

It probably doesn't need to be said that Burke was right about that.  People don't mind paying taxes quite so much if in exchange they see some kind of benefit for it.  People mind being taxed if they feel like they won't benefit from it (or someone they know).  The emphasized passages are what I've been thinking about--Burke was pretty direct in pointing out that the men with wealth and property who would otherwise refuse to fund an army were stoked about this new army.  Why?  They didn't have to pay for it, it was going to be paid for by taxation on the American colonists.  Let's tax them for the upkeep of our army! 

Now I know that progressives tend to think of Burke as some stinky old dude who was opposed to democracy because he didn't like where he thought the French revolution was going to be going.  But if this is the same Edmund Burke who was sympathetic to American revolution against the royal tax policies; who urged tolerance for Catholics and Jews; and who advised that people in India defy the East India Company are we ... sure that Burke was the kind of conservative that contemporary American social conservatives present him as having been?  I was talking to one of my friends from the Mars Hill days who's always been a self-identified progressive (though a moderate one) for as long as I've known him and I told him that it seems as though if you sit down and read Edmund Burke without the dogmatic lenses of the contemporary left and right that progressives might find some of Burke's criticisms of imperial practice weirdly salient to our own time.  Raising revenue to maintain an army for national defense that is needed is one thing, exacting revenue from colonies to pay for your armies so you can keep having your colonial empire is another matter.  Now, sure, there's no reason progressives won't think lowly of Burke because of how long he's been invoked by the right but what if, to the extent that Burke can be thought of as having ideas worth studying, we need to temporarily shake off the canards of the left and right or the red and blue about Burke to reconsider what he actually had to say?

It's hard to imagine someone taking the ideas of Burke's condemnation of the policies of taxation on the American colonies as something that automatically defends the kind of military adventurism we've had over the last twenty to thirty years (or, really, everything going back to Kennedy and Johnson for that matter). 

Why couldn't people on the left invoke Edmund Burke to propose that if Americans are going to be taxed it should be for an infrastructure that will be beneficial to them rather than, say, for the defraying of a globe-spanning military empire?  The problem of trying to balance guns and butter isn't going to go away and at some point social conservatives might have to consider the possibility that the hawkish stance we've had over the last half century is going to ultimately be inimical to social conservatism if by that we mean actual stability of families and domestic life.  I don't consider myself particularly progressive overall but I'm curious, and because I'm curious I've been reading Burke in the last couple of years.  So I'm not always sure that what Edmund Burke said he meant about a few topics is necessarily the same as what mainstream right-leaning press says he meant.  Or as Jonathan Haidt has been putting it, there's a difference between respecting the intellectual heritage of conservatives and taking the Republican party seriously as a manifestation of those ideals and traditions.  So let's get back to the Mere O piece.

Burkean conservatism worried that family breakdown, secularization, cultural atrophy, administrative centralization, and the loss of citizen-shaping education would lead to damaged souls, damaged communities, and a damaged nation. As I’ve argued elsewhere, these ideas can be tested with the tools of historical investigation and social science. To the extent that they have been, socially conservative ideas have usually been vindicated (with nuance, qualification, and exceptions). On the whole, it is better for families to stay together, for schools to teach with rigor and have high academic and ethical standards, for a robust civil society to exist, and for religion to inform the conscience of a nation. And it is better for public policy to foster and encourage such things.

By 2016 it had become evident that Burkean conservatism—its intellectual coherence, philosophical depth and rigor, and consonance with Biblical political theology—was the working ideology of a tiny circle of intellectuals, not the voice of a broad movement. Evangelicals as a group either did not understand or did not care about the deeper ideas supposedly beneath their own movement. There is still widespread opposition to abortion and (decreasingly) gay marriage, but little evidence that such opposition is rooted in the ideas that were supposed to have animated social conservatism.

As quoted above, Burkean conservatism also proposed that taxing colonists under the pretense of providing civil government to them when the real reason for the taxation was to maintain a standing military force was going to end badly, probably with some kind of rebellion.  If some of the contributors past and present wonder how and why evangelicals who "should" be more sympathetic to red state values on both family and foreign policy seem more open to progressive fiscal policies I'm going to be just impudent enough to suggest that if they were really reading Edmund Burke and thinking about possible applications of his response to his times this might be a little less mysterious. 

