Thursday, July 28, 2016

the guys at Mere Orthodoxy discuss populism in the US and UK, here's a proposal that American evangelicalism might need to abandon older forms of dispensationalism to embrace the long-road approach Anderson advocates

It's about 41 minutes and there's not a ton to add as to the content on the podcast itself except to say that Andrew's garbled again, and the content is fairly self-explanatory if you listen to it.

A couple of thoughts in response.

One of the things we've been coming back to over and over this year is Jacques Ellul's writing about propaganda in the technological society.  Agitating populists like Trump and Sanders are able to attain their respective roles because of mass media and social media.  What Ellul could not have anticipated was that what he called horizontal propaganda (intra-group peer-generated propaganda) and sociological propaganda (propaganda saturated into the daily lives of participants of a society) has become a daily routine thanks to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.  Big Brother hardly needs lift a finger to generate that sort of propaganda now, we make all of that ourselves and congratulate ourselves and/or each other on the cleverness of the political meme we link to on Facebook showing the stupidity and/or hypocrisy of the enemy teams.  Big Brother doesn't need to make you do what you gladly volunteer to do at your own time and expense. 

Something that was mentioned about evangelicalism in the US was how it seems averse to carefully thought through long-term political reasoning.  I have an idea abou tthat, being the ex-Pentecostal that I am.  Over the course of the last century American Christianity (perhaps across the board but most obviously in Protestantism) shifted from a 19th century postmillennialist optimism to premillenialist dispensational apocalypticism.  If the 19th century postmillennialist was gladly anticipating the realization of a Manifest Destiny, the dispensationalist in the 20th century began to view everything as signs of the times.

The recent death of Tim LaHaye should just make this easier for Christians  in the United States to remember what a more-than-cottage industry books on eschatology have been in popular imagination.  When you have American Christians formulating political discourse in the most apocalyptic terms imaginable it's not a big leap to infer from this that taking the long-term road Matthew Lee Anderson hopes social conservatives can take is not going to be on the table.  If we're all waiting for the next revival to make America a Christian nation again then there's not going to e a lot of work or thought put into imagining what it might like to live not as Christians in a post-Christian America but to formulate a life of faith that can be a form of post-American Christianity.  If I'm getting a sense of what Dreher is up to in writing about the Benedict Option that seems like one of the range of meanings in the term.

Alastair Robertt has already written about evangelicalism's poor form so there's hardly anything to add to that.  I just fel t obliged to suggest that eschatological schools of thought are important to consider as we look at how evangelicalism grapples with things.  If there was a thing a certain preacher in Seattle did I still respect it was refusing to endorse either premillenialist dispensationalism on the one hand or the postmillennialist theonomies on the other.  He didn't have the nerve to embrace or endrose an alternative like historicism or amillenialism but he was at least anxious to say what he didn't endorse and part of that was seeing how unsuitable such views are for formulating long-term cultural enterprises.  You can't influence the region if you're anxious abou the potential return of Jesus in three weeks based on stuff Jack and Rexella said on TV last night.

over at Current Affairs Alex Nichols objects to the way that the powers that be are into Hamilton

In that respect, Hamilton probably is the “musical of the Obama era,” as The New Yorker called it. Contemporary progressivism has come to mean papering over material inequality with representational diversity. The president will continue to expand the national security state at the same rate as his predecessor, but at least he will be black. Predatory lending will drain the wealth from African American communities, but the board of Goldman Sachs will have several black members. Inequality will be rampant and worsening, but the 1% will at least “look like America.” The actual racial injustices of our time will continue unabated, but the power structure will be diversified so that nobody feels quite so bad about it. Hamilton is simply this tendency’s cultural-historical equivalent; instead of worrying ourselves about the brutal origins of the American state, and the lasting economic effects of those early inequities, we can simply turn the Founding Fathers black and enjoy the show.
Kings George I and II of England could barely speak intelligible English and spent more time dealing with their own failed sons than ruling the Empire —but they gave patronage to Handel. Ludwig II of Bavaria was believed to be insane and went into debt compulsively building castles — but he gave patronage to Wagner. Barack Obama deported more immigrants than any other president and expanded the drone program in order to kill almost 3,500 people — but he gave patronage to a neoliberal nerdcore musical. God bless this great land.
Vocational artists have always been the servants and builders in their art of empires.  Why should this era be any different?  The delusion would be to think that it would ever be different.  Even a cursory perusal of the history of Soviet art, music and literature will show that you can be as far left as you can imagine things being and empire tends to behave the same way.  Identity politics on the left, unfortunately, has become a fantastic means by which artists can pretend that what they do is socially responsible when it doesn't materially help the plight of the working class (as if that could ever ultimately be permanently remedied anyway).   This sort of outrage is tragic for how willfully myopic it is about the history of the arts as a whole.  Like Miyazaki's Caproni asked, would you choose to live in a world with or without the pyramids?  The pyramids were built by people who did not necessarily get to choose that as their lifelong project; conversely, if there were no art would there be no repression?  Obviously not.
If the left were a bit more consistent about the ideal that the repressive one percent were more culturally diverse that'd be okay, sort of, but that's not likely to happen.  The collective ownership of the means of production is a pipe dream more absurd than the secret Rapture awaited by Christian fundamentalists.  We can live in a land where there's private ownership and we can live in a land where the means of production is managed by a party and we can live in a place where there's a mixture, but at not point will there be a truly collective ownership of the means of production.
The question that will beset humanity is not whether or not some group of people will be scapegoated and repressed but who will be scapegoated and repressed and what the narrative rationale for that scapegoating will be.  Yeah, I grant that's not a very rosy assessment of the human condition. 
As a brief thought experiment, what if predatory lending isn't draining wealth?  What if it is a fiction that insists on pretending that there is wealth where no measurable wealth is able to be created?  That kind of wealth bubble can't go on forever, can it?  Or is that functionally the foundation of what the left and right hope can continue going on in the United States?  Nichols' argument highlights racial injustices without addressing directly the question of whether that can ever be atoned for.  The outrage only comes off as plausible on the presumption that the wrongs can in some sense be atoned for. 
But if they can't then attempting to right wrongs that cannot be made right is going to end in failure.  It's easier to talk about what could conceivably be done for blacks to the extent that they weren't quite as successfully slaughtered off the face of the earth the same extent Native Americans were.  But then one of the problems with the way race gets brokered by the left and right is that it has been framed in such literally and figuratively black and white terms there's a danger of forgetting that a lot of racial injustice was done in the name of the most enlightened as well as the most conservative ideals of our nation-shaping forbears. Even a city as progressive as Portland, Oregon rests in a state that was chartered as a white supremacist utopia in so many respects that the difficult of attempting to address race is that even the most progressive communities can't escape the reality of the racist component of our foundation. 
There are those who would urge that we challenge each other to live up to a consistency of our highest ideals.  If the creators of Hamilton take that approach then Nichols' polemic has to at least account for that at some point.. If Nichols doesn't buy that the challenge is in whether or not the American experiment deserves to fail on its own historically racist terms.  Maybe it does.  Maybe the entire edifice deserves to die but in that case the kinds of programs and policies progressives have been asking for might run into a problem, asking the empire of oppression to redistribute wealth that can only have been obtained by historic injustice.  This could become a double bind of the radical left's own rhetorical making.  The real discomforting truth may be there will never be a solution for the plight of the working class and that humanity, after so many millennia, will never stop scapegoating; will never stop resorting to violence in word and deed as a solution that creates more problems; and that the temptation to empire exists in the heart of everyone regardless of whatever anti-imperialist bromides they may share on the net. These impulses may be easier to head off at the pass if we recognize they can exist in each of us, but the kinds of rhetorical flourish Nichols indulges in don't seem to grant that. 
It's tough for me to take seriously the moral objections of anyone who can get an article published in Current Affairs complaining about the 1 percent as though being able to write such a piece inherently exempts a person from being part of an upper class at a global level.  Sure, we can potentially shuffle things about the proverbial one percent by means of policy but what won't change is that there will be a one percent. 

