Tuesday, June 20, 2017

comments from Cal P and hoosier bob at Mere Orthodoxy highlight a difficulty or two with the "man up" cottage industry

Over at Mere Orthodoxy a fairly predictable theme of the failure of young men in particular to man up and grow up has emerged courtesy of some ideas proposed by one Sasse.  This has also come up with reference to the "strenuous life" of one Bucer.  That inspired Cal P and hoosier bob to comment over at the following thread:


Cal P

Following Peter F's comment, I think this same recommendation falls into the same trap. A call for a Streneous Life, in the footsteps of TR and Muscular Christianity, is only a thin veil for the same identity-consumed narcissism that is all around us. Except now we are justified by our own self-perceived can-do attitude, and we can sneer at the "narcissist" namby-pambies who care about self-help and the therapeutic religion. But it's really only the flip-side of the coin. I don't see how this is much different than what Mark Driscoll tried to do, though with much more punch. This program is still just thinking about ourselves, but now refracted through the lens of other-oriented activity. Maybe we need to actually stop, and look around, and think about the local world around us. But many Evangelicals, like most Americans, are immune to reality, living off borrowed wealth and time.
This fits pretty well with the droning buzz of do, do, do, activity for the sake activity, etc. It fits pretty well with a world that is obsessed with activism and business. This piece seems like a straw-man, grounded in a shill politician trying to build his own brand of Conservatism. Maybe Sasse will be empty-headed and charming enough to become a new Reagan.

hoosier_bob Cal P
Another point that people gloss over is that many men correctly assess that the benefits of marriage don't outweigh its costs in our society. That's been the case for a while. Gary Becker wrote "A Theory of Marriage" nearly 45 years ago. Becker recognized that certain social and economic forces had changed the nature of what people are bargaining for in marriage. Even so, the "default rules" of marriage had failed to account for those changes. Thus, many people were entering into marriages under conditions that did not lead to transactionally efficient outcomes. Becker recognized well that no institution can survive that fails to produce benefits to its participants in excess of the costs of participation. For most women, marriage, as it is defined in our culture, still yields benefits in excess of its costs. That is not so for most men. For most men, marriage will fail to produce benefits in excess of its costs. [emphasis added]

Sasse and the "family values" crowd have been lecturing men for four decades now, trying to guilt them into entering marriage against their better social and economic judgment. But stigmatizing economically sound judgment can only last for so long. Moralism eventually loses its power.
If Sasse wants more men to marry, he should consider the reasons why many men have chosen to take a pass. It's one thing to exert "strenuous" effort if that effort is likely to deliver a payoff in excess of the effort. It's another thing to exert such effort when the likelihood of a payoff is dim. We easily forget that the "family values" take on marriage and family is largely an invention of late-19th-century social theorists. The "nuclear family" was invented as a social structure for transitioning people from the farm to industrial jobs in the city. We face different challenges today, and we need to reimagine again what family life looks like in terms of our current social conditions. Nostalgia for the good ol' days won't cut it. [emphasis added]


I find myself in basic agreement with Cal and Peter. This seems like the same kind of narcissistic, identity-focused, exclusionary vision of "manhood" that guys like Mark Driscoll, John Piper, Tim Bayly, Denny Burk, Owen Strachan, et al. have been pandering for a while. Perhaps we should welcome the fact that people are diverse in many respects and stop trying to create hierarchies that segregate the "real men" from some allegedly inferior breed of men who meet God's disapproval. After all, the phenomenon that this seeks to counteract largely evolved as a reaction to the "muscular Christianity" of an earlier era.

I was thinking about this Friday, when I went down to grab my morning Americano from the coffee shop in the first floor of my building. The local New Calvinist church was having a men's Bible study on the picnic benches out front. Out of the dozen or so guys, all but one had beards. The bears all looked about the same. A majority wore cowboy boots, despite the fact that none was likely a cattle farmer. All were carrying a few extra pounds around the middle. And while their physiques suggested that they may engage in some resistance exercise, it's likely that none of them participated in "effeminate" sports like running, cycling, yoga, swimming, etc. When I placed my order, I joked briefly with the cashier about how similarly styled these "real men" all were. He responded, "Yeah, it's the weekly insecure Christian dudes' Bible study."

Notions of masculinity and effeminacy are often somewhat culturally construed. I'd much prefer that evangelicals just focus on faithfulness, and spend less time trying to identity properly engendered construals of what faithfulness looks like.

Cal P hoosier_bob
I think part of the problem is the concept of gender as it was worked out over the 19th and 20th centuries. There is a fixation on some 'ousia' of our sexed bodies that can be abstracted and analyzed. Therefore, the discourse switches from sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers to masculinity or maleness. This is one of the major conceptual differences between Puritan and Victorian moral literature. Both were concerned with how men acted, but they had some different notions of what that actually meant. Can we understand masculinity and femininity as a binary pair abstracted from the concrete roles worked out within our given sexed bodies?

Quite clearly, the problem lies in the root causes of labor changes in the 18th century, with growing plantation slavery, the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of the Bourgeoisie as a distinct class. It's too much for a comment, but I think if the crisis of gender is to be addressed (and it is a problem), we shouldn't dismiss it with an appeal to fidelity. Rather, the insecure bearded Calvinists represent the problem with the gender discourse from the ground-up. It's a similar phenomenon in what we see in the Alt-Right as identity politics, or in how sexuality discourse has turned sodomy into questions of homosexuality. The grammar of these ideologies constrains our ability to perceive the world.

In sum, the guys who tell other guys to "man up" by way of a cottage industry of polemical publishing rarely seem to recognize that they quite literally have the luxury of doing so. 

Back when I was at Mars Hill some guys recommended the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.  I tried reading one of their books, the big one.  The introduction itself put me off from taking the rest of the book very seriously.  Manhood was defined as a kind of disposition toward womanhood and vice versa.  The definitions were not just incomplete but entirely circular.  Defining manhood is worth nothing if it necessitates that a man must literally be in the position to impregnate a woman for it to have the practical meaning a Christian social conservative of the Anglo-American variety wants it to have.  At this point there's very little opportunity to misunderstand that this is generally what is meant by a certain strain of John Piper admiring new Calvinist as it is. 

But since people mentioned Driscoll, it seems worthwhile to mention that in Mark Driscoll's case, and by his own account, he couldn't have gotten where he got to without the patronage of men who decided to give him things he didn't qualify for on the basis of his own credentials or credit.


Confessions of a Reformission RevMark Driscoll, Zondervan 2006
ISBN-13: 978-0-310-27016-4

page 119
[this season begins in early 1999]
I had worked myself to near burnout and was still the only paid pastor on staff although there was enough work for ten people.

[remember that at this point Mike Gunn and Lief Moi still had full-time jobs, Driscoll's work was apparently part-time and he had a stipend from the advisory board and supplemented his income in other ways]

page 120
A friend in the church kindly allowed me to move into a large home he owned on a lease-to-own deal because I was too broke to qualify for anything but an outhouse. The seventy-year-old house had over three thousand square feet, seven bedrooms on three floors, and needed a ton of work because it had been neglected for many years as a rental home for college students. Grace and I and our daughter Ashley, three male renters who helped cover the mortgage, my study, and the church office all moved into the home. [emphasis added] This put me on the job, literally, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, as the boundary between home and church was erased.

We ran the church out of my house for nearly two years, including leadership meetings and Bible studies for various groups on almost every night of the week. It was not uncommon to have over seventy people a week in our home. Grace got sucked right back into the church mess. She was a great host to our guests. But I started growing bitter toward her because I was again feeling neglected.

I began working seven days a week, trying to save the church from imminent death. I had decided to go for broke and accepted that I would either save the church and provide for my family or probably die of a heart attack. I lived on caffeine and adrenaline for the better part of two years, ate terribly ,and put on nearly forty pounds. 
Then there's a sermon from 2001 where Driscoll mentioned what he decided to do to land some work:

starting at 54:45
Proverbs 29:21, “If a man pampers his servant from youth, he will bring grief in the end.” These guys are pampered; totally pampered. Okay? And again, this is not a boasting on me. This is a – this is actually a tribute to my dad. I was eleven years old. I was going out for the little league all-star team, and I needed a new glove. My dad said, “Good. Go make some money.” I said, “Hey, dad, I’m eleven.” He said, “Well, you’re taller than the lawn-mower. I’m sure you’ll figure something out.” True. So, I get the lawn-mower, and I go and I mow lawns to get my glove. And I come back and my dad says, “You owe me gas money. You used my gas.” It’s the nicest thing my dad ever did. Up until that point, I didn’t know gas cost money. Now, I do. Now, I appreciate gas.It comes to the point where I’m 15 and I wanna get a car. I said, “Dad, I need a car.” He says, “Good. Go get some money.” I said, “Okay, fine.” So, I falsified my birth certificate, I lie about my age, and I get a job at a 7-11 selling lotto tickets and liquor and cigarettes to people that are twice my age. I was not a Christian, so – I shouldn’t have done it anyways, but I wasn’t a Christian. And so, I’m 15, working at a 7-11 selling stuff. And I make a decent living, and I buy my first car, a 1956 Chevy that I should’ve never sold. That’s a whole other sermon. And – and so I’m 15, driving myself to work without a license, because I gotta go make money to pay for my car. [emphasis added] Okay? And again, I was not a Christian. Okay? So, I’m not saying, “Thus sayeth the Lord.”