Okay, as someone who's been going through Burke's thoughts on the French revolution it's certainly true Burke was against the abolition of all the institutions, customs and traditions that provided the social cohesion of a society.  This didn't mean that he didn't think that the way the British empire handled American taxation or its treatment of Catholics and Jews was exemplary.  As someone who still thinks of himself as an evangelical Protestant in the Reformed stream it seems ... nearly impossible to believe that what's colloquially known as the Religious Right embodies ideals of religious toleration after the manner of what Edmund Burke was advocating for in his own era.  In a way it's a little mysterious, reading Burke, how it is that conservatives in the United States manage to see him as their intellectual forebear on the one hand, and how progressives can somehow see Burke as an enemy of democratic processes or progressive ideals.  Was making a case for religious tolerance for Catholics and Jews in the 18th century an anti-progressive cause?

See, refract Edmund Burke through the American Puritan Roger Williams and it's hard to arrive at a conclusion that the power of the state should be used to give people much trouble. 

Now I agree that Americans wrongly equate loyalty to the United States with loyalty to the church. The problem is that there's a blue state as well as a red state version of this and in both cases the red and blue partisans who have decided they want Jesus on their side have reverse-engineered a Jesus who will get their platform across. 

So as I was talking with one of my progressive friends from the Mars Hill days I suggested that if actual Burkean style conservatives and progressives could manage to work together to scale back military adventurism that might be something.  The reason it seems so unlikely to happen is that we've got a left and right with people so devoted to totalitarian scorched earth methods the possibility of forging what would obviously be ad hoc and short term alliances toward common policy goals may never get to happen. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Fredrik Deboer on recalibrating social media use, but first, some stuff from jazz blogger Ethan Iverson and revisiting a Pierre Bourdieu quote for some table setting

Now I've regularly enjoyed and benefited from reading Ethan Iverson's blog over the years.  His plug for Louise Talma's piano sonatas was persuasive enough I gave them a listen.  His interview with Terry Teachout about Teachout's Duke biography was fascinating. I particularly liked his interview with George Walker and advocacy for Walker's piano sonatas, and I now own recordings and scores for all five of those.  Iverson has had some misfires, the most notorious of which, on the blogosphere, had to do with a certain interview that people either already know about or don't need to know about.

Yet there are times I find Iverson frustrating.  It's not a pedantic streak.  I expect people interested in teaching to have a finely honed pedantic streak, in fact anyone who does any kind of teaching probably should have some of that in them. No, it's more in passing bromides about how people should go to the opera at least once a year or about how terrible it would be if culture turned into Star Wars movies and video games.  I mean, Episode VIII wasn't quite as lame as South Park signaled they thought it was.  It had its flaws but those were more clearly elucidated by Film Crit Hulk. 

But the way I hear it and see it Star Wars is just carrying the torch lit by Wagner's operas.

And then Iverson's got stuff like this ... :

 
 
Smart people knew all along that Trump’s supporters were motivated by racism or racism as a business. Historically, the broke and ignorant will take any excuse to blame “the other” for their predicament. Historically, the enfranchised stoke xenophobic fears in order to keep their own hoard growing.
 
The broke and ignorant possessing extra amounts of outward aggression became empowered after Trump became president.
 
...
 
Smart people were sure Trump had no chance of winning the nomination, let alone the electoral vote.  yet here we are.  Somehow the priesthood of entertainers didn't call this outcome. 
 
Having said that, when I've tried to think of ways to articulate what seems to be the difference between a liberal and a leftist to conservative friends and relatives it seems Iverson's done me a kind of favor.  The glibness with which Iverson assumes that smart people know that the poor people take refuge in racism in voting for Trump.  Iverson, at least, got in the cross hairs of self-identified leftist composer John Halle as in the orbit of what he called "jazzbros", which is a whole other topic. But where Iverson's recent tossed off lines seem pertinent is in light of something Halle quoted from Pierre Bourdieu on "racism of the intellect":
 
 
 
(Translation of Bourdieu’s 1983 Racisme de l’intelligence republished here.)
 
 
It is necessary to understand that there is no such thing as racism. Rather there are racisms-as many racisms as there are groups which need to justify their status, which is the usual function of racism. It seems to me therefore very important to apply the same analysis to forms of racism which are undoubtedly the most subtle, the most elusive and therefore the most rarely denounced, possible because usually those making the denunciations are themselves inclined to this form of racism. I’m referring to the racism of the intellect.
 
 
Racism of the intellect among the dominant classes is distinguished in several ways from that which one typically designates as racism, namely, the petit bourgeois form which is the target of most critiques, most notably beginning with that of Sartre.
 
