Wednesday, February 09, 2011

and a link to Psyblog about The Ziegarnik effect

Link: Seattle Weekly "The Shuffling of Music Has Dilluted Its Cultural Impact", Not
Read this editorial commentary on the shuffle function of the iPod and the negative effect it has on music. A few excerpts and some responses:

Some people might make the case that this lack of tribalism in music is a positive development. Obviously something's been gained, especially by the generation of kids who have access to great music in an uninterrupted stream. All those teenagers whose parents played them Bach in the womb, who were raised on a steady diet of the Beatles and Beck, are surely the most musically literate generation in history. But as music becomes more of a commodity, the value of any one band or song declines.

When genres blur, the culture of the past becomes an indistinct stew. Bands quit being symbolic, or invested with much more importance than as purveyors of hits on a soundtrack. If a young songwriter perceives little difference between early REM and early Elvis, the music he or she writes, and the culture it eventually spawns, risks never rising above pastiche.

Genres do not blur themselves. When genres blur it is become someone makes a point of blurring the genres. I do not see that many people complaining that the destruction of stylistic purity in jazz can be laid at the feet of Miles Davis. I know of more than a few critics who blasted Dave Brubeck for having "no swing" and for attempting to assimilate classical elements into his work. Purity of musical style does not indicate purity of personhood.

If as Leo Brouwer put it a few years ago there is a failure on the part of academia to fully appreciate the significance and value of fusion as a musical approach then perhaps this linked editorial may be taken as a paradoxical populist objection. Sure, the populist objection is still ultimately a hipster posture of the sort that academia is guilty of but my main jibe is that compared to the work of an actual musicologist the objections of a hipster amount to a populist objection rather than an academic one, that the purity of the culture associated with a musical style gets lost. This is why some commenters on the editorial, perhaps quite unfairly, see the whole gist of the editorial as lamely curmudgeonly and even racist. That's a histrionic over-reaction ... but that's not unsurprising coming from folks who make comments on Seattle Weekly links to a column in Reverb, is it?

That connection is all but gone now. The endless playlist has reduced every song to top-40 status, to an equal footing in a shuffle roulette. Songs that once stood for something are interspersed randomly with ones that didn't, all just a skip button away from oblivion. I'm going to make an effort from now on to try to remember a little bit of the world each song came from. I owe them that.

Now here's the part where I put on my faux academic/social critic hat and point out that the whole idea that are songs that once stood for something (and don't now?) being set against songs that didn't suggests both a hegemonic and a consumeristic impulse that delineates on the basis of status. We can't have it both ways, we can't value the album as the artifact of true fandom and then invoke that some songs mattered and some songs didn't because we all know that some songs on an album matter more than others.

Some songs are just plain old filler created to meet a contractual obligation. That "Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones became a massive hit and a manifesto for a generation does not mean that it wasn't originally written as a simple space-filler to make sure the album had enough songs on it. I defy anyone to argue that "Goodbye Blue Sky" is anywhere near as interesting or important a song on The Wall than "Another Brick in the Wall" or "Comfortably Numb". "Won't Get Fooled Again" is incontestably more important and memorable as a song than "My Wife". Since this is the case within albums it vitiates any force a person could have in trying to say that albums gave us a more cohesive and intense listening experience.

Here's the thing, not everyone listens to music in the same way and listens for the same things. I can tell you that my lack of keen interest in pop music these days is not because I don't listen. I listen but I listen for lyrics, how lyrics connect to melodies, how musical form reinforces associated meaning. I listen for thematic and formal development. Music is to me not merely about the expression of feelings or the consolidation of cultural values that are, strictly speaking, extra-musical. Music is capable of exploring ideas. This doesn't mean that I'm a big fan of Elliot Carter but it does mean I appreciate a lot of music by Messiaen and Bach.

Now here's the other thing, a lot of those songs on those old albums DON'T mean something. Sure a hard-core Dylan fan will as quickly recognize "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" as "Like a Rolling Stone". But for most people that first song never mattered because they weren't listening to it. The experiences that bind us together are the same experiences that can also keep us apart. Do we "really" want a society in which fans of the Bee Gees and fans of AC/DC can't stand each other and won't associate with each other? I would say my life has moved along just fine without the music of either band.