And I realize that, since I was young and I was strong, I could make more money. And so I started dinking around trying to figure out where to make more money. And I find out that guys in unions make a lot of money. And – at least compared to me working at the 7-11. And I got tired of getting robbed and held-up, too. ‘Cause if you run a 7-11 behind a Déjà vu, somebody’s gonna put a gun at your head. And after a couple of those, you realize, “For minimum wage, I’m not taking a cap. You know? I’m not gonna get shot for, like, a pack of cigarettes. I’m not gonna do that.” So, I lied about my age. I falsified my birth certificate again, and told them I was 18. Got a job working long-shoring down on the docks in Seattle. And I would go throw 100-pound sacks of peas, and unload trucks, and work hard. And they paid me tremendous money. [emphasis added] At the time, it was like $10.00-something an hour. This was, like, in 1986 or ’87 or something. And I’d work 40 hours a week, and over-time was double-time. And none of the guys would wanna work over-time. Usually it was on Friday, ‘cause they had to get containers out, and those guys all wanted to go to the topless club.

And so, I would work all the over-time at $20.00 an hour as a 16 year old kid. This is in the mid-‘80s. Right? So, I’m loaded. I have money, money, money, money. So, I buy a car, and I start saving for college, doing my stuff. And with my dad – I thank God for my dad. My dad’s like, “You’re a guy. You work. You pay your way. Good. It’s good for you.” And you know what? He’s right. He was totally right. Thank God for my dad. My brother and my other brother and myself, we’re all doing great, making good money, doing fine. My brothers are all in management leadership running companies or businesses. It’s great. You pamper a guy from his youth, and he just – he gets this course of action. All of the sudden he feels like if his hands are dirty, or his muscles are sore, or if he put-in a long day, or thought something was tough, that’s unusual; that’s abnormal. And so, he avoids it.

So by Driscoll's account he misrepresented his age to get a job he would not otherwise have been able to get back when he was in his teens.  Later, when he was married, he was given a lease-to-own deal for a home he wouldn't have been able to afford if the whole matter of buying a home had been a matter of what he qualified for with his own credit rating.  Even in this case Driscoll recounted that he and his wife rented spare rooms in the house to at least three single guys--the irony of Mark Driscoll holding forth as William Wallace II against irresponsible single guys not growing up was that without single guys renting the extra rooms not otherwise being used in the house Driscoll himself might not have been able to afford to stay for very long in the house he was in thanks to a lease-to-own deal he would later describe in his 2006 book.

One of the pervasive problems with any kind of Mark Driscoll or Doug Wilson-and-his-offspring approach to masculinity is that these are the kinds of American men where  a case could be made that without the benefits of high-rolling generosity on the one hand or a cultural industry that is not entirely averse to nepotism on the other these guys who sit in the seat of Moses to define masculinity could not have even gotten to the seats they now so often like to sit in.

A guy like Driscoll in particular has spent decades lecturing men as though the key problem is what he thinks they just don't want to do, when the problem may well be, as hoosier bob proposed, that the costs of doing the marriage thing as a Mark Driscoll prescribes it are so prohibitive nobody below the upper middle class these days might realistically be able to consider it and pursue it on those terms.  Mark Driscoll himself, by his own testimony, apparently couldn't do it without getting a hand up or two over the last twenty years. 

The idea that the nuclear family is an economically sustainable variant of family life in the post-industrial West has never seemed like a compelling long-term option to me.  When I was at Mars Hill I had a chance to survey, though briefly, just how many young married guys who invested in real estate went the "life together" or "community living" route.  These were often extended family systems of a literal or informal kind. 

So when yet some other guy holds forth on how it's a shame young men won't man up, it's a shame if the sort of guy who does this doesn't just so happen to be a senator, for instance, or a megachurch pastor.   As a certain Jewish teacher once put it, there are people who sit in Moses' seat and you should do what they tell you to do but be sure you don't follow their example.

Monday, June 19, 2017

HT Warren Throckmorton, The Elephant's Debt is back up online, revisiting the time James MacDonald was with Mark Driscoll when Driscoll decided to crash the Strange Fire conference.


from the executive summary of TED:

The Elephant’s Debt is a website dedicated to exposing some of the underlying reasons why many people have both privately and publicly questioned the character of Pastor James MacDonald and his lack of qualifications for being an elder and pastor at Harvest Bible Chapel of Rolling Meadows, Illinois.

By the close of 2010, Harvest’s balance sheet revealed that the church, while under the pastoral leadership of James MacDonald, had amassed approximately $65 million of debt, and in the midst of addressing the issues raised by this website, HBC Elders informed the congregation that the debt had been as high as $70 million.  While this number in and of itself is shocking, what makes it worse is that some elders and much of the congregation had no knowledge of the extent of the debt.  The rapid expansion of MacDonald’s ministry, for reasons of ego as much as concern for the Kingdom, was the cause for the sudden and surprising accumulation of debt.  The point in raising the surprisingly accumulation of debt is not to question the current financial stability of the institution, but it is put forth as an example of the underlying character issues of MacDonald that many people are now expressing publicly.

MacDonald was a guy whom Mark Driscoll described as having the spiritual gift of real estate acquisition at one point a few years ago.  Of course real estate always costs something and keeping it always costs something, too. 

Throckmorton also notes the following update:


So ... off the cuff, it's hard not to get a sense of echoes of another resignation on the part of some other guy who was supposed to be held accountable by MacDonald at one point when JM was on the BoAA.  Of course MacDonald was with Mark Driscoll when Mark Driscoll decided to crash the Strange Fire conference a few years ago. 


Given that some folks could regard James MacDonald as having been an abject failure at holding Mark Driscoll accountable on matters of doctrine or character it's hardly a surprise if it turned out he came to a conclusion that ... maybe he wasn't the best sort of person to be on a committee that is claimed to have some advisory role to Trump. 

The details of the resignation and so on are admittedly academic here at Wenatchee The Hatchet.  This post is more or less an FYI.  It's of some interest to keep tabs on MacDonald's goings on in as much as he was at one point claimed as a friend and associate of Mark Driscoll.  Whether or not Mark Driscoll has said even one sentence to James MacDonald since his 2014 resignation is impossible to verify on this end but perhaps, if he were asked, MacDonald could clarify if he's stayed in touch with Driscoll since he bailed on the BoAA that let Mark Driscoll become a kind of 21st century Richard Nixon of megachurch pastors.

Alex Ross on the occult roots of modernism in the arts, via The New Yorker

John Bramble, in his 2015 book, “Modernism and the Occult,” writes that the Salon de la Rose + Croix was the “first attempt at a (semi-)internationalist ‘religion of modern art’ ”—an aesthetic order with Péladan as high priest. In the years that followed, radical artistic thinking and obscure spiritual strivings intersected in everything from Kandinsky’s abstractions to Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and the atonal music of Schoenberg.
Kenneth Silver expands on the connection in a thought-provoking essay in the “Mystical Symbolism” catalogue, entitled “Afterlife: The Important and Sometimes Embarrassing Links between Occultism and the Development of Abstract Art, ca. 1909-13.” The word “embarrassing” is taken from the art theorist Rosalind Krauss, who wrote, in 1979, that “now we find it indescribably embarrassing to mention art and spirit in the same sentence.” Yet in the early twentieth century Kandinsky, Pound, and other modernists absorbed what Silver calls “an amalgam of spiritual sources—Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, kabbalistic, alchemical, and just plain wacky.” Assuming the pose of a sorcerer or guru emboldened more than a few artists and writers in their quest to explode tradition and create a new order.
Fin-de-siècle spiritualism also had a radicalizing effect on music: “Le Fils des Étoiles” was only the beginning. In the first decade of the century, Alexander Scriabin reached the border of atonality under the influence of Theosophy; he devised an ear-burning, six-note “mystic chord” that voices a hitherto ineffable divine presence. Jean Delville supplied an image of a sun deity for the cover of Scriabin’s sumptuously dissonant score “Prometheus, Poem of Fire.” As for Schoenberg, he was immersed in mystical texts at the time of his atonal leap: in terminology reminiscent of Péladan, he explained that whereas conventional major and minor chords resembled the opposition of the two genders his new chords could be compared to androgynous angels. Even the cool intellect of Igor Stravinsky was touched by theurgic energies: the neo-pagan scenario of “The Rite of Spring” was co-created by the Russian Symbolist painter Nicholas Roerich, who went on to have a spectacularly strange career as a Theosophical sage. [emphasis added]

In the wake of two catastrophic world wars, mysticism lost its lustre. The ecstatic liturgies of the fin de siècle rang false, and a rite of objectivity took hold. The supernatural was all but expunged from modernism’s origin story: the great Irish-literature scholar Richard Ellmann insisted that Yeats employed arcane symbols “for their artistic, not their occult, utility.” In the narrative that so many of us learned in school, the upheavals of the modernist epoch were, above all, formal developments, autonomous events within each discipline. Clement Greenberg spoke of painting’s “progressive surrender to the resistance of its medium”; Theodor W. Adorno, of the “inherent tendency of the musical material.” Such sober formulas fail to capture the roiling transcendental longings of a Kandinsky or a Schoenberg. [emphases added]

Hence the disreputable allure of Péladan, who dared to speak aloud what usually remains implicit in the aesthetic sphere: belief in the artist’s alchemical power, in the godlike nature of creation, in the oracular quality of genius. (Think of how often prewar Expressionism is said to have anticipated the horrors to come, as if artists were clairvoyant.) The question we want to ask a figure like Péladan is whether or not he meant what he said—whether, in essence, he was a lunatic or a charlatan.