This form of racism is characteristic of a dominant class whose maintenance depends to some extent on the transmission of inherited cultural capital understood as inherent and therefore natural and innate. Racism of intelligence is that through which elites aim to produce a “theodicy (rationalization) of their own privilege”, as Weber characterizes it, which is to say a justification of the social order which they dominate. It is this which makes elites convinced of their own inherent superiority.
 
All forms of racism are based on essentialism and racism of the intellect is the rationalization of the social order characteristic of the elite class whose power resides in the possession of credentials which, as do scholarly credentials, are supposed to confer the possession of specialized knowledge. These have taken the place of aristocratic titles of previous epochs in many societies-and confer access to positions of economic power-in the same way that the latter did.

So if Bourdieu was on to something about what he called the racism of the intellect and Iverson wrote so readily about the kind of racism that Bourdieu said is a favorite whipping target of the petit bourgeois then was what Iverson wrote a candidate for an overt and casual display of "racism of the intellect?"  Iverson might propose "no" because he doesn't consider himself to be really an academic in the official scholarly sense but who would insist that the racism of the intellect Bourdieu described is necessarily that of scholars?  Scholars of autism surely don't look down on those in the autism spectrum simply by dint of being scholars.  Or to put it another way, contemptuous elitism looking down on the unwashed masses can happen from within the middle class as well as the upper crust.

Now if there is something to this argument then perhaps the kind of assertions we would expect to see among those who harbor what Bourdieu described as a racism of the intellect would be to condemn those they regard as ignorant as being anti-intellectual.  Of course ... it's possible that this mutual animosity could be described as not necessarily being just about race but about, yes, you guessed it by now, class.  In a Venn diagram class and race can overlap but aren't necessarily always overlapping.  Which might get to the next detour before we're getting to Deboer's blogging, the recently reported concern some folks have about suburban grade inflation making inequality bigger and badder than it would have been in contexts where grade inflation wasn't the thing it's been over the last twenty or thirty years.

... 
Here’s the latest, more profound way in which wealthier students have an advantage over lower-income ones: Those enrolled in private and suburban public high schools are being awarded higher grades—critical in the competition for college admission—than their urban public school counterparts with no less talent or potential, new research shows.
 
It’s not that those students have been getting smarter. Even as their grades were rising, their scores on the SAT college-entrance exam went down, not up. It’s that grade inflation is accelerating in the schools attended by higher-income Americans, who are also much more likely than their lower-income peers to be white, the research, by the College Board, found. This widens their lead in life over students in urban public schools, who are generally racial and ethnic minorities and from families that are far less well-off.  [emphasis added]
... 
The grade-point average of students at private high schools who took the SAT climbed between 1998 and 2016 from 3.25 to 3.51, or almost 8 percent, the College Board found in research to be published early next year.
  
In suburban public high schools it went from 3.25 to 3.36.
 
In city public schools, it hardly budged, moving from 3.26 to 3.28.
 
“If there were a uniform upward drift, then we would have one problem,” said Michael Hurwitz, the senior director at the College Board, who led the research. “But this drift causes another problem: The variation does seem aligned with wealth in a very troubling way.”
  
These findings are troubling, but not surprising, said Richard Weissbourd, the director of the Human Development and Psychology program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “To be attractive to parents,” private schools in particular, Weissbourd said, “need to be able to tout how many of their students went to selective colleges. So they’re incentivized to give better grades.”
 
The same concern about college admission drives parents of students in suburban schools to pressure principals and teachers, he said. “It becomes very high maintenance for schools to deal with aggressive parents. So that can also push grades up.”
 
Then the cycle repeats. [emphasis added]
 
“This is one of those things that works like a contagion,” Weissbourd said. “If you’re an independent school or a suburban school and you’re giving Bs and the school in the next community is giving A-minuses, you start to feel like those kids are going to get a leg up. So you start giving out A-minuses.”
 
 Of course we've linked to this Fredrik Deboer post "The Academic “Success Sequence” – Get Lucky at Birth, Mostly" before.  I've sarcastically but also seriously proposed that one of the problems with liberal arts studies and vocational entertainers in the current socio-economic climate in the United States and the United Kingdom is that they don't recognize they are part of a priestly ruling caste because they embrace an ideology of liberalism or progressivism but, more crucially, the art-religion they espouse in some sense exempts them from being a ruling caste because of inherent definitions.  So a Jennifer Lawrence can make more money per film than a million men or women might make in ten years but she is concerned that she's being underpaid compared to male co-stars.  It's not that there isn't an inequity in that so much as that the inequity in the amount of money entertainers get paid compared to the people who may clean their houses might be a sticking point to the point that people might have decided to note keep voting for the Democratic candidates the mainstream entertainment and DNC people told them to keep voting for. 
 