What Roderick considers a problem in the shuffle-age of the iPod, the decline in value of the individual song as music becomes more of a commodity, is a shibboleth. Music has always been a commodity and if you want to find a demonstration of how the value of an individual song can get obliterated by the sheer accumulation of listening try listening to everything Robert Johnson ever recorded in one go. The thing about pre-World War 2 blues performers is they didn't release albums, they released singles, and if you set those singles back to back you begin to realize that as good as he was to have heard one Robert Johnson song is to have very nearly heard them all. I always enjoyed Blind Willie Johnson a great deal more personally but that's a personal taste matter. I do still own all of Robert Johnson's work.

All work in the arts is pastiche in the earliest stages of any artist's career. We can point to how early Beethoven sounds suspiciously like late Haydn. We can chart the shift in Mozart's concept of formal and thematic development after he came into contact with Bach (i.e. Mozart started sounded much, much cooler!). It's not hard to chart the trajectory of Hindemith's early work influenced by Debussy and Wagner through to his shift away from romanticism into expressionism and then his later neo-classical phase after coming into contact with the music of Stravinsky, Webern, and others.

If a young songwriter hears early R.E.M and early Elvis and notices that the use of song forms descended from Tin Pan Alley and country permeate their work this is not a sign that the young songwriter is going to make some indistinguishable musical brine it may simply be a sign that that songwriter has figured out that musical forms and themes can't be restricted to the largely cosmetic differences in what amplifier or what solid-body electric guitar were used. R.E.M. and Elvis are both examples of pastiche. This is not a reason to dislike or like them it's simply a reality of any serious musicological engagement with what their recordings reveal. Do Bob Dylan fans go on and on about how his early works were nothing more than a pastiche of Woody Guthrie songs or snippets of things that could have passed for Ginsbergh? Uh, not too much it seems.

The disadvantage of the contemporary scene for music is that it reveals what classical snobs have been trying to say for decades, that the whole of pop music (i.e. non-concert music) is a virtually indistinguishable mush of songs separated not by any inherently musical differences but by cultural, ethnic, socio-economic and other distinctions. Now I think all of those assertions have always been grossly overplayed and I still think Stevie Wonder remains a musical genius but what any concerned hipster musical fan's worries prove about pop and indie music is that the things that bind them together at the level of musical form and musical idiom have always been stronger than the things that were once considered to separate them.

With respect to grunge 19 years ago is not recent history, man. I don't regret the music of Nirvana receding into the mists of history just a teensy bit Grunge was just emo before emo got the label and was what we got when punk from twenty years earlier was put in the microwave and came out of the reheating process a little spongier and less flavorful. I don't really need to further spell out that I was in high school when grunge came out and found the whole musical style insufferably stupid, do I?

The shuffling of music has not dilluted its cultural impact, the tendency of people to not listen to music as more than a soundtrack to one's own life does that. The shuffling of music has not dilluted the cultural impact of music so much as revealed that if you shuffle 300 blues songs you're going to realize that that's an awful lot of I-IV-I-V-I to listen to for hours in 2.5 minute episodes! We're not talking about some giant cyclical work like Bach's Matthew Passion, Messiaen's Vingt Regards, Penderecki's Lukaspassio, Beethoven's Fifth, Haydn's Op. 76 string quartets, Stravinksy's Rite of Spring, Arvo Part's Berliner Mass, or Byrd's Mass for Five Voices. The reasons all those rock and pop songs blur together is because they do, just the same way 104 Haydn symphonies tend to blur together if you try to absorb them in big chunks.

The closest pop music has ever come to actually requiring an extended attention to musical form was the oft-derided "concept album". I enjoy classical and pop and jazz but at some point someone has to keep saying that the only thing goofier than the snobbish disdain of classical fans toward non-classical music is a hipsterish worry that 3 minute odes to sex, drugs, and rock `n roll praising its own virtues may somehow be drained of their life-changing power. How we listen is what gives us the ability or inability to hear and be transformed by beauty and truth. A certain Jewish rabbi once said "He who has hears to ear, let him hear." To the one who has more will be given but to the one who has not even what he thinks he has will be taken away from him. Now obviously Jesus was speaking about things far more important than what bands one listens to but at a much smaller level the concepts can still apply.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Link: LA Times commentary, "phony solutions for real social ills",0,4157527.story

Not TOO surprising coming from someone connected to the Cato Institute but an interesting little read all the same. If social conservatives are concerned about abortion and gay marriage as symptoms of what is wrong with society why focus on those when the bigger problems or the prevalence of divorce and single parenthood? At a purely anecdotal level most of the "heathen" secular leftists either don't have children and don't want children or are raising their children. It tends to be among the politicall conservative self-described Christians I know that divorce and single parenthood seems more common.

