Saturday, February 11, 2017

some links for the weekend

Jen Graves resigns as art critic of The Stranger

Half the time I only read The Stranger when I read it for Chris DeLaurenti's columns so, man, it's hardly ever that I read The Stranger these days.  On the other hand, if they can surmount the era of Dan Savage being the prototype for Driscoll maybe there's hope for them.  Mudede's film reviews can still be fun to read so he's sort of the reason I even still bother to read The Stranger even intermittently these days.  For the record, it wasn't until Justin Dean indicated the publication fabricated content that WtH made any contact with anyone at The Stranger.  Back during the MH days one of the popular assumptions was that the sorts of people who hated Mars Hill went and blabbed to the newspaper.  Never did it.  Not on the same page as them on any number of issues but, in any event, Graves is parting ways. 

courtesy of ArtsJournal "radical empathy is the theatre artist's new job"

eh ... not personally hugely into theater.  It's a bit odd since I can get into opera and even more into ballet and I like film and television. I love music and enjoy scholarly literature.  Haven't read poetry in a while but I was on a Levertov kick years ago.  I still admire Donne.  But theater ... I don't know, it's just a medium in which I've found it virtually impossible to suspend disbelief.  So radical empathy on the part of the theater ... I don't know. 

In times of yore people with dramatically different political views could meet together in a common space that wasn't a theater but a church.  At the risk of repeating this point yet one more time, one of the things that was enjoyable and encouraging about Mars Hill in the 1999 through roughly 2005 period was I could converse on politics and art with people across the political spectrum.  There were people who were anarchists or traditional leftists, there were center-left liberal types (there were, in fact, people who voted for Clinton and Obama all over Mars Hill even if they increasingly felt unable to say they did so from the 2007-2014 period); there were also, of course, right and paleo-con types and plenty of people willing to say they backed Gulf War 2, which I regarded as a disastrous policy move but knew I wouldn't dissuade people from within that context.  I think we need the Department of Defense to be one of defense rather than offense but never mind that.

The idea is that in a self-selecting self-sorting society such as we have the difficult theater will have is it is so niche and so resolutely highbrow the ability of theater to reach out to the community could be comparable to the difficulty of fans of Xenakis doing the same.  Xenakis wrote some fun stuff.

but it's absolutely an acquired taste!

It's the kind of music that might end up in, say, a Resident Evil soundtrack. ;)  Actually, not really, but that's a segue-way to another link about whether or not there have been or will be good video-game film adaptations.

Milla's done half a dozen of these RE films and I only watched half of them.  Yeah, I watched half of them.  I gave up after the third. When a friend of mine said there hasn't been a successful mainstream action franchise on film with a female lead I kept wondering when he was going to remember that Milla Jovovich and Kate Beckinsale have been ostentatiously proving otherwise for the last fifteen odd years.  That they're both glamorous model types is probably counted against them, and that the action franchises they've starred in are summarily panned by film critics all over.  I get why.  That Milla and Kate are likely never going to be regarded as A-listers in Hollywood hardly seems to mean they aren't some of the most robust B-list actresses around.  Lest that seem to be too harsh a verdict let me invoke Bruce Campbell's observation that the A-listers are trapped in the typecasting their personas require of them.  B-listers don't have the same monetary leverage but what they may lack in that they can make up for in niche market reliability or versatility.  Jovovich may be more the former and Beckinsale the latter (she was one of the better Emma Woodhouses I've seen, wrong hair color withstanding, and she was immensely entertaining as the nasty piece of work Susan Vernon last year).

There is, reportedly, that Lego Batman movie out there.  Might see it, but maybe not right away.  Still wondering if The Red Turtle's going to hit Seattle. 

For folks who may not have kept up with Gospel for Asia stuff ...

Oh, and since it's been a while since we've mentioned Ferdinand Rebay or his music, here's a performance of the first movement from his Sonata for violin and guitar in E minor.