It isn't entirely clear to me progressives grasp that a tolerant liberal democratic society may depend on the stability of what has traditionally been called an empire.  The wealth the left would like to see redistributed is still wealth gained by empire, unless we can thread the needle here and propose that there is some possibility of an empire that is not aggressively imperialist.  If the right tends to straight up defend empire the left in the West seems determined to not concede how much of the traditions of liberalism have depended on social and philosophical and economic developments within what were formerly monolithic cultures that separately aspired to empire.  World War I didn't just happen out of thin air, after all.

Let's float an idea that Marxism is in some key respects nothing more than a secularized Judeo-Christian apocalyptic idiom, not unlike 19th century postmillennialist optimism but without the theocratic rationale--in its place you just get historical materialism and a different foundation for what could still just as easily be a manifest destiny, the kind that was arguably in play as the Soviet Union, under Stalin, expanded its reach in the wake of the end of World War II. 

The general lament that well-funded art can be seen as celebrating an empire is to deliberately miss the entirety of art history for every medium. Of course an American musical aspiring to be a fusion of hip hop and the Broadway music telling a version of the life of Alexander Hamilton could be taken as art that celebrates empire.  When the film industry cranks out films that film critics say in reverential reviews discuss the power of the art of film it's not as if we can't say that the arts in the West haven't solipsistically drifted into the kinds of self-rationalizations so typical of late capitalism that even leftists trick themselves into thinking their art doesn't serve an empire.  That might be the real power of the political ideology of liberalism in the early 21st century,

That the musical may be as over-hyped as other popular musicals could probably go without saying; but it is hardly a surprise that as something becomes popular in the writerly scene at least a couple of writers will aspire to show in apocalyptic terms how it betrays the aims of true art or true politics.

What I have yet to actually read is a discussion about the music in the musical as music ... beyond Terry Teachout's remark that he enjoyed the thing overall but wish there were more memorable hooks and tunes in it.  It kind of figures a self-avowed fan of Haydn such as Teachout would write that.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

KCET org feature on Boyle Heights gentrification and land development "Art and Complicity: How the Fight Against Gentrification in Boyl Heights Questions the Role of Artists"

Regular readers will know that this year we've had a blog post or two about artists vs the social welfare of non-artists.  Ever since Hayao Miyazaki completed The Wind Rises and film critics rushed to say it was a film about artists I've been stuck on this idea that if that's really what the film is about Miyazaki's most piercing observation has gone largely unremarked upon, that the vocational artist is invariably both the builder and servant of some kind of empire.  There are some artists and writers and musicians who would say that all art is political.  Then, in that sense, all art is propaganda made by the artists as servants of ideology on behalf of that ideology's empire.  If the reactionary right forever bewails the eternally receding golden age the left seems to have another problem, failing to recognize its own imperialist ambitions within any given cultural context and the existence of its own empires.

To put the matter another way, making a safe space for artists of a particular set of groups can be seen as a threat that could displace poor people in a neighborhood and disrupt what used to be what they had of a job base.
 Art and Complicity: How the Fight Against Gentrification in Boyle Heights Questions the Role of Artists

Carribean Fragoza|
July 20, 2016
Boyle Heights has witnessed eastbound waves of gentrification that have transformed Echo Park and Highland Park into more affluent and white neighborhoods. The proliferation of artist studios and galleries has come to signal the arrival of additional enterprises that raise property values and cost of rent for businesses and housing tenants, eventually resulting in their displacement.
Newcomers, including artists, have been drawn to Boyle Heights by its rich cultural character -- forged from generations of Mexican, Japanese, Russian and Jewish immigrants relegated to the city’s eastern periphery -- as well as its cheaper rent and property in an increasingly unaffordable city.
Today, one of the most standout reminders of this community’s hardships is Boyle Heights’ calcified industrial zone. The community now sits among the remnants of former warehouses and factories, like the skeleton of a creature that curled up and died many lifetimes ago. Longtime residents of Boyle Heights in some ways, consider themselves the keepers and guardians of these bones, for many still remember when they were animated and provided their families with humble but dignified sustenance.

Gonzalez and Ana Hernandez, another member of Union de Vecinos, recall the factories, warehouses and cold storage plants where families once worked. They remember that the building that PSSST now occupies on Third Street, was once a Halloween costume factory.

It was along these industrial zones that Father Greg Boyle and the mothers of Pico-Aliso organized walks that grew into marches for jobs for their children and husbands. Hence, these were the origins of Homeboy Industries and their famed mantra “Nothing Stops a Bullet Like a Job.” More broadly, jobs would help this community reclaim its streets.

So when galleries started moving into these warehouses in the mid-2000s, residents did not see it as a sign of new life breathed into their community, but rather many were cautionary of what that meant for their own future in this place. In their journey of recovering from decades of gang violence and drugs, they kept their eyes set on a new horizon.

“Our vision for Boyle Heights has been more jobs and better education,” Hernandez says. 
However, that future now faces different challenges with the arrival of investors, speculators and more affluent residents. Among them, the arrival of artists
. [emphasis added]

“It’s ironic and sad. People have lost their jobs. They were pushed out of their neighborhood. And today arrives a new force that is transforming the zone of the factories to create a completely different culture. So not only are they actually stealing their work, but also their labor of love for creating a space for the young people.  What the community created is now being occupied by others,” says Union de Vecinos member Leonardo Vilchis.

“We have struggled to make our community a better place. Now that we’ve cleaned up our community, it’s not fair for the galleries to just come here, like PSSST that gets to lease that space for free for 20 years. Its not fair,” Hernandez says. [emphasis added]

It's common enough to find artists and writers who talk about how great it would be for artists to have a place in a community. But uncritical acceptance of the idea that what makes for affordable housing and access to creative space for an artist would be good for a community is a foolish idea.  We've blogged a little about an article at the Atlantic that discussed artist-specific housing subsidies in the past.  Particularly for those artists whose allegiances are left, the prospect that the vocational artist and his/her interests may qualify the artist as, to use a blunt term, a class enemy of the actual working class, does not readily spring to mind.

Artists want space and so a question arises, "Why can't we have this space?" as the article goes on to discuss:
...Guarded only by a delicate gridded wire gate, PSSST is painted in pristine matte white. A set of clean concrete steps leads to what was once a loading dock and is now a small patio crowned with a tall white pedestal bearing a glass water dispenser of drinking water. Condensation embraces the cold surface. On a scorching summer day, it’s a vision of oasis, a promise and prize of arrival.
“The architecture is supposed to be accessible. It’s supposed to be inviting to the community,” says PSSST board member Adrian Rivas, who has strong grounding in the Chicano/Latino art community in L.A. He remains hopeful that PSSST can offer Boyle Heights residents and local artists access to a cutting-edge arts and gallery space.

“I’ve always heard, ‘Why can’t we have these spaces? Why can’t we show our work in spaces like that?’ We love our rasquache spaces too, but why shouldn’t we have a space like this?” he adds.
Most importantly, Rivas believes that PSSST could provide local artists with a space to experiment with new forms and practices.  He notes that recently, PSSST’s first artist-in-residence, Guadalupe Rosales, invited L.A. Chicano artists and DJs to collaborate in a series of performances at the gallery where they were able to share the work they are known for, as well as to experiment.

According to PSSST founder, Jules Gimbrone, the importance of experimental art spaces for marginalized communities, particularly for queer artists and folk, is underscored by the June shooting at Pulse, a queer dance club in Orlando that left 49 young men and women dead. “These spaces for freedom of experimentation are rare for trans, youth and people of color. There’s no room for mistake as they are always performing with a lot of risk. We need to cultivate safe spaces.”

So a shooting on the other side of the country becomes a reason for an arts facility in Los Angeles ... .

The trouble with identity politics is that everyone can invoke an identity. As the article goes on to report, not even all the artists in the area buy the idea that a "safe space" should be obtained in a conventional arts gallery way that displaces people.