I've seen a few bewildering cases in which a person speaks against something in the absttract while benefiting from it in the concrete. One person I know spoke against unemployment as "government subsidized work" while having a job that derives from a defense department program. It doesn't get more government subsidized than that. Now I hasten to add that I think that particular government-subsidized program is a good and useful thing but I STILL pointed out the odd irony of a man speaking up against government-subsidized work while benefiting from it himself.

A more puzzling example, though, was discovering a woman who was lamenting people who want government hand-outs and entitlements who is now a single parent and who was lamenting the tribulation of not having her unemployment benefits extended. Now I have been loathe to just pick up state aid for myself even though, in principle, I do not automatically object to its existence or use. All things considered I'd rather NOT be dependent on state aid but if I have no alternative I'm willing to go with it. What doesn't make sense to me is to denounce people as a whole for taking government assistance while making use of it yourself or denouncing others for it. As my sister noted with some amusement recently, Ayn Rand was willing to have one of her medical aids get medical assistance through government programs near the end of her life while still being against moochers.

Now I am the kind of moribund and pessimistic fellow who believes that inconsistency and hypocrisy are unavoidable and inextricably bound up in the human condition. Even if you are not a hypocrite (and I believe most people are not, strictly speaking, hypocrites) you will still at some point completely fail to live out the ideals you aspire to and urge others to. It is not necessarily hypocrisy to say that people should avoid making use of government programs like welfare or medicaid or unemployment in favor of working where they can if you end up injured on the job and file an L&I claim or you get laid off from your job and collect unemployment.

Contrary to those people who have only had to pay into unemployment without ever having to collect it I would say that it's too easy to dismiss people who collect unemployment checks as being moochers discouraged from doing real work by government handouots. Your objection is "probably" not based on your sense of justice being broken with respect to the person who got laid off but your sense of justice about your possessions being offended. If, however, it's all "God's money" then if the state takes a few things out in advance then God providentially took some of His money from you before you could consider it part of your paycheck. Sorry, folks, but I'm not enough of an entrepreneur yet to share the moral outrage just yet. I might share it one day, though, so I can't say that sense of outrage is somehow "wrong".

But it does seem hypocritical to condemn in others what we excuse in ourselves. I'm not sure I would want to speak up against people living off of government handouts and entitlement programs as a whole if I'm only getting by because of food stamps or welfare or state medical aid for myself or my kids. The hypocrisy isn't in the necessity of that reliance, it's in the condemnation I would heap on others for having some kind of moral failure that led them to doing what I would be doing.

Now if someone were married and their spouse left them and they were stuck getting by trying to raise a kid then I'd say that the social welfare program exists to provide a modicum of help (note I said a modicum). If someone divorced their spouse and went out and had a kid out of wedlock with someone else and THEN took up government aid then, well, I can't say I have a ton of sympathy for moral outrage coming from that person.

As conservatives might put it, you can't go to war against the math, against the statistics and likelihoods of it all. If you bail on your spouse and have a kid out of wedlock then if you attempt to speak as a conservative against what you consider to be wrong with society at the level of people bailing on a spouse and kids and living off the largesse of funds wrongly appropriated via tyrannical force (oh, that would be taxes, right?) then you are the hypocrite, not the liberals you might blame for societal ills. You are, after all, the single parent who got that way by bailing on your marriage and bringing forth a child you can't afford to raise without government assistance. Isn't that what social conservatives object to?

How does a social conservative who has gotten themselves into that kind of position not notice the hypocrisy inherent in that? I don't know. Maybe if I ever thought dating and marriage were worth actively pursuing for my own life I might understand the temptations better that led a social conservative to literaly embody the things he/she most resents about "liberalism". I'll admit that I really do not understand how people get "caught up in the moment" with all that lovey-dovey stuff and view the emotional volatility of all that stuff with a skepticism and suspicion that I admit even I consider very unhealthy.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

"heart issue" and heart issues

In the Christian circles I have been part of over the last decade I have heard an idiomatic expression I have never heard anywhere else. The expression is "heart issue". It almost invariably refers to an imputed motive, though it can refer to a curiosity or discernment about ACTUAL motives. When a Christian says he or she wants to address "the heart issue" this is, at the risk of speaking too broadly and cruelly, a kind of Christianese psycho-babble, a pop pyschological shibboleth that goes unrecognized because of a tacitly assumed "biblical" foundation.