So in a way we're finally ready to pivot over to the recent Fredrick Deboer blog post.


https://fredrikdeboer.com/2017/08/16/recalibrating-your-sites/
...
What were other people thinking about, at least as far as could be gleaned by what they shared online? What appeared to be a big deal to them and what didn’t? I had lost my sense of social proportion. I couldn’t tell if the things my friends were obsessing about were things that the rest of the world was obsessing about. Talking to IRL friends that don’t post much or at all online helped give me a sense that I was missing something. But I didn’t know what.
 
No, I had to use the tools available to me to dramatically change the opinions and ideas and attitudes that were coming flowing into my mental life. And it had become clear that, though I have an RSS feed and I peruse certain websites and publications regularly, though I still read lots of books and physical journals and magazines, the opinions I was receiving were coming overwhelmingly through social media. People shared things and commented on what they shared on Facebook and Twitter, they made clear what ideas were permissible and what weren’t on Facebook and Twitter, they defined the shared mental world on Facebook and Twitter. They created a language that, if you weren’t paying attention, looked like the lingua franca. I’m sure there are people out there who can take all of this in with the proper perspective and not allow it to subtly shape your perception of social attitudes writ large. But I can’t.
 
 That these linguistic/conceptual bubbles exist on the left, right and center and whatever bubble you may be able to identify seems reliably given.
...
 
 
So I set about disconnecting, temporarily, from certain people, groups, publications, and conversations. I found voices that popped up in my feeds a lot and muted them. I unfollowed groups and pages. I looked out for certain markers of status and social belonging and used them as guides for what to avoid. I was less interested in avoiding certain subjects than I was in avoiding certain perspectives, the social frames that we all use to understand the world. The news cycle was what it was; I could not avoid Trump, as wonderful as that sounds. But I could avoid a certain way of looking at Trump, and at the broader world. In particular I wanted to look past what we once called ideology: I wanted to see the ways in which my internet-mediated intellectual life was dominated by assumptions that did not recognize themselves as assumptions, to understand how the perspective that did not understand itself to be a perspective had distorted my vision of the world. I wanted to better see the water in which my school of fish swims.
 
 
It’s all particularly disturbing because a lot of what you see and don’t online is the product of algorithms that are blunt instruments at best.
 
So I set about disconnecting, temporarily, from certain people, groups, publications, and conversations. I found voices that popped up in my feeds a lot and muted them. I unfollowed groups and pages. I looked out for certain markers of status and social belonging and used them as guides for what to avoid. I was less interested in avoiding certain subjects than I was in avoiding certain perspectives, the social frames that we all use to understand the world. The news cycle was what it was; I could not avoid Trump, as wonderful as that sounds. But I could avoid a certain way of looking at Trump, and at the broader world. In particular I wanted to look past what we once called ideology: I wanted to see the ways in which my internet-mediated intellectual life was dominated by assumptions that did not recognize themselves as assumptions, to understand how the perspective that did not understand itself to be a perspective had distorted my vision of the world. I wanted to better see the water in which my school of fish swims. [emphasis added]
 
...
 
I was prepared for this to result in a markedly different online experience for me, and for it to somewhat change my perception of what “everyone” thinks, of what people are reading, watching, and listening to, etc. But even so, I’ve been floored by how dramatically different the online world looks with a little manipulation of the feeds. A few subjects dropped out entirely; the Twin Peaks reboot went from being everywhere to being nowhere, for example. But what really changed was the affect through which the world was presenting itself to me.
 
I never managed to get on the Twin Peaks train.  This year the big revival of a classic television show that had me excited wasn't Twin Peaks, it was Samurai Jack. While I could write about how much fun season 5 was I'll spare you that if you haven't seen it yourself.  Instead we'll get back to the post.
 
You would not be surprised by what my lenses appear to have been (and still largely to be): very college educated, very left-leaning, very New York, very media-savvy, very middlebrow, and for lack of a better word, very “cool.” That is, the perspective that I had tried to wean myself off of was made up of people whose online self-presentation is ostentatiously ironic, in-joke heavy, filled with cultural references that are designed to hit just the right level of obscurity, and generally oriented towards impressing people through being performatively not impressed by anything. It was made up of people who are passionately invested in not appearing to be passionately invested in anything. It’s a sensibility that you can trace back to Gawker and Spy magazine and much, much further back than that, if you care to.
 