I keep meaning to get back around to blogging about Rebay's music again but I'm kinda plodding through some Frankfurt school stuff lately.  Also reading up a bit on John Cage, a favorite whipping boy of any number of conservative types.  Per some comments quoted form a blog post earlier this weekend, there were these culture wars in academia in the last twenty years and they were less about the aesthetics of the arts as such than about the canons preferred by the people who came to be the ruling castes of the last half century.  So in a way cultural reactionaries are fighting an already lost battle if they hammer away at Schoenberg or Cage. I haven't gotten around to writing on the stuff I've read at Future Symphony Institute but one of my reservations about it is the "symphony" part.  If arts funding gets sliced up even more in the Trump years then the mainstays of high culture are going to hurt even more.  As a guitarist I'm not going to pretend for a second that I don't think we should put more into the guitar literature.  When war ravaged Europe Heinrich Schutz did not take the approach of "just" insisting on more money and resources for the arts.  He took the approach of scaling back his practical approach to composition and his conception of the resources that were available to him.

Kyle Gann floated an idea years ago, "Make Way for the Guitar Era" and floated an explanation as to how it came about that so many music students at Bard College might have become guitarists.  I happen to love the instrument and I've spent much of my adult life working toward some specific goals for the instrument, namely composing sonatas and fugues.  The two 18th century forms or processes guitarists routinely and tediously assert are inimical to the inherent limitations of the guitar are sonata forms and fugues.  This is so obviously not the case I could probably write a book about the subject but I'm honestly not sure if I will.  Part of the reason is simply that even if you DO compose a guitar sonata in F minor inspired by the late Beethoven piano sonatas and the late string quartets of Shostakovich that doesn't mean other guitarists will want to play it. 

But, again, if there's a likelihood that arts funding as we've known it is even further gutted then what guitarists have an opportunity to do is keep the traditions of Western art music alive by tackling the kinds of things we've heretofore had too many guitarists claiming hasn't been done (that has been done, in the case of sonata forms) and that can be done.  When Western academics insinuate that sonata forms are obsolete this could only be true if you focus entirely on keyboard literature at the expense of neo-Romantic works within that milieu or if, further, you pretend that no composers who wrote for the guitar ever wrote sonata forms.  This, too, is so easily disproven I'm surprised there aren't monographs on this.  Gann's got a theory as to why, which has something to do with the musicology ladder and modern academia being more of a prestige racket than a setting in which genuinely path-breaking scholarship is likely to happen.  It does happen, and the work I've read by Hekoski & Darcy on sonata forms has encouraged me because if scholarship is rethinking what sonata forms even are this will give guitarists and guitarists into musicology an opportunity to demonstrate that our instrument has plenty of sonata forms to study once you bust out of the straitjacket of assuming all sonatas "must" be what Hepokoski & Darcy regard as "Type 3". 

But there's only so many thousands of words even I feel like writing on a weekend. 

Since this blog does touch on the topic of animation now and then ... you maybe knew this was coming.

Samurai Jack Season 5.  Yep. 

the crisis in the social sciences looks like a crisis in which we can see that social science may be statistics deployed in the service of stereotypes

social science is
statistics in the service
of stereotypes

This being more an arts blog than a science blog, we've kicked things off with a haiku. But the subject for the weekend is social science and we'll enter into this topic by way of something about the culture of the American university.