Adorno was, perhaps, ultimately insufficiently dialectical about Schoenberg and the emergence of atonality at at least two different levels. At the first level he may have insufficiently appreciated the necessary linkage between occultism and the inspiration for atonality as an expression of a transcendental state of being. He wouldn't have been the only academic to have so failed, of course, but by the same token Anglo-American Christian polemicists were generally not even paying attention.  A potentially useful application from Francis Schaeffer's phrase book would be to say that the atonalists were creating music that aspired to be above "the line of despair" but which became incomprehensible to ordinary people who didn't have access to the figuratively and literally occult knowledge necessary to understand what a Scriabin or a Schoenberg were aspiring to. 

The other level at which Adorno was insufficiently dialectical was in the sense that he was trapped in the mental rut of supposing we must still only divide the octave into twelve-equally tempered equi-distant tones.  As the innovations of Harry Partsch and his associates, including Ben Johnston, have managed to demonstrate in the last eighty or so years, it's possible to divide the octave into fifty-three pitches and to compose music that employs what has for a generation or two been called "microtonality".  To the extent that Adorno ignored efforts at musical innovations in the Soviet bloc and the United States he was ignoring the two regions on earth where attempts to break out of the strait jacket of the 12-tone scale were most readily documented. 

But it's not as though Francis Schaeffer, in his own way, failed even more than Adorno to entirely engage with some of the aesthetic and conceptual innovations in the arts of his respective time.  I can be sympathetic to Adorno's proposal in Aesthetic Theory that we can't forget that art involves an explicitly cognitive as well as an intuitive thought process. That doesn't mean I'm on board with him about the "necessity" of twelve-tone, let alone his polemics against jazz.  But I think it's possible to take on a few of Adorno's concerns as useful concerns about the way people theorize about art.  Then, of course, we can also keep in mind that it's good to not ignore the explicitly occult inspirations of any number of the early 20th century modernists.  Over the last year and a half I've been sort of toggling back and forth between some writings from the Frankfurt school and some writings from Schaeffer and a bit of Chesterton to see whether or not these two fairly different approaches to the arts in terms of the embrace or rejection of religious belief might yield some possible overlap in a proverbial Venn diagram. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

links for the weekend and a ramble on the problem of trying to cultivate "critical thinking" skills in contemporary Western education. And a frustration about cultural conservatives trying to treat Western cultural art like the canon is as closed as the books of the Bible

Over at Slate Mark Feeney describes how All the President's Men was a superhero movie for journalists

“Even before the outcome of Watergate was clear,” Robert Redford said on the set of All the President’s Men, “I thought there was a good story in how Carl and Bob were investigating Watergate.” It was just a natural. The old Hollywood’s history of infatuation with newspapering met the new Hollywood’s detestation of Nixon. Best of all, there was the way the story mirrored—no, demonstrated—the film industry’s most cherished beliefs about how happy endings can coexist with, and even triumph over, unhappy realities. The very title All the President’s Men, while ostensibly alluding to Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (and, at an additional remove, “Humpty Dumpty”), also communicates a sense of great and powerful forces arrayed against its author heroes. As Alan J. Pakula, the film’s director, told one of Woodward and Bernstein’s Washington Post colleagues, “It’s inherent in the story of Carl and Bob that they have become a kind of contemporary myth” whose experience affirms “that American belief that a person or small group can with perseverance and hard work and obsessiveness take on a far more powerful, impersonal body and win—if they have truth on their side.”
By the time Nixon flew off in disgrace to San Clemente, the legend of the heroic and indispensable role of the press in foiling him was the accepted version of what had happened—a version whose acceptance was helped not a little by the phenomenal response to All the President’s Men. Published three months before Nixon’s resignation, it became the fastest-selling nonfiction hardcover in U.S. history. Two years later, the film version was released and went on to become the fifth highest-grossing movie of 1976, win four Academy Awards, and, in the opinion of no less an authority than Ronald Reagan, ensure Gerald Ford’s defeat at the hands of Jimmy Carter. Even so well informed an observer as the New Republic’s John Osborne, probably the most respected and influential reporter covering the Nixon White House, could describe Woodward and Bernstein as having done more than “any officials did to expose the evil of Watergate and drive Richard Nixon from the presidency.”
The point isn’t the legend’s truth but its persuasiveness. As a newspaper editor tells James Stewart’s U.S. senator in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “This is the West, sir, and when fact becomes legend, we print the legend!” The legend of the crusading reporter, enshrined in dozens of movies of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, was what Nixon had bumped up against and one of the reasons he could never get ahead on Watergate was precisely this: Once it became apparent that the newspapers really were onto something, people instinctively felt they already knew the story—and Nixon had to be the bad guy. Just as Watergate was the logical moral climax to Nixon’s career—the man who saw enemies in so many places finally became one to himself—so, too, was it the logical Hollywood climax. The good guys—or at least the likable guys—were the ones behind the typewriters. To Richard Nixon’s dark, dour, disingenuous matter, the Hollywood image of journalists was absolute, annihilating antimatter. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid Bring Down the Government” was the way one Post editor described the first draft of William Goldman’s screenplay, which isn’t far off as a description of the final version. In real life, as on screen, how could the public not go for something like that?

We could call it the Spotlight before Spotlight. Not to say these are bad movies but I can't resist making the joke that the superhero movies reviled by film reviewers just use the superhero in direct, unmediated form, whereas the journalist-as-superhero trope disguises the convention, perhaps so effectively that journalists don't realize that what Eagleton called the dogma of a double truth, of a set of ideals for the leadership-worthy classes and the common rabble, is still in play and journalists have elected themselves to the superheroic guild that is based not on physical prowess but on social and intellectual access.

Thing is, as Batman: the animated series played out decades ago it's perfectly possible for the superhero genre to concede that there's always going to be a "one percent" or even a "top twenty percent" and to ask questions in the most direct way possible as to what we want the conduct and ethics of that ruling caste to be.  In a different way Nolan's Batman films did the same thing and while Americans with lefty leanings tend to like to say those films are fascist I wonder if that's giving British film-makers and artists too little credit for admitting that frequently impermeable class boundaries exist and asking questions about what the nature of a society is or should be.  A patrician class that refuses to publicly admit how patrician it is can feel like it's endangered by other powers.  One of the tropes of Bat-lore is that Bruce Wayne never has any doubt he's of patrician stock and was born into the world with every unfair advantage possible.  But I digress. 

Other linkage for the weekend reading:


Over the last ten years I've had this impression that's hard to shake, that what Marxists describe as "alienation" is intrinsically bound up with what Christian teaching regards as the effects of the Fall.  This potent alienation of self from others, self from self, and the articulated alienation of the self alienated from self as identity and the self alienated from self in terms of labor and its results are all things pretty well spelled out in the narrative of Genesis 3.  Marxist discussion of alienation is in so many respects reinventing the wheel of Genesis 3.  But now that I'm not at Mars Hill I would venture to say there are different ways of rediscovering old things.  Each generation has to discover in its own way things discovered before by earlier generations.  Rediscovering and reinventing the wheel is part of the human experience.  What is relatively "new" is a cultural paradigm in which whatever "we" discover can be presented as something we invented or revolutionized. 

One Jacob Siegel has a rambly insider-baseball account of a thing with the editors of two magazines:



Davis: What kinds of values do you think education should be passing on?
Deresiewicz: Ultimately, colleges have inherited the spiritual mission of churches. As religious beliefs have declined with the rise of science, especially among educated people, people started to turn elsewhere to ask the big questions: What does life mean? What is the world about? People turned to works of art, to literature, music, theater, philosophy, which were in turn brought into college curricula.
That’s what the idea of a humanities education in college is and should be about, but part of that idea has very much declined. [emphasis added] It’s not about learning a specific body of information or skills the way other parts of a college education quite properly should be. Studying the humanities is about giving yourself the opportunity to engage in acts of self reflection, seeking answers to the kinds of questions you ask yourself not in a specialized capacity—but in the general capacity of being a human being, as a citizen.
Huh, that reminds me of books I've been reading this year by David Roberts on the total work of art as a failed substitute for Catholicism as the European civic religion

One of Richard Taruskin's many polemics about music historiography and music education over the last twenty years has been that the gap between the academic canon and the repertoire canon (the gap between what university programs say you have to study and what people on the proverbial street part with their own money to go voluntarily hear) has gotten too big.  The introduction of debates about the nature of canons in education and what should be canonical introduces a wrinkle here.  One possible side effect of consequence of this ... let's just say that in a way what I write could be a case study. 

One of my college friends told me he found it fascinating that I could write about episodes of Batman: the animated series in precisely the same way I could have written about Dostoevsky novels or poetry by Wallace Stevens. In a way this is a joke because based on the criteria of academic canon you're not "supposed to" take Batman or My Little Pony cartoons to even be able to address the nature of the human condition as being at the same level as poetry by Shakespeare or Milton or novels by Nabakov.  But at another level one of the implications of a lot of theoretical debates about the nature of canon formation and modes of analysis is that it seems like we "could" do this.  You could learn the tools of the trade in college that allow you to analyze this or that on the basis of having read Tolstoy or Austen or Melville but then you can turn around and apply this thought processes to, sure, a movie by Michael Bay.  How many people who can quote Walter Benjamin even want to affirm that, yes, you could use the Bayformers franchise as a way to describe where we are now.  You could do this for Star Trek, too.