Perhaps most dramatic was the changes to what – and who – was perceived as a Big Deal. By cutting out a hundred voices or fewer, things and people that everybody talks about became things and people that nobody talks about. The internet is a technology for creating small ponds for us to all be big fish in. [emphasis added] But you change your perspective just slightly, move over just an inch, and suddenly you get a sense of just how few people know about you or could possibly care. It’s oddly comforting, to be reminded that even if you enjoy a little internet notoriety, the average person on the street could not care less who you are or what you do. I recommend it.
 
...
 
Everyone knows, these days, that we’re living in digitally-enabled bubbles. The trouble is that our instincts are naturally to believe that everyone else is in a bubble, or at least that their bubbles are smaller and with thicker walls. But people like me – college educated, living in an urban enclave, at least socially liberal, tuned in to arts and culture news and criticism, possessed of the vocabulary of media and the academy, “savvy” – you face unique temptations in this regard. No, I don’t think that this kind of bubble is the same as someone who only gets their news from InfoWars and Breitbart. But the fact that so many people like me write the professional internet, the fact that the creators of the idioms and attitudes of our newsmedia and cultural industry almost universally come from a very thin slice of the American populace, is genuinely dangerous. [emphasis added]
 
I suppose I could queu up a quote from Jacques Ellul about how journalists and entertainers are inherently part of that new post-industrial aristocrat caste known as propagandists ...
 
PROPAGANDA: THE FORMATION OF MEN'S ATTITUDES
JACQUES ELLUL
Translated from the French by Konrad Kellen & Jean Lerner
Vintage Books Edition, February 1973
Copyright (c) 195 by Alfred A Knopf Inc.
ISBN 0-394-71874-7


from footnote on page 252... The propagandist is a technician and a member of an aristocracy of technicians that establishes itself above the institutions of a democracy and acts outside its norms. Besides, the employment of propaganda leads the propagandist to cynicism, disbelief in values, non-submission to the law of numbers, doubts on the value of opinions, and contempt for the propagandee and the elected representative; he knows how public opinion is fashioned. The propagandist cannot subject himself to popular judgment and democracy. Finally, the propagandist is privy to all State secrets and acts at the same time to shape opinions: he really has a position of fundamental direction. The combinations of these three elements make the propagandist an aristocrat. It cannot be otherwise. Every democracy that launches propaganda creates in and by such propaganda its own enemy, an aristocracy that may destroy it.
 
When it's put like that perhaps the creepiest thing about the current executive is that he's emerged from within the propagandist caste and so other members of the propagandist castes recognize one of their own? 
 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

John Halle writes a defense of Kenny G against the respectability politics of "real" jazz

http://johnhalle.com/outragesandinterludes/musical-deplorables-notes-neoliberalism-jazz-purism-kenny-g/

A few weeks ago, an off duty flight attendant discovered that her neighbor on a Tampa to Los Angeles flight was a musical celebrity. Having recently lost her daughter to brain cancer, she suggested an impromptu performance to raise money to for cancer research. The request was immediately agreed to, resulting in the artist strolling down the aisles with his instrument, passing the hat for donations which quickly exceeded the $1,000 goal.

All that would seem innocuous enough. But as might be expected within some corners of the internet, what was an anodyne act of charity became the grounds for opening the floodgates of abuse.
Why this was the case will make sense when name of the musician is revealed, a figure so universally reviled that to utter a word in his defense is to invite social ostracism, namely “the weasel-toned saxophonist,” as he was referred to by the New York Times, Kenny Gorelick, or Kenny G, as he is known to his fans. So toxic are the sounds he emits that an encounter with them constitutes “torture”-the aural equivalent of the United Airlines assault of one of its passengers, which had occurred only a few days before.

At least, such was the perception of the cross section of the left/liberal consensus which appears on my twitterfeed.

As was often the case within this sector, the apparent fact of the matter was something other than what was imagined. According to reports, many passengers on the flight found it the exact opposite having reveled in “the show of a lifetime.”

But these expressions of enthusiasm were easily written off. They were, after all, deriving from a “large crowd” whose “basest impulses” manifest “callous disregard for the larger issues . . .marking a new low point in modern culture – something that we all should be totally embarrassed about – and afraid of.” All this “we ignore. . . at our own peril.”