Internet Monk linked to something over at Heterodox Academy
This basic exploration of FIRE’s disinvitation revealed that:
  • Total disinvitation attempts per year increased from 2000 to 2016.
  • An unsuccessful disinvitation of a speaker was the most common outcome of a disinvitation attempt.
  • Disinvitation attempts occurred primarily for campus speeches/debates or commencement addresses.
  • The catchall category of “other political views or positions” spurred the most disinvitation attempts. Racial issues, views on sexual orientation, and views on the Israeli-Palestine conflict all produced over 40 disinvitation attempts.
  • Public colleges and universities experienced more disinvitation attempts than private secular and private religious colleges and universities, largely driven by more attempts to disinvite speakers from making campus speeches or participating in campus debates.
  • The success rate of disinvitation attempts was higher at private secular and private religious colleges and universities compared to public ones.
Summary and Conclusions:
  • Speaker disinvitation attempts from 2000 to 2016 were most likely to come from the left of the speaker.
  • These disinvitation attempts from the left occurred most often for controversies over racial issues, views on sexual orientation, and views on Islam.
  • Speaker disinvitations due to issues related to abortion almost exclusively came from the right of the speaker, at religious institutions.
  • Speaker disinvitations due to views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict occurred almost equally from the left of the speaker and from the right of the speaker.
  • With the exception of 2006, the first decade of the new millennia saw a roughly equal number of disinvitation attempts from the left and right of the speaker. Beginning in 2010 an uptick in disinvitation attempts from the left of the speaker has occurred.
  • Disinvitation attempts from the right of the speaker have a higher success rate.
  • When disinvitation attempts are unsuccessful, moderate and substantial event disruptions are almost exclusively from the left of the speaker.

The first thing that came to mind reading these two parts was that the sample size was necessarily small and that there's not yet any clear certainty these are necessarily reproducible results. 

This problem is happening in a few places:

Cancer Research Is Broken
There’s a replication crisis in biomedicine—and no one even knows how deep it runs.

But it's most notable in social science and particularly in psychology:

Psychology’s Replication Crisis Can’t Be Wished Away

Does social science have a replication crisis?

Why Does the Replication Crisis Seem Worse in Psychology?
originally over here:

from the Slate version:

Researchers study small effects with noisy measurements and then look through their data to find statistically significant comparisons. This approach will be expected to lead to unreplicable claims. But, worse than that, it can lead to research communities where unreplicable results seem to reinforce each other: Study a small effect with noisy measurements, and any statistically significant claim will necessarily massively overestimate any underlying effects. In follow-up studies, researchers will then expect to see comparably huge effects, hence they anticipate “high power” (in statistics jargon), and they expect high rates of success. Coming into their studies with this expectation, they can feel justified in jiggling their data until they get the findings they want. The resulting claims get published in journals, their findings are believed, and the cycle continues.

But this is a problem in lots of scientific fields. Why does psychology continue to dominate the news when it comes to discussion of the replication crisis?

Why not economics, which is more controversial and gets more space in the news media? Or medicine, which has higher stakes and a regular flow of well-publicized scandals?
Gelman went on to propose there were four reasons why the scandal of not being able to replicate results is a bigger deal for psychology than for other fields.

Those four reasons aren't interesting enough to summarize. As someone who's not in the academy but likes to read academic literature there's a much, much simpler and more direct way to explain the real crisis underlying the crisis of replication, which is a doubt about whether or not the social sciences can be legitimately regarded as social science at all.  If you can't replicate the results how can you call what you've found science?  Throw in the concern that Jonathan Haidt and others have had about how WEIRD (Western, educated, industrial, rich and democratic) Western academic research has been; throw in concern about the level of duplicity and deception and paying off college students on a campus may be involved just to get people to participate in a study and a layperson can be left asking a question.  But rather than formulate it as an explicit question it can be conveyed as a haiku, since this is more an arts blog than a science blog.

social science is
statistics in the service
of stereotypes

That these stereotypes are only formally declared as backed up by "data" after the study has been done doesn't mean the stereotype wasn't the impetus for the sociological or psychological study to begin with; nor does it matter that the stereotype formulated might have been formulated over against some previously existing stereotype.  A counter-stereotype is still a stereotype.  Daniel Kahneman's writings have told us that in a majority of cases these "System 1" judgments are usually remarkably accurate, which is why when "System 1" judgments turn out to be wrong they are spectacularly wrong.