That's all rambling set up for quotes from this:


Go to Inside Higher Ed, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, or read reports from Harvard University and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and you will discover that the humanities are in decline. Enrollments and majors continue to plummet.
But humanities professors themselves, like a delicatessen owner selling spoiled meat and blaming business failure on the vulgarization of consumer taste, fault their students. “All they care about is money,” they complain. “Twitter has reduced their attention span to that of a pithed frog.”
We tell a different story. For decades, literature professors have argued that there is no such thing as “great literature” but only things called great literature because hegemonic forces of oppression have mystified us into believing in objective greatness. One of the commonly taught anthologies among literature professors, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, paraphrases a key tenet of cultural studies: “Literary texts, like other artworks, are neither more nor less important than any other cultural artifact or practice. Keeping the emphasis on how cultural meanings are produced, circulated and consumed, the investigator will focus on art or literature insofar as such works connect with broader social factors, not because they possess some intrinsic interest or special aesthetic values.” (Editor's Note: This paragraph has been updated to correct a statement about the anthology.)
But if Shakespeare and Milton are no more important than any other “cultural artifact or practice,” and if they are to be studied only “insofar as” they connect with other social factors and not because of “some intrinsic interest or special aesthetic values,” then why invest the considerable effort to read them at all? Perhaps students who don’t take literature courses are responding rationally to their professors’ precepts?
The language about “how cultural meanings are produced, circulated and consumed” gropes for the prestige of something hard, unsentimental and materialistic -- in short, for economics, as a literature professor might imagine it. It appears that humanists’ key strategy for saving their disciplines has been to dehumanize them.

Now, sure, it's functionally an ad for a book.  But the concern is interesting.  The university systems as we know them in the West developed in the context of institutional churches with their literally religious concerns about a literary canon.  If you abandon this concept altogether yet still commit to the ideal that higher education should be about inculcating in people the capacity to acquire and employ critical thinking skills how do you set about doing this without a canon?  Can you do it?  For all the disadvantages canons have within poly-cultural contexts what a unified canon "could" provide is a common point from which all possible divergent readings could take place.  Christians can all debate about the appropriate interpretation of the Bible because while Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants of the Reformed or Wesleyan or Lutheran or Anglican or Pentecostal or Baptist or Mennonite or Moravian varieties may all disagree on various meanings and applications on a particular sacred text they will, at the very least, agree on what the sacred text is even if they can't agree on precisely who wrote the text and how authoritative and in what way said sacred text should be. 

Some of the battles in the last thirty years in higher education might have been to point out that if critical thinking skills are the goal we don't need a canon to inculcate those, do we?  Maybe we don't.   "If" we don't need a set canon in the arts for higher education then, as the authors quoted above propose, maybe it's a rational decision on the part of a lot of students to forego arts education in favor of picking up analytical skills in other ways.  This wouldn't have to be the STEM route that humanities fans sometimes fear, it could be history or political theory or ... maybe sociology and anthropology?  But in a way that gets us back the conundrum of the canon.  There is a canon of respected writings and contributors to the history of science., isn't there?  Newtonian physics may have needed a suppelement but Newton's place was not removed. 

What seems so lame about a swath of conservative and reactionary thought is this insistence that any attempt to add to the canon or supplement it might as well be the same as attacking the canon itself.  Look, I get why Christians would say you should not and cannot add books to the Bible.  We have those ecumenical councils and stuff.  But the idea that the canon, however we define that, in the arts, can't be a cumulative and additive thing seems stupid.  I admit that even if I were told by professors in college that Shakespeare or Hemmingway are real literary art I still enjoy Spiderman and Batman comics more than either of those, though the Bard really is pretty good.  I just admit that I like John Donne's poetry a little more if I get to choose Elizabethan era writers.  Even though both Beethoven and Mozart are regarded as more 'profound' than Haydn I disagree.  Haydn was the true luminary of that era if I "have" to pick one.  I'd rather not.  I even like Clementi's later sonatas more than much that I've heard by Mozart.  I've heard people actually gasp when I say that. 

But if we take this idea seriously that higher education is supposed to imbue us with critical thinking skills should we be that surprised if different people reach different conclusions about the arts? 

I guess I'm going to swing this back to my admiration for Haydn and how it can be explained in terms of his life and times.  Mozart and Beethoven's work, particularly after they both died, was anointed as canonical by the classes that identified with the marvelous beauty and ambition of the music.  There's a crude explanation that seems apt, the emerging middle class and entrepreneurial set could see themselves in Mozart and Beethoven because these were the two guys who were entrepreneurial about how they wrote their music and marketed their music.  Haydn was vastly more popular but he was working for the Man, for the Esterhazy court.  Even if Mozart and Beethoven were thoroughly indebted to the influence and interest of Haydn by the 19th century Haydn was admired and then, for want of a better way of putting it, ignored.  He had been canonized to the paradoxical effect of being sidelined.  As music theory began to explain forms with reference to the "deeper" composers, Haydn's more opaque and mercurial approach got shunted over to the side.  Richard Taruskin has, with cause, used Haydn as a case study of how the gap between what the textbooks tell us a sonata is supposed to be and what Haydn actually did couldn't be larger.  Haydn's unpredictable and whimsical approach to forms is so notorious that even in Elements of Sonata Theory, Hepokoski & Darcy just concede they drew more from Mozart and Beethoven and other composers for discussing formal options because Haydn was so playful it was hard to articulate any rules  about form from what he did.

Getting back to Deresiewicz's concerns about higher ed., I'm reminded of how I was advised by the late William Lane back when I was in school that if I did go into graduate studies for biblical literature to steer clear of the Ivy League.  He said the Ivy League had, unfortunately, lost its way and was completely sold out to what he called "the guild mentality".  It was all about the self-reinforcing dynamics of the guild doing things for the academic guild.  If you wanted to go into biblical studies with an eye toward serving the Church and as an act of serious Christian service he advised to go elsewhere and basically treat the Ivy League like a non-option.  That was, at the risk of reminding myself of the passage of time, more than twenty years ago.  It doesn't mean big schools can't generate wonderfully useful scholarship.  I've already name-dropped academics associated with the biggest possible schools in Western education.  Even in a case like, say, Taruskin, he's so committed a polemicist that there are plenty of people who maybe just barely grant he's a scholar at this point.  As a guitarist I've got my own little issues with his Oxford history of aired here at this blog. 

I suppose in our era of Trump the handwringing about critical thinking skills seems unfortunate because I get this sense that there's a set of assumptions laying behind invocations of critical thinking skills.  Who's to say that critical thinking skills, whatever they are, can be "taught"?  I've heard people say that you can't really teach jazz, not really.  Setting aside for the moment the annoying tendency of this kind of bromide being uttered by literal white guys ... no, wait, let's not set that aside!  I'm thinking here about Noah Berlatsky's riff against white guys like Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau using their roles as journalists to police the purity of black musicians; or a corresponding use of the role of the critic to condemn wholesale that genre of music known as prog rock.  I've had mixed feelings about prog rock all my life, loving parts of it and hating other parts of it and Haydn, in a word, has been my "answer", a composer who realized that you can do an awful lot with just a few hooks.  I view prog rock as a fine transitional experiment in high/low fusion of the sort I think a lot of us want to hear take shape, whether it's prog rock or Miles Davis' fusion period. 

Sometimes, and this is just me ranting for the weekend, I feel like the worst stuff that happened in Western academia all seemed to happen in the "long 19th century".  I've been anti-Romantic in my sympathies and convictions for a long time.  It's not without beauty or value.  I love some music by Chopin and to the extent that the Transcendentalists inspired Charles Ives that is the limit of my regard for them. 

But the canon status given to Beethoven and Mozart over Haydn exemplifies my recurring frustration with an approach to an artistic canon.  What's seemed clearer and clearer to me as I immersed myself in the early 19th century guitar sonatas on the one hand and in Hepokoski & Darcy's work on sonata forms on the other is that we're rediscovering fairly basic stuff about the 18th century music that's called "classical music". We're reinventing a wheel but we're reinventing it because, as I see it, we've been sold a bill of goods about the 18th century approaches to form by 19th century German idealists who, in the process of filtering the ideals of high art through their idolatry of Beethoven and Mozart, misrepresented the literature of the 18th century they were proposing to elucidate in the process. 

Part of me wants to go on at length about the beef I have with the Romantic era prescription of the "plan" in music composition vs the "Script" as was elucidated by Leonard B Meyer but it's the weekend and I wrote all that stuff earlier. 


Recovering a more script based approach to sonata would open up the possibilities of incorporating ragtime and blues into sonata forms.  My worry sometimes is that the debates about the canon of Western music or the battles over cultural appropriation is that we have people enforcing purity codes that don't even have the explicitly religious foundations that could at least get them on the "sanctity" scale Jonathan Haidt has talked about in his work.  This might be where what people on the left call neoliberalism gets easier to identify.  Maybe it's what is going on when someone like Ethan Iverson vents that he dreads that Star Wars movies and pop music might pass for high culture in a century if we don't defend jazz and classical.  That the Beastie Boys ended up as "classical music" was one of the tossed off punchlines in Star Trek Beyond.

But, like I was saying, it is the weekend. 

former MH PR director Justin Dean has a new book out called PR Matters: A Survival Guide for Church Communicators (though it's not necessarily a survival guide for the churches themselves, is it?)

A Survival Guide for Church Communicators
Lessons learned from Justin Dean, former Communications Director at Mars Hill Church

Presented for the time being without comment.

updated 6-18-2017

The title is interesting.  It's a survival guide for church communicators.  This title does not imply that the church itself will necessarily survive.  But it telegraphs that it can be a survival guide for church communicators. Justin Dean's tenure at Mars Hill Church may truly be an instructive case study because during his stint as the person handling PR Mars Hill went from its soaring heights to complete institutional death. 

If anyone has come across reviews of the book it'd be interesting to see what the reviewers had to say about the book.  Given how high profile the implosion of Mars Hill Church was, Dean's book might be something would-be future historians of the movement might be curious about.