Yet as community talks continue over weeks and months, as positions are clarified and guidelines drafted, the threat of displacement is not diminished, as development projects move forward and the arts district receives attention and accolades from the New York Times and art world insiders. “We are still waiting to see an example of where an arts district didn’t displace a community. The designation of an arts district is a tool of development. We don’t have time for artists to figure out how they feel,” says Rhine. [emphasis added]

Despite the community dialogues, Delmira Gonzalez sees little potential for co-existence between art galleries and the longstanding community. “We have 7,000 people here that need housing. And on top of everything, our bridge gets knocked down and we have a homelessness problem. Why do we need to accept them? Why do we need to have compassion for them? The answer is ‘no.’ The answer is 'get out.’”
Ultra-Red describes this action as “The art of resistance,” a practice that, like traditional and institutional art, has its own set of aesthetic and operational frameworks. One unique characteristic of this anti-gentrification movement in Boyle Heights, as well as in other parts of the city, is the strong involvement of institutionally-trained artists, graduates of prominent art schools who are equipped to use the language of arts but are pushing towards radical practice that breaks down institutional arts, especially as they are tied to a capitalist market.

According to Rhine, the pressure that artists are experiencing from community groups and other artists that support anti-gentrification movements clarifies their role in gentrification. “In trying to establish a fine arts space within the professional sector, it’s next to impossible to start or maintain that space without direct complicity in speculative development. It’s impossible to escape complicity,” Rhine says. [emphasis added]

Furthermore, this mounting pressure points to what Rhine and other activist artists believe will be the necessary future of art. “So if an artist is challenged by the communities facing displacement to act in solidarity, then the artist has increasingly no choice but to be complicit fully or to invent a different kind of art. It means changing what art is and it’s not going to be what we learned in school or see in galleries or what is celebrated in art history. It is going to be a new art that is not necessarily going to be recognized as art.” ...

So at least some artists in the area call BS on the idea that the "safe space" is worth the displacement of poor people who have been in the neighborhood for years before the gallery was begun. 

The proposal that artists need to think of ways of being artists that isn't dependent on late capitalist infrastructures could be met with another proposal, that the very idea of being a vocational artist should be up for question.  Sousa's warning about the emergence of the recorded music industry was that it would exacerbate and mutate musical cultures into an intransigent caste system in which there were vocational producers and buying consumers, attained at the cost of the amateur culture that really made a musical culture what it is from region to region.  In such a context the people most likely to formulate a potential change in the local arts scene wouldn't be the school-trained vocational artists but the amateurs.  If vocational artists can't appreciate the possibility, let alone the reality, that what's in their material best interests might not actually beneficial for working class, low-income people in their community, then the paradox of such an artist, if a leftist (as opposed to a Randroid) would be inadvertently being a part of the ruling class while embracing a self-deluding ideological stance that lets the artist speak of himself or herself as if it were otherwise.  Because, let's face it, if you could afford to go to school in the arts, odds are moderately decent you're part of the ruling class by socioeconomic origin whether you want to admit this or not. 

NewMusicBox--Andy Costello riffs on John Cage's 4'33" as silence full of political implications, coming to close to opposite conclusions of Cornelius Cardew and John Tilbury's damning remarks on Cage discussed last week

If you read the above link you can skip the first two self-congratulatory time-wasting paragraphs.

It's only by paragraph three that the proposal that silence as political speech gets taken up as the theme of the essay.  For those who understand Cage's landmark work to indicate not actual silence but that whatever transpires during the allotted times IS the music (and this could be anyone who read Cage talk about visiting the anechoic chamber) this whole premise Andy Costello runs with is performance art and not necessarily a riff on Cage's published work or any iteration of its performance. 


Now, in 2016, I taught a general music class to middle school kids at a private school in Chicago. In one class, I thought it important that they watch a performance of 4’33”. It failed miserably—the kids laughed at the performer and found nothing of value in the work. I explained to them that they were criticizing the piece before truly hearing it, so I offered them the challenge of performing 4’33” together as a group before they offer any critical feedback, and they unanimously agreed to the challenge. So, I told them we would officially begin the performance of 4’33” when I give them the cue. I set the timer for 33 seconds (the duration of the first movement), started the timer, and gave the cue to begin. Several of the students laughed and made silly noises within the first ten of those seconds, but I let the movement go on without reprimand.  ...

Because whatever sounds during the allotted movements IS the music there wasn't any basis for a reprimand.  Instructing the player to not play doesn't mean that the rest of the ambient sounds stop being what the music is. 

Costello's would-be epiphany isn't necessarily an epiphany based on understanding what 4'33" does and doesn't do.   had the opportunity to teach a music class at a private school in Chicago. Rather than construe this or present this in terms of privilege, it is, almost inevitably, presented as a musing upon silence and political speech and subversion.  Just last week we were perusing here at Wenatchee The Hatchet comments from Cornelius Cardew and John Tilbury about what they considered the moral and intellectual dishonesty of Cage's enterprise as seen from Marxist terms in the book Stockhausen Serves Imperialism.

So when Costello writes "We need a pedagogy that uproots cowardice, questions authority, and subverts the angry, oppressive, harmful acts of the privileged classes in the oligarchical role they/we currently enjoy." with a footnote that says "I say “they/we” to described the privileged class because I feel that I belong to this class at times, and at other times, I do not." the surprise is that he only sometimes feels that he belongs to the privileged class."  If there is a besetting systemic problem with people in academic settings in the United States, not seeing themselves as members of a privileged class having he oligarchical role of educator would be one of them.  By means of a number of ideological flourishes teachers can convince themselves they aren't the establishment itself, but that doesn't stop them from being the establishment.  Jacques Ellul described state education as a crucial form of pre-propaganda, not necessarily explicit propaganda in and of itself but a necessary precursor for the propaganda of more official sorts to work. 

What 4'33" teaches us in this case is that it has gained enough prestige as a cultural artifact that it can be appropriated by a teacher as an occasion for an epiphany that may or may not have anything to do with Cage's work or its reception history but that provides a moment of self-comfort.  Art can provide solace, to be sure, but considering how sweeping the condemnation of Cage was from Cardew and Tilbury forty-some years ago the lesson today is that if an art artifact has enough prestige and social history attached to it people left and right (politically and in other figurative ways) can find ways to rehabilitate it and assimilate it into whatever their views are in the here and now.

another poem on elections

Hear, America!
It's never your destiny
unless you want it.

Pretty much a shorter poetic variation on this idea.

on humans and dogs

humans are like dogs
we both work for treats and praise,
as pack animals

Monday, July 25, 2016

a frivolous poem for a Monday night on the internet

I cannot take seriously
those who enthusiastically
invoke Reason as a proper
noun, someone with a phone number.
Go ahead, pull out your smart phone
(preferably when you're alone)
and try to give Reason a call.
You may find that Reason has call-
waiting, or too much voice mail.
Attempts to leave a message fail.
But, sure, you can tell me with pride
Reason is only on your side.

in the wake of recent news, authors highlight that the system isn't rigged against Sanders, he's just thoroughly failed to beat Clinton at winning over minority votes.


The bottom line is this: The primary wasn’t rigged.

I know quite a few pro-Sanders folks want to believe that it was, but it wasn’t. Bernie Sanders lost the nomination because he couldn’t win the minority vote — end of story. This is not about some convoluted conspiracy, or some nefarious ploy by the DNC to hand the nomination to Hillary

Clinton, it’s about basic, indisputable math and reality.
A few weeks ago I did a complete mathematical breakdown of the entire Democratic primary, which you can check out here.

But let me run down a few of the numbers that prove these conspiracies are ridiculous.
Of the 50 states, Clinton won 28 while Sanders won 22. So, she only won six more states than he did. One would think of the DNC really wanted to “rig” the election, she would have won it much easier than she did — and Sanders certainly wouldn’t have won 22 states.

The author goes on to highlight that Clinton overwhelmingly won the non-white vote in comparison to Sanders, which sort of confirms a point I've hinted at here and there that populist agitators like Sanders and Trump may appeal to angry whites on the left and right respectively, but that it's not a foregone conclusion that people of color will assume a vote for Sanders is ultimately in their best interest.