This bit of cultural news or trivia passed me by ass I'm not a Kenny G fan and have never much liked his music.  But if he put on an impromptu charitable performance to raise money for cancer research, that's great.   It's certainly possible to not be on the same page as Halle about his "Jazz After Politics" piece or even the various heated reactions written to that piece (although, in a way, that could have invited an opportunity to revisit Adorno's "On Jazz" polemics as having possibly been vindicated, even though I think there are reasons to reject that assessment (interesting to me now is how Halle's piece predated the no-jazz-at-Yale incident that would happen the following year, and get a response by Ethan Iverson, one of a number of people Halle seemed to bracket into the "jazzbro" category).  Still, this recent defense of Kenny G was interesting reading because what Halle decided to take direct aim at was the respectability politics of despising Kenny G's music.

One might dare to suggest Kenny G's music is so widely despised among respectable circles that nobody would even think to suggest, as has been done with so much more popular and respected entertainment acts, that Kenny G was guilty of cultural appropriation--who, after all, would dare to suggest that whatever Kenny G culturally appropriated was worth appropriating if they could figure out what it was!?  ;) 

Halle wrote:
...
Metheny and those who cite him have evidently failed to learn the underlying lesson from the collapse of these defenses of the traditional canon. For it will be apparent that their criticisms amounts to little more than retrofitting the discredited assumptions of the old musicology to defend a post modern “high/low” distinction. The only difference is that pure jazz now occupies the summit (1) with the debased form represented by Kenny G and others viewed as fundamentally unserious and beneath discussion. The grounds on which this is claimed to be so is just as was the case in the benighted past: some analytic characteristic is shown to be present or absent in the objective structure of the music and taken to be a proxy for aesthetic merit, artistic seriousness of purpose or the lack of it based on the assumption the there is a necessary connection. But that matters are not so simple, while taken for granted within what was formerly known as “classical” music, has evidently yet to register with those who concerned with policing the boundaries of jazz.

For example, for them, G making use of a “limited vocabulary” constitutes a de facto criticism. It is, however, obvious that this is not the case and that Metheny himself doesn’t believe that it is: for if any composer can be described a making use of a “limited harmonic and melodic vocabulary” it is Steve Reich, whose Electric Counterpoint Metheny himself commissioned and presumably admires. What is the difference between the “minimalism” of Kenny G and that of Reich? Showing that there is one is not so trivial. But even if we could determine what it is, it would not answer the question why “we” (those claiming to have acculturated and informed musical tastes) tend to value the music of Reich above Gorelick.

Or, moving closer to Kenny G’s soul/pop/jazz idiom, if a “limited” harmonic and melodic vocabulary is a fatal flaw, what to make of the blues? Yes, one finds objectively less chromaticism in B.B. King, Muddy Waters or Albert Collins than in Wagner or William Byrd. But only a pedant or a chauvinist would suggest that this, or any “limitation” unearthed via a music theoretical analysis should take precedence over the visceral experience evoked by the blues.

At this point I'd interject that what we can find in music is that simplicity in one area can be offset by complexity in some other area.  Anyone who has tried to play music in open D and open G tunings on a guitar will understand how drastically your range of easily-played notes becomes.  That helps me appreciate why blues recordings can blur together.  A lot of songs in A and D and E and G where open strings abound.  It used to bug me sometimes but I can respect it as a convention and the guitar lets you play the same note in six different places if you've mastered the geography of the fretboard.

Ah, back to my actual point, a harmonically and melodically "simple" musician like John Lee Hooker can abound in subtleties in rhythm.  There's all kinds of beautiful things you can do in compound meters that John Lee Hooker did throughout his career even when it could seem to an inattentive listener he was just endlessly vamping on a seventh chord in an open G tuning, or open D. If you can't hear oblique motion you might slip into thinking this performance, for instance, is just constant vamping on a single chord.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGJ0z2gS7V0

Not too surprisingly, Halle builds up to this point, which is not so much a defense of Kenny G's music itself (of which he, too, has never been a fan).

...

At this point some readers are probably wondering why I devoted 1300 words to meta-theoretical questions provoked by the music of Kenny G-probably 1300 words more than any previous discussion of the subject.

I should make clear that, appearances aside, it is not my intention to defend Kenny G or his music for which I have as little intellectual and temperamental affinity as those attacking it. But while the music doesn’t require a defense, those being belittled for their musical preferences and, by implication, their lack of intelligence and sophistication do. And it is one which they deserve to have since, as was demonstrated above, the attacks on them are fundamentally fraudulent in that the supposed authority on which they are based collapses when subjected to scrutiny. [emphasis added]

With that in mind, we can return to the comparison alluded to above: what accounts for near identical rhetoric deployed in jazz purist attacks on Kenny G and those emanating from the political establishment against Trump.