How Justin Dean fielded the discipline of Andrew Lamb in 2012 did chart a course for the public reputation of the church.  For those who don't remember what he said, he explained that due to unclear communication what was meant to be conveyed about Andrew's discipline within a small group context was made known to the larger MH community, which was not intended.  At the time we noted that this was about as direct an explanation of an action being caused by organizational incompetence as was likely to be seen in contemporary American discourse. 

Recall, too, that MH was laboring to state that they were interested in protecting the privacy of the parties involved regarding the church discipline situation. 

If you should want to read about thirty-five thousand words of analysis referring to social media use by former MH leaders and attenders showing how easily it was possible to connect all the dots between Matthew Paul Turner's blogging about Andrew's discipline and the identities of Andrew (Lamb) and the Noriega family) you can trawl through these tagged posts:


Mars Hill was in many respects a case study of early adoption of social media use. It was a church culture that tried to be cutting edge about media use and branding.  The upside of that culture was that they had a meteoric rise.  The downside of that culture, to keep things brief for a post such as this, is that we had a culture in which people had not thought through all the implications of social media as mass media, or social media as a means through which all varied uses came with the voluntary sacrifice of privacy.  As this blog documented in at times mind-numbing detail, MH leaders and attenders did not seem to always grasp just how huge were the streams of information left out there on the net for reference.  When I started to document how it was possible for a convicted felon on his second marriage to get fast-tracked into a high mid-level leadership position in the culture of MH after he played an instrumental role in getting a piece of prime real estate Mark Driscoll admitted he'd been wanting for Mars Hill for a decade, this was possible to blog about precisely because Mars Hill was a culture where all sorts of stuff was blogged and tweet from sermons and information was easy to look up.  I would not say that, per a tweet by Justin Dean, that "bloggers won".  Mars Hill was the kind of information culture in which revealing what was going on became easy to investigate because Mars Hill was a culture that couldn't help publishing stuff to prove how technically engaged it was.

Now's s good a time as any to ask whether we Americans throw around the word "survivor" too much, not least in days where people actually get shot and killed.   I've gone on record here saying I don't particularly like the term "survivor" blog.  I'm not saying something like PTSD can't be experienced by people who have been through emotionally traumatic experiences at church--but two years after the shooting at Emanuel AME there are people who aren't with us because they were murdered.  The men and women and children who were there and were not also murdered can certainly be regarded as survivors.  About a year ago the Pulse shooting occurred.  The people who didn't die in that incident who were present can also be described as survivors.  Dean's book may have tips on how to "survive" in a church communicator role but the word "survivor" seems over-used in American Christian social media and media use. 

Still, if you happen to know of any reviews of Dean's book, feel free to post a comment (comments are still moderated so they may not show up, or show up right away).

And now Mars Hill  is no more.  A normal person on the street might wonder whether or not the PR approach of the top level leaders wouldn't have been responsible in a crucial way for the decline of a church's reputation.  But the book title says it's a survival guide for church communicators, so if we judge a book by its cover, Justin Dean's book doesn't have to be about whether or not the church survives, just the person who has the job of handling it's PR.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

a piece in The New Yorker about prog rock, Noah Berlatsky on white rock critics obsessed with the purity of black music, and a decade of experiments at high-low fusion


In April, 1971, Rolling Stone reviewed the début album by a band with a name better suited to a law firm: Emerson, Lake & Palmer. The reviewer liked what he heard, although he couldn’t quite define it. “I suppose that your local newspaper might call it ‘jazz-influenced classical-rock,’ ” he wrote. In fact, a term was being adopted for this hybrid of highbrow and lowbrow. People called it progressive rock, or prog rock: a genre intent on proving that rock and roll didn’t have to be simple and silly—it could be complicated and silly instead. In the early nineteen-seventies, E.L.P., alongside several more or less like-minded British groups—King Crimson, Yes, and Genesis, as well as Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd—went, in the space of a few years, from curiosities to rock stars. This was especially true in America, where arenas filled up with crowds shouting for more, which was precisely what these bands were designed to deliver. The prog-rock pioneers embraced extravagance: odd instruments and fantastical lyrics, complex compositions and abstruse concept albums, flashy solos and flashier live shows. Concertgoers could savor a new electronic keyboard called a Mellotron, a singer dressed as a batlike alien commander, an allusion to a John Keats poem, and a philosophical allegory about humankind’s demise—all in a single song (“Watcher of the Skies,” by Genesis). In place of a guitarist, E.L.P. had Keith Emerson, a keyboard virtuoso who liked to wrestle with his customized Hammond organ onstage, and didn’t always win: during one particularly energetic performance, he was pinned beneath the massive instrument, and had to be rescued by roadies. Perhaps this, too, was an allegory.
Sanneh's piece is long-form so we won't try to quote more than a few salient excerpts but one of the observations made along the way is that prog rock was white European music in an era in which rock was still thought of as having retained its connections to black music.  Or at least a whole lot of people still thought that at the time.  In an era of cultural appropriation it seems strange how little extended discussion has been given to, say, how much cultural appropriation could be said to exist on the still-overhyped Sgt. Pepper.
The genre’s bad reputation has been remarkably durable, even though its musical legacy keeps growing. Twenty years ago, Radiohead released “OK Computer,” a landmark album that was profoundly prog: grand and dystopian, with a lead single that was more than six minutes long. But when a reporter asked one of the members whether Radiohead had been influenced by Genesis and Pink Floyd, the answer was swift and categorical: “No. We all hate progressive rock music.”
That's interesting because I went through the 1990s and early 00's thinking Radiohead was just what you'd get if you took Pinkfloyd, added some Sun Ra, put it on simmer, and rebranded it.   It would seem that prog rock is the kind of rock a certain generation has to foreswear somewhat like post-Romantic/Impressionist era composers in Europe felt obliged to damn or saint the influence of Wagner. 
Almost no one hated progressive rock as much, or as memorably, as Lester Bangs, the dyspeptic critic who saw himself as a rock-and-roll warrior, doing battle against the forces of fussiness and phoniness. In 1974, he took in an E.L.P. performance and came away appalled by the arsenal of instruments (including “two Arthurian-table-sized gongs” and “the world’s first synthesized drum kits”), by Emerson’s preening performance, and by the band’s apparent determination to smarten up rock and roll by borrowing from more respectable sources. E.L.P. had reached the Top Ten, in both Britain and America, with a live album based on its bombastic rendition of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Bangs wanted to believe that the band members thought of themselves as vandals, gleefully desecrating the classics. Instead, Carl Palmer, the drummer, told him, “We hope, if anything, we’re encouraging the kids to listen to music that has more quality”—and “quality” was precisely the quality that Bangs loathed. He reported that the members of E.L.P. were soulless sellouts, participating in “the insidious befoulment of all that was gutter pure in rock.” Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed “dean of American rock critics,” was, if anything, more dismissive: “These guys are as stupid as their most pretentious fans.”
More than a little class resentment/conflict stuff going on there, maybe?   Loathing of attempts at fusion weren't just happening with regard to progressive rock but we'll get to that later.
Half the time when Noah Berlatsky writes something I'll think its absurd and the other half of the time it will seem to be a well-made point.  Berlatsky recently wrote about Christgau.
Cultural appropriation is, at least in part, an accusation about authenticity. When Katy Perry aspires to hip hop dance moves, she’s picking up something which isn’t hers and (perhaps more importantly) getting paid a lot for it. She looks awkward, out of place, ridiculous. She looks fake.

One person who’d no doubt be eager to weigh in on Katy Perry’s fakeness, or on anyone’s fakeness, is Baby Boomer critic Robert Christgau. Christgau is something of a legend. He’s been called the Dean of American Rock Critics, and he was the chief rock critic at the Village Voice for decades, when that was a big deal. He’s known as a contrarian—but that only makes him more representative of rock critics generally. He’s not unique, but his work is convenient shorthand for a certain critical consensus.
That consensus centers in particular around race. Like many white rock critics of his age, Christgau is obsessed with black authenticity. He has policed the borders of real black expression, praising those who are truly black, and casting scorn upon the mere poseurs.