Conversely, a small group of authors at Slate declaring that the people who hate Hillary Clinton hate her because she's a woman or hate her for the opposite reasons of why they said they hated her twenty years ago is another lost cause.  Obama didn't win the nomination of the Democratic party away from Clinton out of thin air on the basis of nothing.  Some of the trouble might possibly be that the left and the right have spent so much time moving the goalposts that while people on the right might see Clinton as functionally a nanny state socialist people on the left see her as encased in a corrupt mainstream establishmentarian power structure.  Clinton's candidacy could be under skepticism from the left and right alike in part because after generations of moving the goalposts in partisan polemics where ever Clinton lands today is going to be the place from which the left and right partisans moved the goal posts away a week ago. 

There's another slightly longer thinkpiece on why the system isn't rigged against Sanders that explores the discrepancy between caucus and primary results over here:

Sanders threw his hat into the Democratic ring at late enough an hour it's hardly a surprise he hasn't secured a nomination by now.  It seems at this point that people who want Sanders might have to live with a comparable level of disappointment to those Republicans who really, really wish Trump wasn't the presumptive candidate--the Democratic National Convention may work in a way that doesn't allow the populist agitator to hijack the party system the way the Republican system has, perhaps, but the irony may be here that Sanders supporters are actually angry about that.  If there was a reason to brag that the Democratic party can't be hijacked by populist agitators you'd think this moment could be the moment to brag about that.

But then it seems as though there are a lot of Americans who only value democratic processes and procedures for just so long as it gets them the results they want, and that this demographic exists in robust forms on both the left and the right.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

on the recent Ghostbusters film, some comments at The Stranger, and a theory of violence being the domain of the man who can't get laid

TRICIA: I loved how even the villain (spoiler alert) was basically a mean, Internet troll, who presumably didn’t get laid, whose fantasy it was to be wanted and handsome and powerful and to control everyone (including women). Although, I’m not sure how I felt about the actor himself.

SEAN: He looked right: kind of dumpy, bad sideburns, etc. (Basically my own worst nightmare of myself.) But his villain characterization is all about his arrogance and entitlement. And then when the ladies get him up against the ropes, his whole meltdown is about how the world has robbed him of his "basic dignity." That’s like an angry white male blogger mantra. It is also the not-so-subtle subtext of all the dudes who “refuse” to see the new Ghostbusters. You can’t take this from me, too!

I don't know ... not that I think there's a reason to be incensed that the four leads are women, but I'm wondering whether the love for the film might have a teensy bit of a back-at-ya vibe.

Take Colin Dickey's riff on how the original Ghostbusters was a rape fantasy over at The New Republic.

Now, sure, not everyone will agree that that's actually what the original Ghostbusters movie was but, assuming for the sake of argument that's a true presentation of the toxic racial and sexual politics how would gender reversals in themselves make a reboot a proposition with merit?  Obviously a studio thought there was the potential for a new franchise here and while for male-dominated franchise bids film critics are cynical and jaded as ever they drop that guard for this franchise.  It's possible to find all the leads funny in a film and still be underwhelmed by the pedestrian and vaguely routine end result. What if 2016 Ghostbusters turns out to be, after the dust has settled and the identity politics stuff has had its say, we find ourselves looking back on this as a film that should have been a whole lot better than it was a la The Three Amigos of the 2010s? That's an idea I floated over here:

What's interesting in the back and forth is about the identity of the villain, the white male internet troll who (presumably) hasn't been laid and resents the world for robbing him of his dignity. 

The theory that a lot of violence and aggression comes from young males isn't a theory, it's more or less a forensic law.  But the theory that a lot of this violence and radicalization may be tethered to males who can't assimilate or integrate into society and can't get laid but also can't get laid in a way that is imbued with social prestige isn't necessarily the punchline plot point to a movie, it's also a serious proposal in some sectors of the net.

The discrepancy between what the shooter wants and what he gets is eventually theorised, but in a lazy way – he adopts the ISIS ideology, or a Westboro Baptist Church-style Christianity, or homophobia, or antifederalist patriotism, or whatever is ready to hand. The frustrated male casts about for a ‘cause’ of his misery, and mistakes the increasing power of newly emancipated communities for his depletion. Whether it is the son of Muslim migrants who turns his rage on the LGBT community, or the hater of Muslim migrants who turns his rage upon the political champion of migration, the same hydraulic of hatred is at work.
The lone-wolf and the jihadist group might not be as far apart as we think. The fanatical ideology of ISIS or Boko Haram is just the last ingredient added to a bubbling cauldron of male frustration, rage and resentment. As the anthropologist Scott Atran wrote recently in Aeon, most jihadists don’t even know much about Islam. A few well-chosen pugilistic Quran quotes and homophobic or misogynistic slogans can rile up a resentful male to all kinds of evil. The wellspring of this evil is not in the religion, nor even the economic conditions, or the socially constructed patriarchy, but in profound, implacable resentment. Other factors converge, as Atran notes, to help sculpt resentment into warfare, including the ‘band of brothers’ promise of jihad – which answers to deep-seated social yearnings in isolated and alienated young men. [emphasis added]
So what can be done? If male frustration and resentment is the unifying psychodynamic underneath homegrown lone-wolves and international extremists alike, then how do we address such root frustration? Every human society has contended with the challenge of containing and redirecting male frustration and rage: these responses can be categorised into a few varieties.

The rest of the piece proposes that basically all these guys need to find sexual outlets that are socially acceptable that let them integrate into their respective societies in a way that works out so they don't resort to violence.

A couple potential problems here ...

Roy Baumeister, for instance, wrote that male socialization processes tend to have a lot of contingent honor.  You don't get a gold star just for being in the class, you have to prove there's any reason to recognize you as on the football team to begin with.  In the military there's the wash-outs.  Male social systems are historically built in such a way that any one male in a stable social system is ultimately replaceable.  So if societies and particularly male social dynamics treat men as disposable how do you come up with a way to make men feel like they're not disposable or make them actually not disposable?  That is essentially a way to describe how cults get formed, so far as I can tell.  That was, in a very practical sense, what Mark Driscoll was trying to solve in the Dead Men sessions.  How he went about doing it had some severe problems but the Aeon author and the former pastor of Mars Hill had a remarkably similar idea about how the greatest social pathology to a stable order is a bunch of disaffected horny young dudes who, lacking a legitimate social outlet for their libidos, might resort to all manner of undesirable and predatory behaviors.

Okay ... but who says antisocial behavior such as mass shootings is necessarily strictly the domain of guys who can't get laid?

Because, and here's the part that's so obvious it might actually need to be said, the dating/mating game in the contemporary West is a remorseless status-vetting process.  Assortive pairing and status matching processes are apparently here to stay in the West.  One of the things tacit in the Strange exchange is that the guy who has presumably never been laid presumably hadn't earned the privilege of getting laid.  Now as scapegoating gambits go the guys who lack the socialization or status capital to get laid being the source of toxic masculinity is an interesting move in terms of not being the first thing people might think of, but it's not exactly an innovative idea. 

The trouble is that not everyone agrees the people most likely to be violent bullies are the not-socially-integrated.  The nastiest bullies can frequently have the highest level of social status, aka the Regina George type or the Flash Thompson.  They bully because they can get away with it or by being selective enough in their choice of victims that they pick low-status targets for whom there may not be a lot of natural sympathy.  Throw in the contemporary idiom of identity politics and someone who might have been a relatively high status person in his/her social strata can take on a narrative of symbolic victimhood for a sympathetic demographic. 

If there's anything weird and unique about the "culture of victimhood" is that it consists of a set of rhetorical idioms and self-identifying labels that can allow just about anyone to self-identify with the persecuted victim label.  Mark Driscoll pulled this move about a decade ago in the wake of having the convenient situation of his handful of rivals to social influence within Mars Hill subjected to kangaroo courts.  So the difficulty with a theory that violence is apt to be perpetrated by he-who-can't-get-laid is that this simply doesn't seem to be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.  Men who recognize their disposability within a given society and, in resentment of that, find a way to make their mark on society, there's some potential merit in that idea but the Aeon contributor, by fixating on the sexually frustrated male, seems to be drawn like others to a symptom rather than a cause.

Controlling for the means of mass violence (aka gun control) would still be nothing more than treating a symptom rather than the cause, and whatever the cause may be ... it frankly seems absurd to imagine there will be a solution that works across the board.  Violent crime may well be lower than it's ever been compared to thirty years ago but thanks to media access it will be better reported than ever.  The likelihood of mass/serial killing could be lower now thanks to increased capacity to communicate across precinct and county lines that killers could cross back and forth over back in the Reagan era. 