Few things, just now, seem dumber or more risky to me than a Christian going to another Christian attempting to address "a heart issue". I don't say this because Christians are not called to be irons sharpening irons to each other. I early on came to an appreciation that "blows from a friend are better than kisses from an enemy" even though I have written elsewere in this blog about how the riddle-like nature of many proverbs suggests that many Christians only reflect upon one possible meaning of this verse and to that one meaning, in contrast to the other, I intend to devote my attention.

Christians often give themselves liberties that normal heathens would not advise. What I mean to say is that a husband and a wife might have an argument and, whereas in a not-overtly spiritual marriage the two would talk through their differences and work out some kind of solultion if they want their relationship to continue being healthy, a spiritual couple may well have lengthy discourses about how this, that, and the other are "heart issues" or "sin issues". Of course there are perfectly legitimate reasons for discussing all of life with those categories in mind for a Christian ... but I have seen a few cases in which that spirituality becomes a tool that a Christian can appropriate, pious-sounding language invoked as leverage for much less than pious thoughts, feelings, and actions.

What I alluded to earlier I will explain here, the famous proverb that is often rendered "faithful are the wounds of a friend, deceptive the kisses of an enemy" or in the aforementioned alternate wording, can also be read in a substantially different but apparently similar way: the wounds of a friend endure but the kisses of an enemy are profuse. WHEN a friend hurts you the wound is terrible and long-lasting precisely because the wound comes from a friend. If you don't believe that this is a practical reflection or meditation on the nature of the proverb do yourself the favor of reading Psalm 55! Yes, I am aware of the christological import of the psalm but bear with me as I have come to realize in the last seven years that a default mode of interpreting the psalms ONLY as christological references has been one of my biggest problems in appreciating the psalms. I have already written about that elsewhere so forgive yet another digression.

What I have meant to say in the above is to note that there is a flip side to a popular proverb through which we as Christians can justify confronting fellow believers on what we consider to be their great failures. If we only consider the first, more popular meaning of the proverb we may be quick to confront a "friend" (see any variation of the "open letter" in blogging) without considering the second, less popular meaning. We are quick to suppose that in Jesus our blows prove our faithfulness without considering that they will be long-lasting and whether or not the long-lasting effects of the blows are going to be the most faithful way to express a God-honoring friendship. The desire to offer the "wounds from a friend" may be a sign of neither friendship nor help. The proverb obliges us to consider whether we are friends before counseling that faithful blows will be helpful.

I have seen a few cases in my own life where I or others have assumed the worst about each other as fellow Christians and the results were disastrous. Not too long ago I saw to Christians I know display a problematic relational pattern. I eventually concluded I had to speak to both Christians separately about this pattern. Without getting too detailed what I noticed among them both was a pattern in whiich each Christian felt justified in having a suspicious disposition based on an assessment of the other's heart. One of them actually said that the concern at sake was not addressing concrete behavior but "the heart issue".

That was the point where I pointed out that that, precisely, was the problem. He wanted to get past specific, concrete measurable things that could be practically addressed to get at "the heart issue" and that attitude and assumption was actually where the bad faith was developing. He had already made up his mind about what was in his neighbor's heart based on his own concerns. I had seen the same problem with the other Christian. We can tell ourselves that by wanting to skip past the behavior and get to "the heart" that we are doing the Christian thing. In many cases we are not, we are tempted to spiritualize our own resentments and fears. I suggested to both Christians that what would work better is for concrete things to get addressed. I even went so far as to argue that in one case the proper response was not to go in and try to address the "heart issue" but to instead eastablish a concrete approach to mutually agreed upon objecctives.

When I was told that this might skip the heart issue I pointed out that we should not ignore the power of operant conditioning. For instance, I would suspect any parent knows that a child never has the "heart" to clean his or her room without some kind of external motivator. It takes a lot of conditioning and training and encouragement and, let's face it, rewards to induce a child to make a habit of cleaning a room. I'm not even an adult who is as concerned as others about how tidy my room happens to be. My hope is that the Christians I talked to stopped assessing each other on the basis of "heart issues" that were projections of their own suspicions or resentments and were able to discuss the concrete behavioral and relational rifts that developed in their relationship.