Early in Christgau’s career, those inauthentic poseurs included Jimi Hendrix. These days Hendrix is seen as the quintessence of realness; he’s a rock touchstone, the foundational artist who confirms rocks essential blackness. Back in 1967, though, when Hendrix performed at Monterey, white critics like Christgau were turned off by Hendrix’s flamboyant performance style and, especially, by his appeal to a white audience. Christgau infamously called Hendrix “a psychedelic Uncle Tom,” though editors changed it to “just another Uncle Tom” under the misapprehension that that was somehow less offensive. Christgau also approvingly quoted another critic who said that Hendrix had a “beautiful Spade routine.”
It's a bit mixed there for me because I'm dubious at best about a lot of what is called "cultural appropriation".  But then I realize that I liked a number of the bands in the aforementioned prog-rock article.  It's been interesting to cross reference Sanneh and Berlatsky to see how critics, and not necessarily always white music critics, lambasted 1970s era experiments at fusion, whether it's in the prog rock arena or, as we'll get to in a bit, jazz-rock fusion.  Stanley Crouch was none too pleased with Bitches Brew when it was released. A lot of Davis' post Bitches Brew music didn't stick with me but Bitches Brew itself holds up beautifully.  In his sprawling Oxford History of Western Music, Richard Taruskin proposed that what incensed critics was that what Davis had done was cultivate a high-low fusion.  Up to that point experiments in jazz-classical fusions had been done and without necessarily netting a whole ton of acrimony from critical establishments.  This was, arguably, because the fusion could be considered high-high--jazz was considered a nascent classical musical idiom for African Americans (and certainly composers like Ellington (though diffident about the term "jazz" itself) aspired to create music that was respectable while also emblematic of black American experience in a way theoretically anyone and everyone could relate to). 
But whether it was a Christgau or a Crouch the purity police had things to say about any attempts at fusions. 
Sanneh mentions:
Gentle Giant was one of the bands featured on “The Progressives,” the Columbia Records compilation, which turned out to have a hidden agenda: it was, in large part, a jazz album, seemingly designed to help prog fans develop a taste for Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, and Mahavishnu Orchestra. Jazz played an important but disputed role in the story of progressive rock. While some British bands were trying to turn inward, away from American influences, others were finding ways to forge new ties between rock and jazz. [emphasis added]  Indeed, Mahavishnu Orchestra, a jazz-fusion group led by the English guitarist John McLaughlin (who previously played with Miles Davis), is sometimes considered an honorary prog band—at the time, the distinctions between these genres could be hazy. And in Canterbury, in the southeast of England, a cluster of interconnected bands created their own jazz-inflected hybrids: Soft Machine, Matching Mole, Hatfield & the North. These are the bands most likely to charm—and perhaps convert—listeners who think that they hate progressive rock. Unlike the swashbucklers who conquered arenas, the Canterburians were cheerfully unheroic, pairing adventurous playing with shrugging, self-deprecating lyrics about nothing much. (One Hatfield & the North song goes, “Thank all the mothers who made cups of tea. / If they didn’t care for us, we wouldn’t be / here to sing our songs and entertain. / Plug us in and turn on the mains!”) This is music animated by a spirit of playful exploration—recognizably progressive, you might say, though not terribly prog.
Berlatsky's beef with Christgau circles back to cultural appropriation but George Walker has talked about dealing with the stereotype by which people assume that because he's a black composer of a certain age he must play jazz when he composes what's broadly known as "classical". The trouble with charges of cultural appropriation is that they very often go in all directions. 
What seems to be open for continued conversation (if, at least, anybody is discussing this) the year after David Bowie died is that it sure seems as though the boundaries between prog rock and glam rock are ... fluid.  I'm not sure why The New Yorker piece describes prog rock at such length as though some of the variables in play couldn't be applicable to The Man Who Sold the World or maybe Station to Station.  Did Bowie never pass as having even possible connections to progressive rock simply because he paid homage to black American music and critics didn't feel like labeling him prog rock?  Yet Pinkfloyd seems to be effortlessly described as prog rock and their fealty to blues could scarcely have been more obvious to anyone with even a passing familiarity with their work. 
While there could be damning remarks made about Pinkfloyd not being prog rock because they lacked chops I am not sure I buy that line of reasoning.  After all, by the measure of sheer technical skill would Thelonious Monk not count as bebop because he didn't have the speed of Bud Powell?  That seems dubious.
While "chops of death" are important for prog rock I would venture to say that there are formal traits to be considered in prog rock.  That seems fitting given the wonky/nerdy technique obsessions of the genre and its fan base--so I would suggest that prog rock is not just about technically demanding instrumental work, it's also about experiments in what would be known as long-form compositional processes and structures.  Whether or not you think a song like "Xanadu" by the band Rush "works", there's no doubt that it's a giant song, epic in scope and scale, and has a lot of parts to it.
If anything, and I blogged about this way back at the start of this blog, the problem with a lot of progressive rock is that it is often brimming with a surfeit of ideas that, in themselves, are memorable musical ideas, but often without any clear sense of guiding structure.  To put it in cognitive terms, prog rock is often very "in the moment" for any given minute of the performance while if you were to try to draw a schematic of what the "form" of a Rush song is you might have six to eight distinguishable parts in the longer pieces, and that's even if you decide to discount any free-ranging solo as merely an in-song variation or embellishment of a previously established structural unit.
You will never run into that kind of problem with Bitches Brew.  The governing syntactics of how the Davis album works from song to song and across the album as a whole makes it easier to remember the sum of the album and its parts than I've managed, personally, to have for a lot of prog rock albums. 
So what I'll probably end with for the time being is coming back to how there's a bunch of people who loathe prog rock and a bunch of people who loathe jazz-rock fusion experiments that have emerged in the wake of Davis' landmark albums at the end of the 1960s.  What it seems was happening was that ambitious musicians were striving to arrive at was a fusion.  Leo Brouwer, a guitarist composer whose work I've admired for decades, has said that fusion is a trend in the second half of the 20th century that academic musicology and theory has largely willfully ignored.  If anything some recent articles suggest that when establishment critics for jazz or rock or classical found they could not ignore the "cross over" or "fusion" works they could lambast them.  Sometimes those attempts at fusion were just that, attempts.  A lot of what has occurred could be likened to attempts to mix vocabularies, or to transpose vocabularies into formal idioms in ways that may or may not have always worked. 
Schoenberg developed his twelve-tone technique because he believed the viable musical options of the German tradition that didn't devolve into centuries-tested cliché were nearly exhausted.  Perhaps they were exhausted and perhaps they were thoroughly and truly exhausted by the time Stockhausen was doing his thing.  Adorno's advocacy for atonality has not endeared him to later generations who have been aghast at his dismissal of jazz.  There have been some who have damned Adorno for championing atonality because he was a Marxist.  Meh, though not exactly a Marxist myself I think that's a foolish complaint about Adorno.  I think that Adorno may have really believed that the "viable" possibilities of the twelve-tone equally tempered chromatic scale had been genuninely and supremely exhausted by the German musical tradition ranging from Bach through Schoenberg.  The trouble is that just because in an information saturated cultural milieu critics regard the art form as saturated and wasted doesn't mean this is how musicians and producers will see things.  Schoenberg had plenty of good things to say about Gershwin's musicianship and went so far as to say there was still plenty of good music to be written in the key of C major, didn't he? 

Ethan Iverson has a long grab bag of quotes from jazz luminaries who discussed which works from the "classical" canon they steeped themselves in over here.

I used to be in a would-be prog rock band ... decades ago.   The band didn't exactly break up but two of the three of us got married and started families.  I joined some church that had a few young artsy types in it ... .  Over time I began to have a vaguely subterranean impression hat, in a way, the culminating ambition of a prog rock guitarist was to write a fugue for the guitar.  What could be more progressive rock than a fugue for solo guitar based on either a blues riff or some kind of Bulgarian-inspired 7/8 or 11/4 subject?  Not that I consciously thought about it in such explicit terms, but I came to realize that a lot of what prog rock aspired to do seemed to be collapsing the boundaries between the "high" of classical music as we tend to think of it and the "low" of rock/pop idioms.  It seemed that jazz rock fusion, much of which I have hated and still find hard to really enjoy was, nonetheless, also aiming for what I still consider a worthy and eventually attainable goal.  The early and middle Baroque periods were characterized by the wholesale collapse of a style that had been long ago dubbed ars perfecta.  The stylistic cohesion of the Renaissance era gave way to nascent forms of nationalism and regional stylistic and formal innovation.  It was also an era in which seismic shifts in temperament and tuning of instruments was starting to take place. 

As I get into ... a certain phase of life, it seems that over the last twenty years the declinist meme in cultural conservatism has fixated on complaining that atonality and twelve-tone music has ever, ever existed.  It's what I find I can't trust about the Roger Scruton wing of cultural criticism.  Alban Berg's Wozzeck is remarkable.  Even Scruton would have to concede there's a time and a place for atonality in music.  Penderecki may have settled into a really predictable neo-Romantic vibe but his earlier, eclecticism still holds up, most strongly in his Passion setting, for me.  Using all the avant garde musical techniques of his era to depict the suffering and death of Christ on the Cross shows that with a compelling extra-musical purpose, even the most arcane and confrontational musical devices can be put to persuasive use.  The mistake that has often been made by 20th century avant garde movements has been grabbing for formal innovations at the price of forgetting the extra-musical associative meanings that lay audiences so frequently anticipate can be available for understanding the music. 

The longevity of prog rock might not just be about what it "is" in the ears and memories of frequently not-so-admiring critics and historians but for what it was aspiring to.  Maybe Adorno and others had a point in proclaiming that twelve-tone equally tempered notes had nothing in traditional tonality left to them.  Maybe ... but as Partsch or Johnston or others on the just intonation/microtonality side of things have been saying for decades, maybe the mistake Schoenberg and his acolytes made was assuming the octave could only ever be divided up into twelve more or less equi-distant tones.  Why on earth should that be?

For those of us who can't afford the time or materials or the technique to custom-build instruments playing with justly tuned intervals we have to work with the budget and access constraints we have.  As much as I admire Ben Johnston's string quartets he never said it was "the" way to go, just the way he found interesting.  For those of us committed to working in traditional fixed pitched instruments there are other options and those other options can be explicated by the ambitions of prog rock and other types of fusion.  What's interesting to consider is how the aspiration to a new fusion of previously existing styles has been going on across the classical, jazz and rock spectrum and also across what's dubbed the white and black spectrum.  It's not even really black or white as people of every skin color explore the possibilities latent in the permeable boundaries across musical styles.  We live in a post-tonal musical world but we had a pre-tonal musical world in the Renaissance and even in the early and middle Baroque periods for a good stretch of time.  They didn't even have a consolidated equal temperament system in place, either. 

Circling back to Pinkfloyd as the band that Sanneh said was the most popular prog rock band, let's just take that as given and propose that what their music had in its favor was macro-structural simplicity.  Yet in terms of musical complexity there's nothing in even the most complex Pinkfloyd song that approaches the complexity of what Stevie Wonder did in "Living for the City" or "Contusion" in his 1970s output.  So how is it that prog rock managed to get scorned while other musicians such as Stevie Wonder and David Bowie managed to do comparable avant garde things in popular music without getting critical drubbings?  At the risk of closing on too simple an observation about 1970s experiments at fusion, what distinguished a Wonder or a Bowie as having mastered a kind of jazz/rock/avant garde fusion was macrostructural directness yielding a simple, comprehensible whole that was lacking in prog rock.  Prog rock often foundered once you got beyond the moment-to-moment virtuosity and sought out audible organizing paradigms or principles. 