The riff on the Abrahamic religions was quaint because if there was a tradition in the West in which the inability to get laid was made a point of spiritual celebration it would be the Christian tradition.  Paul writing that it was better to remain unmarried if that was possible comes to mind.  What we have in contemporary society is a social expectation that if you haven't gotten laid something's wrong with you as a social creature.  Maybe thirty years ago the single guy at forty would get asked if he was gay, for instance.  It's impolite to ask that now, perhaps, but the supposition that those who can't get laid or haven't gotten laid are in some meaningful sense not fully alive isn't that hard to find in popular culture. 

What won't accomplish anything is to formulate the problem of male aggression in a class warfare idiom, for instance, a woman may aspire to have the same freedoms and liberties of a man but if toxic male aggression stems from those men who have in some sense or another failed to assimilate into society then that could signal to us that men from lower classes don't FEEL like they have a whole lot of meaningful freedoms at all.  White women who are feminists do not, probably, aspire to be treated by the cops the way black men get treated by the cops, so that's a sense in which a feminist who talks abstractly about the benefits men get from the patriarchy can (at times) forget that race introduces a radically new component to theoretical discussions about what the alleged benefits of a patriarchy may be for men. 

If the way status-vetting works in contemporary Western societies stays as is then there will be plenty of guys who lose the contest to have the privilege of having sex with a partner of their choice (male or female) but it's not at all clear that he-who-can't-get-laid is necessarily in danger of perpetrating violent crime.  There does seem to need to be some sense entitlement, perhaps, but radicalization seems to require that individual failure to attain a non-disposable role in society has to be able to be converted into an ideological premise to rationalize violence.  I think the sexual frustration of males meme is too problematic on its face to be taken seriously.  There's a gender essentialism to it that if guys can't get laid they could become mass shooters.  Women who can't get laid will probably never get nominated for this dubious stereotype, but either way it may just be a dubious stereotype since the ability to have sex or the inability is probably itself no more than a symptom and not a cause.

But for those who are already in the negotiated privilege of a regular sexual relationship with someone of satisfactory social status it might be tempting to imagine that those who fail to attain that status may be prone to violence.  That seems like it's a more decorous and genteel form of scapegoating ... but it still seems like scapegoating.  Amasa's tacit proposal seems to be that guys need an outlet for sexual frustration so they don't resort to violence, it seems as though that's asking for the moon, a more practical solution would be to consider that the male ambition for social integration has to be something we can provide as a society irrespective of whether or not young males successfully negotiate the privilege of a sexual relationship.  Given how pitiless the status-vetting game of date-and-mate seems to be if you solve the social integration vs male disposability conundrum in a way that doesn't make getting laid a requirement to a working definition of full/real citizenship you may discover people pair off in satisfactory ways as a side effect.

Or as the joke in the television industry goes, you never actually win the Emmy by going for the Emmy. 

in the not-surprise headline of the day, DNC chair to step down in wake of leaks indicating Democratic machinery favored Clinton against Sanders

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, long under fire for the appearance of partiality toward Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primaries, will step down as the party's national chairwoman at the end of its convention this week, she announced Sunday.

The announcement came after internal emails newly disclosed by Wikileaks revived the long-running suspicions of supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders that the Florida congresswoman had tilted the scales in favor of Hillary Clinton.

While one party power base seems set to rally around a candidate they didn't seem to want, another party is going to have to see if they can get people to really around a candidate the political machine seems to have chosen in advance regardless of populist concerns. 

So, if there's a silver-lining hear the Democratic National Convention has demonstrated that the game has been rigged against a populist agitator to favor an entrenched and historically compromised technocrat?  That's not really a surprise and perhaps that silver lining is all the DNC has to say for itself, they've rigged things up so that a Trump equivalent from the left doesn't stand a chance. 

Because Sanders is to the left what Trump is to the right, a populist agitator. 

Apologies to those who didn't see this coming since the start of the first Obama administration, where Clinton was concerned.  The carpetbagging was ... fairly obvious on Clinton's side. Sanders became a Democrat formally too recently to plausibly believe the machine would favor him over someone like Clinton.

This shouldn't have been a surprise but "maybe" it was. For those who have labored in the last twenty years under the impression that the political machines at the heart of the two party system were interested in an actually democratic process maybe this election year will lay that illusion to rest for partisans who have supported both parties.

on attempts to rescue Alan Moore from the unanticipated legacy of his most famous works in comics

Here we are, thirty some years after Alan Moore's Watchmen and the nukes didn't fly. But the comics industry and the comics criticism scene seems determined to ignore this unavoidable real world historical fact in attempting to come to terms with the influence of Alan Moore's influence on the superhero genre.  It's a question that is so basic to interpreting the significance of what Moore was trying to do compared to what Moore did it seems overdue.  But, instead, we're getting writers discussing Moore's influence on the superhero genre in other terms. An animated adaptation of The Killing Joke has arrived and the goal of people who think it's worth writing about seems to be to complain about the influence of Moore on the superhero genre in a way that bends over backwards to exonerate Moore from what he voluntarily wrote or, if not that, by framing the influence of Moore as if it were more significant in the comics medium than it may, in the end, turn out to have been.

... The superhero genre was originally created as all ages entertainment, aimed mainly at kids but sometimes done in a manner that allowed adults to enjoy them as well. So isn’t it odd that the dominant mode of the genre is now so skewed towards an adult audience? And is this really the best use of the genre?  

Superheroes were not meant to be exclusively for adults. The comic books that introduced them were originally marketed to children, and in some cases were created by artists who were barely adults.


So what changed? Starting in the 1980s, an influential group of comic book creators, led by Frank Miller and Alan Moore, broke from this tradition and crafted superhero stories that were geared toward an exclusively adult audience. Miller and Moore are often credited with helping the superhero genre grow up, although their idea of maturity at times seemed mainly to mean including explicit scenes of torture and rape. Miller’s pathbreaking graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns (1986) featured an aged Batman coming out of retirement and forming a vigilante group in a decadent future America. Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen (1986) deconstructed the superhero genre by portraying the bitter back-biting of a group of flawed vigilante’s set against the cheerless background of an imminent nuclear war. The work of Miller and Moore has been immensely successful commercially and has re-shaped the superhero genre. And aesthetically, Miller’s flamboyant expressionism and Moore’s intricate clock-work story-telling have left their mark. Yet by following the lead of Miller and Moore, the genre made a fundamentally wrong turn, and now has lost touch with its best tendencies.

On first glance, the film Batman: The Killing Joke—which swings through theaters on July 25 for just two days before going to DVD—looks like it should’ve been consigned to afternoon television, with its choppy animation. But this new Batman feature isn’t for kids. The Killing Joke explains the origins of the Joker, Batman’s arch-nemesis, and plumbs beneath the face paint for a pathology. It’s sourced from a specific pool of graphic novels that were authored by one of two men—Frank Miller or Alan Moore—between 1986 and 1988. Their mission: to make superhero comics visible to adults by dialing up the darkness.

The dial, of course, got stuck. Acclaimed graphic novels like Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Batman: Year One (1987) as well as Moore’s Watchmen (1987) and Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) introduced a gloom that never quite lifted. They recast spandexed superheroes as violent vigilantes, and lowered them into atmospheres fraught with gravity, like the Cold War. “Miller and Moore are often credited with helping the superhero genre grow up,” wrote Jeet Heer recently in a smart piece for The New Republic, “although their idea of maturity at times seemed mainly to mean including explicit scenes of torture and rape.”

But it’s wrong to tie the thoughtful Moore too closely to the reactionary Miller. Moore’s celebrated series V for Vendetta posted a warning about Thatcherism and supplied the Occupy movement with a face. He turned a repudiated horror comic, Swamp Thing, into a repudiation of Reaganism. In 1988, he went so far as to form the publishing imprint Mad Love so that he could bring out a comic protesting homophobic English legislation. Compared to the rest of his work, then, The Killing Joke marked a regression. The last of the much-lauded graphic novels of the late ’80s, it exemplified traits that continue to bedevil the superhero genre today—misogyny, nihilism, and sadism for the sake of fanboys.