It may be a paradox that explicit partisans and the old left and old right may be better able to see the partisanship of the new center than the center can see in itself.  To put it in another way that's no less deliberately intended to provoke, a lot of left literature can be invoked by the academic mainstream to exempt itself from being a ruling class in a way that defeats the stated aims of the literature being quoted.  In other words, the high school dropout who never heard of Walter Benjamin but understands that class boundaries are not very permeable probably would get what Benjamin was aiming for more readily than the contemporary American college graduate who can quote Benjamin's work.  The college graduates who look down on the lower class electorate that they are convinced are to blame for voting for Trump (as opposed to the actual Electoral College members whose vote really did put Trump in office over against the popular vote) don't realize that they are a kind of ruling class looking down on another ruling class.  Worse yet, in the caste of the social scientist, we have people who justify their stereotypes not by a blunt appeal to the sum of bad experiences with "those people" which is what lower class people will do in the formation of their stereotypes, no, the social scientist can be clinical in the formulation of stereotypes.  Call it the paradox of arriving at pseudo-scientifically derived stereotypes on the basis of an unacknowledged positive on the part of those who would probably deny being positivists if directly asked.

Another possible paradox is asking who would be tasked with asking the questions of who might be the ruling classes of our age?  That could be ... social scientists.


In Cultural Capital, one of the first academic books to import Bourdieu’s ideas into literary and cultural studies, John Guillory made the counterintuitive suggestion that the exhausting canon debates of the 1980s culture wars were really “a crisis in the market value of [the literary curriculum’s] cultural capital, occasioned by the emergence of a professional-managerial class which no longer requires the [primarily literary] cultural capital of the old bourgeoisie.” In other words, the canon debates were not about empowering women and “non-Western” or minority cultures through education, but a sign that these previously subordinate groups already had increased in power to the point where they could create alternate canons, literary or postliterary, which reflected their new status within a capitalist order. Canon formation and reformation being something elite groups did whenever they became aware of themselves as elites. [emphases added]

Guillory didn’t intend to slight the attainments of these historically marginalized groups; he simply wanted to sidestep those annoying debates about whether Edith Wharton was really better for us than Henry James. He focused instead on how eruptions of conflict over symbols pointed to shifts in underlying power dynamics — whether the rise of the professional-managerial classes of the 1980s (which had produced the culture wars), or the bourgeoisie of the 1680s (which had produced the English novel itself).

This insight, radical enough for 1993, now gets a commonplace “fit to print” version in the well-meaning bourgeois paper of record, where the Columbia sociologist Shamus Khan recently took issue with a self-congratulatory tone he’d noticed among educated elites when it came to their global-minded tastes, their ability to channel surf between high and low culture, European and non-Western. “Elites today must recognize that they are very much like the Gilded Age elites of old,” he writes. “Paradoxically the very openness and capaciousness that they so warmly embrace — their omnivorousness — helps define them as culturally different from the rest. And they deploy that cultural difference to suggest that the inequality and immobility in our society is deserved rather than inherited.” [emphasis added]

It’s worth slowing down Guillory’s and Khan’s arguments to make explicit certain assumptions they share about the university and the culture it promotes: that its purpose is to train a professional-managerial class or a technocratic elite; that those who attend such schools do so with an intention, no matter how unconscious, of becoming members of either the professional-managerial middle class or the elite managers of those managers; and that such groups need distinguishing markers, the equivalent of secret handshakes, that allow them to recognize themselves as a class, and which, apart from their professional training, are provided by “culture,” which offers, at best, a way for people with shared interests to frame their lives to themselves, and for one another, in ways that are mostly flattering to their self-esteem.