But then fans of middle Baroque music may note that a whole lot of people only think of the high Baroque masters such as Handel, Bach or Telemann as standing in for the entire Baroque period.  Prog rockers could be to a potential continuing fusion of classical, jazz and rock/pop what the early Baroque composers were in another time. 

I've got another post incubating about reading through Ben Johnston's theoretical writings about music.  The preview version is that it's interesting to look at how signature moves in the classical music avant garde of the 20th century, whether its introducing aleatoric composition, mass improvisation, serializing techniques based on formulas, or dismantling the certainty of fixed functional tonal progressions could be thought of as attempting to take one of maybe a dozen standard traits in the span of the Baroque era Western musical practice and using that as a foundation to explore new musical options. 

What I think has not been discussed enough at a lay level in musicology (though, perhaps, at the academic level) is that we see this curious thing going on, while the white Western avant garde labored to build new types of music based on the reappropriation and extension of one of the aforementioned elements into classical music, these were attempts to restore with primacy a single trait that was in Baroque theory and practice; by contrast, jazz showed us a musical idiom in which all of the elements from Baroque theory and practice that had been purged through the run of the high Classic era and Romantic eras were brought back into a Western practice musical art form.  What high German idealism had strangled out of the Western art music tradition came back in a desublimated form in jazz and it scared the crap out of some establishment chroniclers of formal music education for a time.  Some reactionary types who are committed to a Western musical canon that is functionally 19th century in its devotion seem unable to accept the possibility that a whole lot of popular music in the last century rose to the level of art and if there's a pervasive tendency in those kinds of polemics I've noticed in online vitriol over the last five years or so it's that those types of people tend to lionize the 19th century at the expense of the more unstable currents and trends of the 15th through 18th centuries.

But that was supposed to be a separate post.  Meh, I'll just throw it in here at the end because I think it connects to prog rock thematically.  Baroque music was vilified as ornate, ugly and incomprehensible by contemporary critics so there's nothing new under the sun. What Baroque era music did manage to generate, which by and large progressive rock may not have as much of, is a range of theoretical treatises guiding practice and theory.  We're arguably, some say, beyond the era of rock as it stands, so prog rock may forever remain a footnote in the history of attempts at fusions that maybe didn't quite fully ... fuse.  Perhaps that's the thing about experimental music, it's easy to decide decades after the fact that the experiment failed somehow, but there's such a thing as figuring out why we may think the experiment failed and what could be done differently rather than do what rock and jazz and classical establishment critics of various stripes have tended to declare in the moment and for posterity, that it shouldn't even have been tried. 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

music posting incubation continues and other stuff percolates

The plan was to have blogged about Koshkin's 24 preludes and fugues by now, and I still mean to do that.

It's just that while I'm at it I wanted to revisit Igor Rekhin's 24 preludes and fugues and I had not until recently even heard of G(h)erman Dzhaparidze's set of 24 preludes and fugues.  I mean to give those a listen now.  I am also wanting to get to the Castelnuovo-Tedesco cycle of guitar duets, though truthfully I probably can't add anything to what's already been said about that charming cycle.  Friedrich Zehm has a set of six preludes and fugues that I know of but haven't been able to hear yet.  That's not even counting fugues as movements or stand-alone works by composers ranging from the obvious (Leo Brouwer), to the established (Gilbert Biberian, Atanas Ourkouzounov) to the less well-known (there's a cycle that I've heard was composed by Puget Sound area guitarist composer Philip (sic) Quackenbush that I haven't had a chance to hear yet, either.

All that is to say that somebody could write a full-blown monograph on the heretofore largely overlooked (though not completely ignored) legacy of fugal writing for solo guitar or guitar duet.  There's not much I feel needs to be said about the history of arranging and transcribing Bach fugues for guitar.  In fact my convictions as a guitarist composer tend to be that if you have the time to transcribe or arrange Bach for the guitar you should really think more about composing your own fugues for the instrument. 

The plan is still to get around to blogging about cycles of fugues for the guitar but it's going to take some time. 

on superhero narratives, formal and informal--how Wonder Woman and Spotlight can both be superhero films about awesome Americans defeating un-American hierarchies

Reading reactions to the new Wonder Woman film have been interesting.  I admit to being partial to superhero stories since childhood.  There might be something about wish-fulfillment to it, yes.  There might be something about being able to do things that you know that normal people can't do or even simply things that you know from experience that you can't do that has endless appeal. The idea that people with unusual power or knowledge can and do decide to help those in need and to fight on behalf of those who have fewer inherent or intrinsic advantages will never get old so long as there are humans who realize nobody is born into this life with the proverbial playing field ever having the slightest chance of being level.

The funny thing, though, is that for those whose professional and vocational interests involve discussing cinema this kind of observation is most distasteful when it is most obvious, which is to say there are film critics who resent that superhero films exist and that they have enough market saturation to have to get reviewed by mainstream publications.

For those who didn't catch this, David Edelstein's review of Wonder Woman was a mixed review and he, along the way, made it clear he thinks superhero films are a blight on cinema and that he doesn't like them at all.  He also managed to come across as though the only reason he gave the new movie even the mixed review he did was because he was so awestruck by the lead actress, inspiring a number of women to ask for the record, "Did he really just admit the only reason he gave this film two stars instead of one star on a scale of one to five was because of his boner for the lead?"  It's not that you can't be attracted to Israeli women if that's what you're into, it's that even the few nice things Edelstein had to say about the new superhero film seemed to be nice things spurred entirely by the tingly nethers. 

There's a lot that could be said about how, when and why admissions of the conflation of observable beauty (whatever its form) and erotic drive could still seem in bad taste on a hypothetically global (but really first and second world) mass media network.  There may always be a time in which there are feelings and thoughts that are either best expressed between the two mutually consenting parties who have some together-time or never expressed in any directly documentable way.  But what's more interesting to me lately is something else, and by way of transition I should mention I finally saw the film Spotlight. Edelstein wrote a review that, perhaps hamstrung by a lazy title for the movie, itself had a lazy title, "Spotlight shines."

Of course it did, it's a superhero movie.  It's the Justice League against the Legion of Doom, only the Justice League is the Boston Globe Spotlight team and the Legion of Doom is the Catholic Church and its lawyers.  A period piece drama about a band of intrepid but at times unsure misfits who feel that there's something wrong with the world they live in that needs to be put right?  That's both Spotlight and Wonder Woman, isn't it? Yes, I'm aware of all the details of how one film is based on real events and real journalism but "based on a true story" films tend to be prone to self-congratulatory moralizing, more or less to the same degree as ... superhero films.  In fact it seems that World War II period pieces are actually a preferred trope through which Hollywood can celebrate its own virtue vicariously through sharing stories of the virtuous deeds of men and women of the past.  It even helps the story more if the protagonist who does some great feat of kindness also has some unsavory character flaw, or even a vice.  Spielberg's Schindler's List, anyone? Of course if a person is virtuous and also luminously beautiful that doesn't really hurt, either.  The Zookeeper's Wife, anyone?  What is stranger than superhero films being popular is that members of the critical caste that resents their existence seems so readily fooled by the most cosmetic trappings to hide the fact that films like Spotlight or The Zookeeper's Wife have the same self-regarding moralistic perspective that we see in superhero films.

What makes the superhero genre slightly different is that, as someone put it at Slate recently, the eye candy aspect is expected because it's legitimately a requirement. We expect Thor and Wonder Woman to be ridiculously attractive. The difference between a superhero film and a self-congratulatory Hollywood period piece is that the remarkably superior providential blessings possessed by the protagonist is in education or some other variant of social prestige rather than in necessarily having dashing good looks.  Still ... Spotlight had that one woman reporter played by Rachel McAdams ... .

It's possible to enjoy Spotlight for what it was and enjoy Wonder Woman for what it is. It's also possible to see that once you parse through the period piece trappings and factor in the class distinctions of who is "supposed to" like this stuff, they're more or less the same story.  In earlier blog posts I was musing upon how in the earlier days of opera we had an aristocratic class bankrolling operas in which the aristocratic class celebrated its own virtue.  The royalty may be more Hollywood than landed gentry these days but the creation of spectacular spectacle art that celebrates the unique virtues and resources of the elite of our day has not necessarily changed.   There are still superheroes and supervillains.  Perhaps now a supervillain could be a hacker or the hacker could be a superhero.  With a show like Mr. Robot it could go both directions at the same time.  After all, think about it this way, Mr. Robot is just a 21st century variant on Batman.  When Batman was invented he was willing and able to use the most advanced technological and scientific methods available to his day.  So to see the protagonist of Mr. Robot as simply an early 21st century iteration of a robust heroic trope, albeit the trope of the barely socially-acclimated do-gooder whose preferred methods of do-goodery involves committing tons of crimes.

The temptation to cast political contests in apocalyptic terms is irresistible and now that we're here in 2017 it's interesting to remember that back in 2008 Frank Schaeffer wrote about President Obama ...

Obama Will Be One of The Greatest (and Most Loved) American Presidents

Great presidents are made great by horrible circumstances combined with character, temperament and intelligence. Like firemen, cops, doctors or soldiers, presidents need a crisis to shine.