The Killing Joke was not a project instigated by Alan,” writes the artist Brian Bolland in the afterword to the 2008 edition, “nor was it, as far as I know, a labor of love for him.” This is an unsurprising revelation.  ...

You can trace the easy nihilism of many contemporary comics and movies—from Spawn to Kick-Ass—to cynical products like The Killing Joke. It’s the nihilism of a third-rate Nietzsche, the kind of starter-kit philosophy that compels adolescents.

And it was written by Alan Moore.  Moore didn't come up with the idea, we are assured, but the indisputable fact is he voluntarily wrote it, and got paid for it.  If that's not the very definition of exploitive genre hackwork then there's no such thing in the history of the arts.  But it seems Alan Moore has to be, in some sense, exonerated of any responsibility for having ... actually written The Killing Joke.   Guriel works to eat his cake and have it, too.

Yet there's nothing much to be gained by attempting to exonerate Alan Moore from the unforeseen consequences of his writing for DC.  Moore seems to be just respected enough but a subset of progressives they are eager to  exonerate him from the long-term effects of what could uncharitably be described as pandering exploitation genre hackwork.  Moore is a dedicated, skilled and capable crafter of genre stories, make no mistake, but if we harken back to an old lefty Dwight Macdonald style taxonomy of the arts, comics are low brow by definition; or to put it another way, it's difficult to see why Alan Moore should be seen as "thoughtful" in contrast to the "fascist" Frank Miller when both men are responsible for the same aesthetic weakness introduced into the genre. 

Thirty years ago Watchmen was inventive and daring but it was not above criticism. Grant Morrison's summary judgment in Supergods was that the things he hated about the comic series when it first came out (its detached tone, its obsession with formal and narrative symmetry) are the only things he can respect about it now.  The characters were ultimately all types and the central plot hinged upon the assumption that someone described as the world's smartest man does the dumbest possible thing after spending his whole life thinking about it--Ozymandias stages a stunt that kills millions of people because he's convinced it's the only way to avert an otherwise inevitable nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union.  The greatest supervillain turns out to be the superhero who put the Watchmen together to begin with, doing what he convinced himself was necessary to save the world.  Morrison's comment about the end of Watchmen remains salient, the fourth-wall breach of the reader reading the entire story as framed through interludes in Walter Kovacs' journal reveals that in spite of the best efforts of Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan Rorshachs' journal sees the light of day.  All that murder and all that covering up was, in the end, for nothing.

But rather than read that as being inherent to the narrative what the comics readership and production side seemed to "learn" from this was that in some ridiculous way Ozymandias was the "hero" who actually save the world.  Yet if you were to go back and read Watchmen, how many people die at the hands of zealous superheroes?  How many people die because of mob activity? One?  How many people are shown getting killed by non-supehero characters?  Moore's dehydrated send-up of the superhero genre has been read by supehero fans with a misplaced presumption of Moore having more respect for the genre than he may have.

Conversely, Moore has been taken more seriously as a writer than he probably should be.  If a subset of progressives want Moore off the hook for introducing sexuality and violence into childrens' entertainment appropriations is he on the hook for Lost Girls as well as Watchmen or for neither?  If not, why not?  Jason Guriel can attempt to propose that Moore was the first to reject the product he created but if we stick with a fairly uncontested progressive (and conservative, for that matter) proposal that all art is in some sense still political, how easily should Alan Moore be let off the hook for exploitation genre pandering hackwork? Moore can recount the "cripple the bitch" quote all he wants to impute some of the blame to DC.  Moore wrote the story. 

Not everyone would agree Ledger's performance drew inspiration or was in some sense indebted to Alan Moore's comic.  Ledger, being dead, isn't exactly around to clarify.  He may have incorporated elements of Moore's work but the first thing I noticed about the performance was that Ledger seemed to be more connected to the pre-comics code early 1940s Joker.  It's "possible" that Alan Moore's fans grotesquely overstate the reach of his over-rated influence. 

About ten years ago Justice League Unlimited wrapped up its final season and a tenth anniversary box set of the Powerpuff Girls came out (which I pretty much immediately bought).  The Incredibles was a year old about that time.  Moore's purported influence on the superhero genre should not be overstated.  The violence and sexuality Moore introduced into the superhero genre wasn't exactly less lurid than the violence and sexuality Miller had in the genre. 

And a propensity on both the left and the right is to dismiss all-ages entertainment as essentially not really art.  How many thinkpieces are we going to see about the 20th anniversary of Blues Clues this year?  How many thinkpieces are we going to see for the 20th anniversary of South Park?  Progressive criticism of the superhero genre isn't entirely misplaced, there are problems with the genre--the problem is that some of the worst perpetrators of the problems in the genre have been men with enough progressive street cred that progressives have wanted to exonerate some of these men (most conspicuously Alan Moore) from the work.  Alan Moore is not entirely unlike Mark Driscoll in this respect, a man can do a lot of work to have some kind of influence but isn't necessarily in control of what that legacy will be. 

When Moore dies his obituary may mention Lost Girls or Tom Strong but nobody cares about that beyond the confined niche market of comics.  If Moore is upset that his most lasting influence within comics was for well-crafted contributions to the superhero genre that can still, will all due respect, be regarded as misogynistic pruriently violent exploitation genre hackwork then he has a right to be; but the history of pop culture influence has already been written and it seems that there is a point at which trying to exonerate Alan Moore from the responsibility of influence is to forget that the whole thing about influence is that it can't be foreseen or controlled.

The irony of what Alan Moore's fans seem to think he did for the comics is that rather than truly elevating the superhero genre to an adult level of thoughtfulness he may have simply dragged it down into the gutter of cerebral prurience.  But because he's considered on the appropriate side of a left/right ideological political divide there are those who would seek to rescue Alan Moore from not merely the consequences of his influence but also the substance of his contribution to the superhero genre. 

After all, the power presupposed in Ozymandias' plan to save the world from nuclear war by killing millions of people depended on the unquestioned rightness of a paranoia that nuclear war under a Republican president was beyond even the possibility of second thoughts.  Here we are thirty years after the age of Reagan and the Cold War ended in something besides global nuclear war or full nuclear disarmament (as if that would have ended the Cold War, either).  It may be a testament to the far-reaching mentality of the Cold War that the paranoia of the left and right alike could (and apparently can, even in the wake of its end) only formulate and articulate dread in the most apocalyptic and violent terms.

Moore's story "works" to the extent that you bought into the assumption that Ozymandias plotting depended on the inevitability of a nuclear exchange.  Part of the pernicious influence of Moore's work on the comics industry may depend upon a "reading" of the "text" that presumes the legitimacy of a reading informed by a paranoia inherent to the Reagan era that no longer applies; a 21st century reading of Moore's "text" may reach a significantly different range of conclusions and interpretive possibilities. 

So in the end Alan Moore was not necessarily just a cause of any of this malaise in the comics medium, he has also been of its most articulate symptoms. 

Saturday, July 23, 2016

FilmCritHulk on the probem of Civil War--we don't care about Bucky so it's a huge problem when the film assumes our empathy without earning it for the characters who are formally the main agents

This, too, manages to distill some misgivings I had about the latest Captain America film.  I enjoyed the parts with Black Panther and Spiderman and it's not hard to grasp why, these are characters whose identities and motivations are not presumed as given from half a dozen previous films.  The scripting shows.