Which, as so often happens lately when I read about these kinds of things, reminds me of what Richard Taruskin described as the gap between the academic canon of music and the repertoire canon of music; between that music which is regarded as respectable to discuss and teach in colleges and which people pay to hear with their own money in concerts and through recordings. 

Getting back to Iverson ...
https://ethaniverson.com/2015/09/02/credo/

Robert Blocker put his foot in it properly last week. Outraged tweets on my timeline were soon followed by several valuable longer objections.

Alex Ross.

Michael Lewanski.

Matthew Guerrieri. (If you look at just one of these links, make sure it’s this one, a brilliant set of unlikely connections concluding with a luminous call to arms. Soho is always a good read.)


It’s so nice when a member of the opposition makes a public mistake, it gives us a chance to pile on and declare what we are striving for on our side.

...

I'm sure for most people the talk of not teaching jazz at Yale came and went without so much as a thought but amongst blogging musicians it was a big thing, even a scandal.  Iverson didn't unpack so much as suppose a definition of "opposition" to jazz being taught at a place like Yale as part of the Western canon.  There's something of a self-imposed double bind in Iverson's approach which seems not atypical of self-identified liberal white musicians who like jazz.  Let's see if we can come up with a demonstration:
...

All the jazz greats existed outside the system. Indeed, most of them ignored the limitations of their racist society to create not just music but whole ways of living that forced fellow Americans to give respect. This kind of cunning, streetwise, and unstated elegance is a key to the music. I’ve never met an important jazz musician who wasn’t some kind of gangster. (The last sentence could be said of most significant artists in any field, but it might particularly apply to jazz.)

Outside what system?  The music business?  The American market?  Or does the system refer more strictly to American academics.  Because if the jazz greats existed outside the system ...

Thelonious Monk's The Complete Riverside Sessions had to come from somewhere.
How about Ellington's RCA/Victor centennial edition?  How much did this great musical legacy really exist "outside the system"? 

Some kind of gangster?  Like racketeering or violent crime?  Really?  If Iverson was so sure that important jazz musicians were always some kind of gangster then jazz fans like him and others shouldn't have found Terry Teachout's biography on Ellington so upsetting.  Is it so difficult to grasp that Ellington's band could be both a haven and a prison for the openly gay and black Billy Strayhorn, whose nickname for his boss was "Monster"?  Or was it awkward to read that a lot of what Ellington pursued could be described as a politics of respectability?  Gaining respect, earning respect and using that respect as a platform from which to press for better treatment was considered a legitimate path to take by more than just a few blacks in the United States, wasn't it?  Or could a mythology of the American outlaw risk distorting the history of jazz a teensy bit? 

Iverson gets to another composer in the aforementioned blog post.

I’ve gotten quite interested in Harold Shapero, a major composer who just might have been the greatest American Neo-Classicist. When he died only recently, I had barely even heard his name, partly because he hadn’t composed much since about 1960.

There were apparently two reasons Shapero stopped composing, both connected to college. He became a teacher himself: He stopped being a gangster. He fell in, raised a family and had hobbies. (All this is very bad for artistic production.)


Somehow ... it's a little tough to buy the idea that Harold Shapero was a gangster. There's a phrase that sometimes pop up in discussions about politics about the state having what's sometimes called a monopoly on legitimate violent.  If the difference between a gangster and a cop can be elucidated in the bluntest colloquial terms, the difference is the monopoly of legitimate violence.  The cop has it by dint of being part of the state machinery and the gangster doesn't.  There in is the blood-letting rub, we know many, many times the monopoly the state has on legitimate violence gets used toward ends we could agree are not legitimate on the one hand, on the other hand a lot of violence perpetrated without the rubber stamp of the state is not necessarily legitimate just because a gangster does it. 

 Iverson's got a bit more awe of serialism as a style than I have been, but he highlights something Halle addressed in another context, the dominance of serialism and atonality in American academic composition and theory textbooks:

The other reason was peer pressure to deal with the twelve-tone system. “Academic” is right! A whole crew of postwar intellectuals seized power in the universities and declared that rigorous atonality was the perpetual future.