Obama is one of the most intelligent presidential aspirants to ever step forward in American history. The likes of his intellectual capabilities have not been surpassed in public life since the Founding Fathers put pen to paper. His personal character is also solid gold. Take heart, America: we have the leader for our times.

I say this as a white, former life-long Republican. I say this as the proud father of a Marine. I say this as just another American watching his pension evaporate along with the stock market! I speak as someone who knows it’s time to forget party loyalty, ideology and pride and put the country first. I say this as someone happy to be called a fool for going out on a limb and declaring that, 1) Obama will win, and 2) he is going to be amongst the greatest of American presidents.


Obama did win, but whether he's among the greatest of American presidents seems debatable for two reasons. The first reason is because it's not clear that Obama has really achieved the things he set ou tot achieve on the one hand and the second reason is, to invoke the observation of Lord Acton, great men are rarely ever good men and there's room to doubt whether any of the "greatest of American presidents" could ever be actually good people. 

While Frank Schaeffer modified his spiel to be the atheist who still talks to God 2008 was apparently back when he concluded that he was still a believer in Christianity so he said:

Speaking as a believing Christian I see the hand of a merciful God in Obama’s candidacy. The biblical metaphors abound. The stone the builder rejected is become the cornerstone... the last shall be first... he that would gain his life must first lose it... the meek shall inherit the earth...

Frank Schaeffer has managed to be merely a blue state variant of the red state demagogue he's said his father was.


A hundred years from now Obama’s portrait will be placed next to that of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. Long before that we’ll be telling our children and grandchildren that we stepped out in faith and voted for a young black man who stood up and led our country back from the brink of an abyss. We’ll tell them about the power of love, faith and hope. We’ll tell them about the power of creativity combined with humility and intellectual brilliance. We’ll tell them that President Obama gave us the gift of regaining our faith in our country. We’ll tell them that we all stood up and pitched in and won the day. We’ll tell them that President Obama restored our standing in the world. We’ll tell them that by the time he left office our schools were on the mend, our economy booming, that we’d become a nation filled with green energy alternatives and were leading the world away from dependence on carbon-based destruction. We’ll tell them that because of President Obama’s example and leadership the integrity of the family was restored, divorce rates went down, more fathers took responsibility for their children, and abortion rates fell dramatically as women, families and children were cared for through compassionate social programs that worked. We’ll tell them about how the gap closed between the middle class and the super rich, how we won health care for all, how crime rates fell, how bad wars were brought to an honorable conclusion. We’ll tell them that when we were attacked again by al Qaeda, how reason prevailed and the response was smart, tough, measured and effective, and our civil rights were protected even in times of crisis...

We’ll tell them that we were part of the inexplicably blessed miracle that happened to our country those many years ago in 2008 when a young black man was sent by God, fate or luck to save our country. We’ll tell them that it’s good to live in America where anything is possible. Yes we will.

A person could get the impression Frank Schaeffer was describing Obama in terms that might be applicable to ... a superhero.

Never mind the election of Trump in 2016 for a moment, how much of Frank Schaeffer's would-have-been prophecy came to pass?  How much of that really happened?  In the last twenty years I've found myself unable to take seriously the civic religion of America in either its red-state variety or its blue-state variety.  Nor does it seem as though either the left or the right will be able to do more than potentially preside over the decline of an empire.  Whether it was Francis Schaeffer in one generation of Frank Schaeffer in another generation the temptation to the idolatry of a Social Gospel whose end goal was not proclaiming the risen Christ but restoring the "greatness" of the United States and reviving the birthright of American "leadership" seemed to be the real goal.  Ironically, when in the comics superheroes have steadily tilted in the last half century away from American exceptionalism the members of the fourth estate and the entertainment industries, particularly at critical cycles of electoral activity, can't help but strike up the band.  Weren't we supposed to get the first woman president last November because there was just no way that guy could win? 

The idea that evil could be defeated by throwing a few cars around seems silly, but it's no less silly than believing that the world works the way it does in Aaron Sorkin scripts where the right kind of person saying the right kind of words with cameras rolling can "change everything" and put the world as we know it to rights.  In genre fiction the kind of guy who pulls off that hat trick tends to be called a wizard, sometimes a wizard named Gandalf.  If a woman then maybe we've got ourselves a Galadriel.  Some person who's travelled all over and seen the world and shares stories of what has been seen and of what remarkable things have been said and done ... that could be a wizard but in our day and age that's more likely to be a journalist. 

And yet when journalists scoff at superhero movies what, exactly, are they scoffing at?  Unrealistic expectations about how good triumphs over evil?  Is that really it, though?  I've come to have my doubts that a movie like Spotlight and a movie like Wonder Woman are really as different as a film critic such as David Edelstein might think they are.  Or, for that matter, someone like John Podhoretz over at The Weekly Standard

The new Wonder Woman film is fun.  It has its issues like any film will, but it's fun.  It's been fascinating to track some of critical responses to the film, particularly some of the negative reactions.
Even with a successful opening weekend and a generally warm critical reception, it's like Wonder Woman can't win.  It was essentially the dramatic irony central to the plot of the film, that even in victory Wonder Woman discovers that defeat and failure are implacable.


What makes her heroic?  I would suggest it's that she refuses to embrace the contemptuous view of humanity held by the gods and demigods in her story.  Given the Miltonian gloss on Hellenistic mythology, Wonder Woman decides to see the spark of the divine nature reflected in humanity rather than see them as lumps of clay who should be beaten down back into the earth from which they came. Told all her life she was fashioned from clay, she identifies with the humans she was told were fashioned by a god from earth rather than with the immortals she's told she really belongs with.  Francis Schaeffer may have claimed the United States was a post-Christian nation but even a 2017 Wonder Woman adaptation can't go full pagan and has to completely rewrite Hellenistic myths into Miltonian Paradise Lost narrative to sell the superheroine to a contemporary American audience.  What's fascinating about the film is that the gender essentialism and the idiosyncratic view of Hellenistic mythology Marston had were problems that were far more easily solved than the problem Diana wears into battle, her costume. 

I think that the actually offensive jingoism of Wonder Woman's origin story can never be completely overcome.  What's paradoxically is that while Wonder Woman has been the favorite of many feminists, queer theorists and leftists for what is formally her commitment to fighting evil with love, anyone who actually reads the early Marston/Peter comics will find it impossible to escape noticing just how jingoistic those comics were.  While Batman and Superman had a legion of moments that connected them to the war effort, neither Superman nor Batman were given origin stories that inextricably tied them to American exceptionalism and pro-war propaganda. I think the most recent Wonder Woman film probably did as much as could be done to disentangle Diana's origin story/character arc from American exceptionalism and jingoism but it's ultimately not possible.  It's right there in her costume design, even if the movie's script took pains to explain aspects of the costume in ways that referenced Amazonian culture rather than the flag of the United States of America.

If the Cold War histories have a chance to "teach" us anything it's possibly what Solzhenitsyn told us decades ago, that the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics are ultimately no better than each other, both materialistic imperialist empires set on pleasure or glory.  It's not that Solzhenitsyn himself never came up for criticism, obviously, but it can be easy to forget that he at length had the same complaints about both sides of the Cold War while the two respective sides were convincing themselves that because they had the right ideologies and fiscal policies there were, in fact, better than the "other" side was.   You don't really need a god to have a civil religion, though, you just need a party.

Here we are twenty years after Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the advocates of the cult of Joss Whedon seem to have bought precisely what Whedon said he set out to create, a cult following for a character who is a symbol of girl power. The reason a man like Joss Whedon could have a preacher dude be the hand of the big bad might be because Whedon is himself a propagandist by profession.  The transition from Buffy to the Avengers was merely one of branding, the aim to create a giant multi-media integrated brand that plays the role of a cult in sociological formation remains in place.  You can be an atheist and still invent what amounts to the cult of a civic religion, whether you're a Joss Whedon creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer or a Gene Roddenberry creating Star Trek. If anything these sorts of men are honest enough to admit that the cult-forming means and ends are actual goals for them. 

The history of highbrow attempts to fashion an art that replaces the cultic roles of religion in society are easier to forget because you apparently have to go do grad-level reading in art history and literary theory to find out who those people have been.  When Wagner was theorizing about the total work of art college professors probably did not want to imagine that this was ever going to take the form of the Marvel cinematic universe, or Star Wars, or DC Comics, or Star Trek, or My Little Pony, or toy lines.  Sure, it's easy for some on the left to complain that the total work of art has traction with the culture industry of capitalism ... but the total work of art can also take the form of ideology itself.  Marxism and capitalism could both be iterations of a higher, more grad-school worthy conception of the total work of art. 

Neither of these etiological myths necessarily bring a lot to the table to entertain people.  Just as the alternative civic religious concepts of the Enlightenment proved too cerebral for mass appeal in the 18th and early 19th century, neither "side" in the Cold War seems to have an ideology that translates very effectively into a substitute for older belief systems (yes, cal, I'm reading Eagleton's Culture and the Death of God, thanks for the recommendation :) )  The superhero genre may be one of the most effective contemporary stand-ins for what used to be played in social cohesion by religions, these or perhaps Star Wars and Star Trek, yet these franchises seem to inspire the most resentment in the elite knowledge elite classes because Yoda isn't Mallarme and Optimus Prime isn't Thoreau. 

That certainly seems to be the case but if the proposed alternative is negative dialectics how surprised "should" we be that people will watch Wonder Woman?  If apophatic theology is challenging for the actually religious person what difficulties may accrue to a person who tries to have a kind of apophatic aesthetics? In a way ti's hardly a surprise at all that we're here I n2017 and Wonder Woman has a feature length film.  And to think it only took three quarters of a century for her to get her first movie after the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader have both had so many.