Which meant that when Bucky became the focal point for the not quite a Civil War so much as a schoolyard shoving match, it wasn't clear what the stakes were.  When Barnes asks if he is himself worth the trouble the script (and Cap, obviously) presume the answer is "yes" without having ever once given us a clear reason why the answer couldn't also be "no". 

it took FilmCritHulk until June 2016 but FCH got around to Star Wars Episode 7

Now I had fun watching Episode 7 and I was willing to watch it more than once.  Unlike the earlier Episodes 4-6, however, I didn't like it so much I felt like going out and buying it once it comes out on disc.  FilmCritHulk had some interesting things to write about Episode 7 in particular and about flaws Hulk finds in Abrams' entire approach to cinema in general.  As FilmCritHulk is never less than loquacious we'll only quote some of FCH's commentary:

The observation that Han Solo's bravado was not just always misplaced but generally got him and his friends in even worse trouble is a good way of putting things, it also gets at what pervaded the original trilogy that we didn't really see in Episode 7 and also didn't exactly see in Episodes 1-3.  Episodes 1-3 were permeated by a lot of promising things would eventually and inevitably go badly for the Anakin Skywalker who would become Darth Vader and there ... wasn't exactly "joy in the journey" for me on that one.  The bar had been set so low by the prequels that the bar was simply at the place where what I wanted was to come out of seeing Episode 7 and not regret having just seen it, no, worse than that, to merely be at the place where I wasn't already regretting having bought the ticket to sit through the thing in the middle of the movie.

I do differ with FilmCritHulk on what Episode 7 is about.  I'd be willing to say that Charles Mudede was on the money when he wrote that Episode 7 brought back the idiosyncratic theology of the original trilogy; I'd piggyback on that observation and propose that Star Wars has brought back into marketable form the kind of theology that may best describe the "lived out" theology of Americans and it's not necessarily a WASP religion as a kind of panentheistic Pelagianism.  Anthony Lane had a hilarious comment in his review of Episode 7 where he said it was good the subtitle was The Force Awakens because that let everyone here in the audience know there was a concession being made that in the previous three installments the Force had been asleep at the wheel. 

So FilmCritHulk's reaction might be that the Force has woken up only in the sense of having just been stirred from sleep and having some dim sense of self-awareness that isn't the same as getting out of bed and doing something.

Kenneth Kirschner's musings on indeterminacy in music, proposing a musical work that, thanks to codes and data, could be different each time you hear it
But why should a recording be the same every time you listen to it? Until recently, this question wouldn’t even have made sense. You had to physically scratch the sound onto those old wax cylinders, and one can only imagine the mess it would have been to try un-scratching it. You can’t re-lathe a vinyl record, or reach into an old-fashioned compact disc and start moving those microscopic pits around. But our notions of what our recordings are have not kept up with what our recordings actually are: digital data. Code. Our recordings are no longer hardware—they’re software. And yet we listen to an mp3 or an online music stream in the exact same way in which we have listened to CDs, vinyl records, cassettes, 78 rpm phonographs, wax cylinders—starting at the beginning, playing linearly to the end, and hearing music that’s exactly the same on each listen.

But there’s no reason why this must be the case. With digital music, it’s possible to build complexity, chance, and intelligence into the recording itself, to create a music that is ever-changing and open-ended, indefinite in duration and indeterminate in composition—to create an indeterminate recording. A listener can press play on a piece of recorded music that will be different on every listen, that can be heard for as long or as short a time as they wish, and that will continually grow and evolve for as long as they choose to listen.

Last year I reviewed Andrew Durkin's Decomposition, which more and more resides in my memory as the first draft of what could have been a fantastic book that seems more and more like it was a cobbled together reworking of an existing academic paper (and there's a reason for that, it turned out).  Questioning assumptions about the "ideology" of "authorship" or "authenticity" was largely a defense of academic jargon rather than a defense of music, unfortunately.  But then the book wasn't exactly setting out to interact with indeterminacy in contemporary musical approaches.  Kenneth Kirschner's writing about music as code presents an interesting possibility (not one I'll necessarily explore in my own music), that since music in recorded form exists as code, digital data, a form of indeterminacy can be used to create music that isn't necessarily even the same sonic experience any given time you hear the music.

...  “An indeterminate music can lead only to catastrophe. This catastrophe we allowed to take place. Behind it was sound—which unified everything.”

To [Morton] Feldman, indeterminacy was a means to an end—a way to break through the walls of traditional composition in order to reach the pure physicality of sound beyond. Just as Wittgenstein had dismissed his Tractatus as a ladder to be thrown away after it was climbed, Feldman climbed the ladder of indeterminacy and, having reached the top, discarded it.

This idea, articulated in this way, was what the musicologist Leonard B. Meyer was characteristic of a group of composers he called transcendental particularism, the quest to recover when the arts an appreciation of sensation itself; the goal was, in Meyer's account, more of a philosophy of experience than an artistic manifesto as such.

Kirschner had a different idea to share about what indeterminacy could provide ... in particular.

Indeterminacy became for me a way to have my musical cake and eat it, too. Rather than accept the roll of the dice as a source of raw material, I could accept all possible rolls of the dice and call them the composition itself. With an indeterminate work, there is no longer one piece, but a potentially infinite number of pieces, all of them “the” piece. Here was an entirely different way of thinking about what music could be.


Where does the composition reside? Is it in the specific notes or sounds of one particular score, one particular performance, one particular recording? Or is it in the space of possibilities that a particular composition inscribes, in the wider set of potential outcomes that a given system of musical constraints, techniques, or limits marks out? Even with a lifetime’s constant listening, it would be impossible to hear every imaginable realization of even a moderately complex indeterminate piece—and yet we still somehow feel we have grasped the piece itself, have “heard” it, even if we’ve directly experienced only a tiny subset of its possible realizations. Such a composition resides in a space of pure potentiality that we can never fully explore—yet in glimpsing parts of it, we may experience more music, and perhaps intermittently better music, than a single fixed composition could ever give us.

Accepting this is not without costs. The first, and very important, lesson I learned in writing indeterminate music was that I missed editing. ...

Of course the not being able to edit is the thing about indeterminate music, whether it's the music formally known as indeterminate music or whether we're talking improvised solos in a rock or jazz context.  I've written in the past about how this kind of indeterminate music, at a conceptual level, could correspond to another code-based form of entertainment we have in our time, the video game.  A musical experience that can be different every time depending on unforeseen variables as well as foreseen variables could correspond to a video game.  Depending on what decisions the player makes in the game the corresponding musical soundtrack could change. That a super-majority of video games probably have no use for this kind of music doesn't mean this kind of music couldn't be composed (or that it hasn't been).  While on the one hand music in a video game could be the ultimate realization of Satie's reported music-as-furniture aim at another level introducing indeterminacy at a coded level to music for a video game could be the most active way to give the audience (i.e. the player of the video game) the power to collaborate with the composer through music conceived as being able to change in response to the decisions of the audience/player.

So it's interesting to read stuff like this because from the new music side of it (or as I sometimes call it the new-music side) the challenge of reintroducing indeterminate elements in music composition and performance is a reminder that improvisation was part of the art music tradition for some time.  The elimination of improvisation from what we call classical music was something that began to happen, kind of, around Beethoven's time.  It was during the 19th century that the shift away from the space to improvise to writing exactly what the composer wanted began to take place. 

I don't think there's really a problem with "high" music or "low" music.  I think the problem is that the previously permeable boundaries between "high" and "low" have been stratified by the educational empires in place in the West.  In what might be a paradox, the commercial music industry and folk traditions may have preserved elements that, at one point, existed in the art music tradition but that got banished over a couple of centuries--what composers like Cage and Feldman provided an opportunity for was, in this much larger historical sense, not so much a revolution of casting off centuries of traditions as their critics have sometimes liked to put it; it's more like they found ways to bring back into the art music tradition different versions of fairly old and formerly commonplace elements. 

Does this mean I'm a big fan of Feldman or Cage?  Well, no, not really.  I like the prepared piano music I've heard but I haven't exactly warmed up to Feldman.  On the other hand, I've gone through life not hugely loving the Romantic era.  I love music from the 18th century and from the 20th century but there was always a bunch of stuff about the 19th century I couldn't stand in the art music tradition.  I don't hear 20th century music as some affront to the century of decorum and good taste; I hear the 20th century as a century long process of cleansing the palette of what had become the ersatz tropes of Romantic era music.  But this wasn't a complete purge, a lot of the things in 19th century music I can appreciate (and I've learned to appreciate it more over the years) are preserved.  The amusing irony/paradox about this is those things about 19th century music I like get preserved in American popular/vernacular traditions like ragtime. 

Every era needs to have its moments of reinventing the wheel, I suppose.  Indeterminacy is not necessarily throwing out the old but going back to something that is observably a part of the Western music tradition and bringing it back in a new context.  That which has been shall be again, someone wrote somewhere. 