When Blocker says, “new music,” I suspect that this kind of  unpopular “academic” genre is what he’s talking about. Of course, “new music” could mean just about anything these days, and I certainly don’t know what exactly they are up to at the Yale composition department. But surely a gold standard for the phrase “new music” is Milton Babbitt, and it is impossible to divorce Babbitt’s (terrific) music his academic positions at Columbia and Princeton.

Having never heard of Shapero, that I can recall, prior to reading Iverson's mention of him, I'd hesitate to agree with "major".  I've found that on the whole I've got better things to do with my time than listen to Babbitt, even if I can get there being a certain cheeky humor to something like "All Set".  I have a few recordings by Penderecki, Lutoslawski, Xenakis, Ligeti, Kurtag and a few others so it's not like I have no appreciation for avant garde concert music but Babbitt ... eh, has moments but I'm still just not sold on the idea that Milton Babbitt or Elliot Carter comprise more than a long-term dead-end without a foundational apparatus (there's a pun for you, cue up Benjamin Britten's concern that a lot of "foundation music" was written to please well-heeled patrons without seeking a wider audience) to keep it alive.  Aka a proverbial hothouse growth. 

There was a period of time in which serialism and atonality was held to be the legitimate way "forward" for the art of music.  Atonality as symbolic of the exhaustion of the language of Western European expressionism and Romanticism distilled in Schoenberg was something Adorno famously got behind.  If there was a Hegelian end of history that could be translated into a self-aware end of art then maybe atonality represented art able to reflect on the ends of German Romanticism.  I ... actually kinda do like the Schoenberg violin concerto ... but Schoenberg paid tribute to the music of Gershwin and said there was still music to be written in the key of C major.  Adorno was less reconciled to this possibility. 

But Iverson's defense of jazz comes with a certain kind of trade-off.  He wants jazz taken seriously as an art as high as Bach or Stravinsky but he doesn't really want the art culture of a century from now to be comic books, video games or Star Wars movies.  Halle's larger polemic regarding jazz and politics is that once jazz ended up on the right side of respectability politics its advocates started to look down on pop and mass culture in much the same way that defenders of the literature musical tradition of Western Europe looked down on jazz as a base dilution of anything good about the art music tradition.  If Adorno looked down on jazz compared to Beethoven and Schoenberg then Ethan Iverson can look down on Star Wars and Batman movies compared to Milton Babbitt and Bud Powell.  Okay.

I just refuse to concede that we can't study Stevie Wonder's harmonic vocabulary in a way that insists that it has to somehow be different than a similar study of the harmonic vocabulary of Scriabin or Stravinsky.  I get that Ben Johnston and others who have followed in the wake of Harry Partch have liked to say equal temperament is an acoustic lie.  I can even get why they say that.  But for all of us who aren't in a collegiate system with access to programmers and resources to map out microtonal possibilities we use fixed pitched instruments like guitars.  Johnston, at least, has declined to insist on his approach being "the" way, it's just one of many possible ways to take from the older musical traditions and use them to create something new.  His argument that serialism and associated techniques are refined forms of organic thematicism and that these can still work in tonality but are not sufficient devices to work past the cognitive constraints of the human brain (i.e. serialist music makes sense to the producer but not the untrained would-be consumer), is more cogent than anything I've seen from the Future Symphony Institute side of things against either Schoenberg or Adorno. 

It's been noted by a few music historians that the revolution that took place in the early Baroque by way of the Florentine Camerata was a revolution undertaken by educated amateurs.  It's possible that if we live in an era of mercantile powerhouses in the United States that elements of the Baroque era won't literally repeat themselves ... but history could rhyme. 

It can seem as though, per Halle's polemic, that the battle for the respectability of jazz in academic contexts may be moot if it's turned out to be a music enjoyed by a ruling elite.  A lot of people I've met in my life say they just don't like jazz.  I like jazz but I have wondered whether it's procedures have become so entrenched and sclerotic that the relationship between the popular and the idioms of jazz have fractured past the point where they will be recovered without a titanic amount of effort. 

A particularly vicious irony could be if a musician like Kenny G has retained the ability to play impromptu concerts because, whatever his failures to comply with the criteria of high art sanctity, he has worked in a pop idiom close enough to what people enjoy to retain a connection to an audience.  Kenny G is probably not going to end up being discussed in academic musicology, ever, but that might be the thing about being popular, he won't need that.  Respectability politics, whether the aspirational kind through which some black artists sought to gain and retain respect to make a social point about the injustice of racism or the other kind of respectability politics that seeks to fence out the "wrong" kind of popular music from being taken seriously as art, is obviously never necessarily the same thing as being popular. 
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