There are some Christians whose "heart issue" is that they constantly want to frame their concerns, their objections, their fears or resentments of others as "heart issues" in other people that must be addressed. It comes off as a wonderfully spiritual and c0nvincing approach to spirituality but it means that the Christian who embraces this kind of spirituality becomes an insufferable, sanctimonious disputer. Differences that might otherwise be manageable if kept at the mundane level on which the occur are elevated to nearly insurmountable problems because "the heart issue" has to get addressed.

And naturally how this plays out pours fuel on the fire rather than puts a fire out. This leads to a Christian who, to put things unfairly and bluntly, is much happier dishing out than taking confrontations about "heart issue" subjects in any relational context. "I" get to tell you that the real problem between us is the "heart issue" but if "you" confront me about being a jerk then "I" get to hide behind the idea that if "you" knew my heart things would go more easily. It becomes a self-exonerating cycle.

So if one Christian notices another Christian doesn't clean the dishes as much as he'd like he can tell that other Christian that he'd appreciate a lot more diligence about dishwashing. OR he could say that more than the dishes not being washed to his liking he's REALLY concerned about the "heart issue" behind the person who is not washing the dishes as much as he likes. If you've spotted the Christianese so far you can imagine how being on the receiving end of this kind of pious condescension could inspire a negative reaction even from a fellow believer.

Perhaps the first Christian might even go so far as to throw in another wonderfully Christianese buzzword and say that it's a matter of "stewardship". In terms of rhetoric this is actually a brilliant maneuver because it skips past any enquiry as to the nature of the behavioral lapse and presupposes the subject around which any discussion should happen. Anyone who attempts to back the conversation up to concrete actions is trying to dodge "the heart issue", which has been made about stewardship of objects and has not managed at any point to touch the relational dynamics at hand. Of course the first Christian who brings up "stewardship" has absolutely no idea that he's done this and only perceives an uneasiness or hostility on the part of the recipient of his admonitions, which he then suspects is yet another "heart issue".

There, if you're with me this far, is one of the inevitable risks of framing everything in "heart issue" terms--it becomes a nasty form of self-fulfilling prophecy in which employing spiritual jargon and making assumptions about the motive of the other person actually goes a long way to transforming them into the adversary you have, in your heart, already decided that other person must be. Through your own eagerness for confrontation or moral evaluation you paradoxically end up turning the person into the kind of person you fear they are by how you relate to them. Men look at outward appearances but God looks on the heart.

Now some may say at this point that we cannot judge the heart but we can judge the fruit. What this often really means in practice is judging actions and associations. Let's take a popular example, evangelicals and politicians. There are plenty of evangelicals who consider Bush 2 to have been a solid president who respects the Constitution. I have many sincere doubts about that myself. I don't see a necessary correlation between one's bona fides as an evangelical and the success of one's given job.

Now it's true that the scriptures describe rulers as good or bad based on what are fairly simple criteria. We don't live in a theocratic monarchy, obviously, but we can search the scriptures and consider leaders to succeed or fail in governing in a way that seems to conform to scriptural precedents. But the scriptures also reveal that some of the best intended Israelite kings made some of the worst mistakes and had the least competence in important leadership decisions. Even a king who starts off well can be ruined by initial success. If you want to read further on that I have some blog entries on Jehoshephat and Amaziah for your consideration. For this entry it suffices to say that another problem of attempting to address "heart issues" is that a person may have the best heart possible for a mortal and still be imcompetent.

Perhaps the best way to sum all of this up is in the apostolic exhortation that we consider others as better than ourselves. We are not told we have no value, of course, because we are being saved by the work of Christ and the Spirit for fellowship with the Father, Son and Spirit. Considering each other as better than ourselves as a useful corrective against the temptation to make things about addressing someone else's "heart issue". It would be overstating my case to mention that Pharisees were great at jumping into the lives of other people and confronting them about their "heart issue". They tried doing this with Jesus disciples and then eventually directly questioned Jesus' motives. Of course we know from the scriptures that God the Son took their allegations and assumptions about His "heart issue" and turned it back on them. Their eagerness to make everything about Jesus' "heart issue" gave the Lord the opportunity to confront them about the real problem at hand, THEIR heart issue.