My own tiny interest in indeterminate elements in a composition are more inspired by Ellngton--I like the idea that 80% of a composition is scored out in some fashion but that there's a space left for a soloist to wing it and play something fun.  But this isn't intended to be a blog post about stuff I compose.

I sometimes have the feeling that aspects of indeterminacy were striving to regain what popular musical styles never lost.  Actually I have that feeling often but not everyone who was into indeterminacy as an approach to music really wanted improvisation as we'd conventionally define it.

over at The New Republic Colin Dickey has a piece about Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters 2016, and spiritualism

The paragraph wherein there's an expression of mystery seems like it "could" be answered later within the article.

It’s unclear why this new Ghostbusters—of all possible remakes, of all possible movies to be remade with a female cast—would inspire such overwhelming petulance. After all, what should be obvious to anyone not trapped in his own nostalgia is that communicating with spirits has always been the provenance of women.

Well ... the history of what is sometimes called necromancy hasn't always been the provenance of women, has it?  Is it possible that within the history of the United States it has been stereotypically associated with women?

The original Ghostbusters made clear from the outset it was having none of this. When they’re called to a ghost sighting at the New York Public Library, one of the first questions Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman asks the elderly librarian who’s witnessed the ghost is, “Are you, Alice, menstruating right now?” It’s more than a lazy joke. Original cast-member Dan Aykroyd has said that “Part of Ghostbusters’ appeal derives from the cold, rational, acceptance-of-the-fantastic-as-routine tone that Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, director Ivan Reitman, and I were able to sustain in the movie.” When men see ghosts, they do so as rational, thoughtful scientists. When women see the same ghosts, they’re hysterical.

Even accounting for the politics of the era, it’s difficult to understate the amount of sexism in the original film. As Andy Hoglund wrote for The Daily Beast, “It is not ghosts that haunt the film’s protagonists; it’s their inability to connect with women.” From the open disdain towards women from Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) to Murray’s predatory behavior (Our first glimpse of him is rigging a Milgram-esque psychology experiment to hook up with an undergraduate), what unites the Ghostbusters is that they’re man-children, alternately befuddled by and contemptuous of women. In the film’s, um, climactic sequence, as the Ghostbusters face the Sumerian god Gozer (who’s taken the form of a naked woman), Murray’s Venkman shouts instructions: “Grab your sticks! Heat ‘em up! Make ‘em hard! Let’s show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown…throw it!” Whatever was once subtext is now simply text, as ghostbusting becomes more or less indistinguishable from a rape fantasy. [emphasis added]

I didn't like the movie so much as to consider it a formative part of my childhood but for those that did ...  Dickey just declared that the culmination of Ghostbusters is a straight up rape fantasy.  Well, there you go, I guess--saying that the driving impetus of the entire film is a rape fantasy might explain why anyone who was a fan of the original film might freak out about the gender inversion ... assuming people have such simplistic definitions of gender now that a simple "inversion" within accepted binary stereotypes is sufficient for a turnabout-is-fair-play thing.

Given what writers have managed to say about how retrograde the racial and sexual politics of the film was back in the 1980s ... it's strange that writers defending the franchise should defend it on the basis of how women are the line-up of the quartet.  But ... if the sexual and racial politics of the original were as bad as people say then what ... exactly ... was the aim in the reboot?  This is far less a concern about the direction, the scripting or the cast than the studio. 

Now Dickey's got a forthcoming book to sell so at this point it makes sense that what passes for cultural analysis and film criticism is ultimately ALSO about selling books. It's just that, well, sometimes it can feel as though the news peg of a film as the opportunity to comment about the film in a way that promotes content from the book can hijack a discussion of the film itself. 

Dickey leading so earnestly (and, lacking a clear memory of a film I haven't watched in decades, somewhat persuasively) made the case that a beloved cult classic of the 1980s is basically a rape fantasy, there was plenty of time between paragraphs 3 and 10 being written to go back and redact the part about things being "unclear".  One of the key points of Dickey's essay was to explain how retrograde the sexual/racial politics of the 1980s film were which could have become a commentary on the perceived backlash.  I mean, if the whole point of the film was a rape fantasy then Dickey's case implicitly says everyone who loved the 1980s original loves a rape fantasy and that they're objection to the gender reversal thing would be an objection to ... would it be too crude to suggest that the subtextual rapist fans of a rape fantasy film original would feel as though they were put on the receiving rather than the giving end of the fantasy?  It's all pretty gruesome if stated directly and yet it would seem Dickey's point would have been more ... potent (?) if made more directly?

But then there are the reviews at large ... and then there's also the not incidental detail about the studio's investment in this thing.
Here's the bad news: This movie cost $144 million after tax incentives and rebates. It had a P&A (promotional and advertising) spend rumored to be over $100 million. That puts the total amount Sony sunk into this movie in the $250 million range, which is ... a lot for a comedy. Like: a lot. Box Office Mojo is predicting a total domestic run in the $135–$145 million range, which would barely be enough to earn back its production budget. And unlike similar openers from last year, like Mad Max: Fury Road and Hotel Transylvania 2, Sony can't rely on overseas audiences to significantly boost that number.

In hindsight, it seems absurd: Why would Sony spend superhero money on a comedy? Feig's track record is impressive, but it's impressive because he tends to make sensibly budgeted movies that deliver a significant return on investment: Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy cost $32.5 million, $43 million, and $65 million, respectably.

The answer resides in the Sony leak. Hundreds of emails leaked in early 2015 were related to the reboot of Ghostbusters. But the most interesting of them all — more interesting than their attempts to hire Christopher Lord and Phil Miller to do Ghostbusters 3; more interesting than the efforts to balance power between Ivan Reitman and Paul Feig; more interesting than the dozens of actors, writers, and directors who tried to get themselves attached to Ghostbustersis one Amy Pascal, then co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, sent to Michael De Luca, then Sony's president of production, that frames everything in a much more understandable, if not entirely defensible, light: They were hoping Ghostbusters would be the basis of a Marvel-like universe for Sony. [emphases added]

Richard Brody's recent commentary was that this new Ghostbusters film was more of the kind of film he'd like to see, just not in the disappointingly pedestrian way the studio has ultimately rolled it out.  The problem may be at the level of conception.  It "might" be easier to have a break out comedy if you're planning things on a film by film basis without necessarily planning in advance to have a franchise that takes over the Cineplex.  Not every reboot needs a reboot and there may be a danger in presuming upon the solidity of the franchise brand as the basis for a new cash cow in a new context.

So even if the new Ghostbusters movie is okay, the trouble is the studio needs to be more than just okay. 

Meanwhile, Colin Dickey has a book that will be coming out later about spiritualism. The recently released Ghostbusters movie provided an opportunity that The New Republic regarded as a suitable occasion for what turned out to not quite be a film review.  Because, after all, in the wake of the bro-fest that was Batman vs Superman let's not treat this latest attempt at founding a franchise in advance of the success of the film as another example of cynical studio presumption because, after all, the leads are female. 

If the director and cast had been tasked with merely a remake that wasn't also freighted with the studio expectation that this would be Sony's equivalent of the Marvel cinematic universe it seems we'd be talking about a very differently made film, a different film altogether.  So, ironically, while the 1980s cult classic became one about slacker guys hunting ghosts as if they were neighborhood pest control, the reboot is paradoxically a cosmic-level affirmation of a double standard, the new quartet in this new film has to live up to impossible franchise expectations that were not in place for the male original.  That's ... not exactly a reversal of gender anything, is it? 

I have been surprised by the reviews of the film, not because there have been cautiously positive reviews for it (that's not really a surprise, given who was involved) but because it seems film critics want this film to have been funnier and more compelling than they can honestly report it being.  Considering the cast it would seem that ... well, Ghostbusters in 2016 might be The Three Amigos of this decade, a comedic film in which, once you've factored in the sum of the parts and consider how hilarious you think the film SHOULD be you get to the end of it and say "Well, I had fun but .... but ... that was IT!?"  Only it was relatively clear decades ago no studio was expecting The Three Amigos to turn into a potential nine movie franchise.