The jaded view of “the arts” propagated by new cultural sociologists is not really different from what the sociologist of America’s first Gilded Age wrote in the 1890s: “The humanities . . . are pretty uniformly adapted to shape the character of the student in accordance with a traditional self-centred scheme of consumption.” Thus Veblen deplored what he called the “regime of status” in contrast to a more puritan and utilitarian “regime of productivity.” Post-Veblen, the contemporary sociologist’s idea of the university’s purpose does not really differ in kind from the neoliberal version: to provide training in a specific field so one may get a better job and have a better life than someone without such training. In the end, it’s irrelevant whether a degree’s additional symbolic value is provided by reading Shakespeare, pledging a fraternity, or DJing a radio show on the blues.

or writing about semiotics and gender identity in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Joss Whedon's a one-trick pony who has coasted for decades on the reality that he's had the privilege of working with actresses who are better than the dialogue and plots he writes for them.  It was fun for three seasons and should have ended.  But we live in an era in which Whedon can kinda resent that Firefly can be negatively compared to Cowboy Bebop.  Sure, maybe Cowboy Bebop WAS too hip for its own good but it did, at least, run two whole seasons and finished its story arc.  It also had a far more entertaining soundtrack.  That was way back in the era when Viz was cranking out volume after volume of Ranma 1/2.  There's some disturbing headlines about someone who was involved in translation of that project but that's more a "if you already know" passing reference.

It's interesting to consider that twenty years ago fans in the United States who were into anime and manga but had highbrow aspirations would snort with contempt at the popularity of Rumiko Takahashi's works like Ranma 1/2 or Maison Ikkoku; now Ranma 1/2 can be seized upon as a fantastic series to get into because it can be retroactively read as a trans genre comedy by someone like, maybe, Noah Berlatsky.  Let's just ignore that Takahashi did a brilliant send up of the genre tropes set forth in Lone Wolfe & Cub.  Let's just skip the possibility that a triumphantly low-brow satire of a low-brow pulp classic might be in the works.  While the alt right has its numerous flaws the reality of self-congratulatory virtue-signaling on the part of the new left seems pretty well beyond dispute.  To champion Ranma 1/2 not as a successful example of mass culture but as a pathway to a LGBTQ agenda is to repurpose mass culture from a Japanese context to an American context.

The best way to exempt mass culture of the stain of simply being mass culture, for Americans these days, is if it's from another country.  You can wallow in the most forthright topes all you want as long as its in culture east or west of the middle America, preferably separated by a complete ocean  I had a friend in college declare that European cinema was better than American cinema because it had fewer clichés.  When I angrily replied that European films have just as many clichés that are just as stupid as American clichés and that the film career of Emmanuelle Beart could produce evidence for this pretty readily my friend paused a moment and then said, "Okay, I guess I just like the European film clichés better."  Don't bother speculating as to why a 20-something guy in an American liberal arts college might watch a movie featuring Emmanuelle Beart in the 1990s.  It does not take a college degree to figure that one out. 

We're also at a moment where an author can complain that Asians are still sidekicks in mainstream Hollywood productions.  That the goal of alternative cultural idioms is the hope of one day being mainstream probably couldn't be more explicit than this:

Boyhood or the new Avengers movie? I could give a shit. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night or Crumbs? Yes, please. And it’s not even that I’m actively boycotting the former. I just don’t care. They coast on the assumption that these are stories that matter to everyone; they don’t. I think it’s important to say that, repeatedly, out loud, and point to alternatives, until the alternatives become a new mainstream that reflects the actual world.
What if, thanks to the internet, this already exists?  What if that mainstream already exists as a subculture within the mainstream?  To put it in slightly more personal terms, even if an author complains that Asians are still sidekicks in Hollywood productions is that nothing?  The tipping point for me on whether or not to bother seeing Rogue One was when my brother told me Donnie Yen was in it?  Wait, Donnie Yen's gonna be in a Star Wars movie!?  Well, I can watch it as a matinee, at least.  What if we've just looked at a paradoxical complaint that what has already come to pass thanks to internet communication is being earnestly advocated for and sought for as if it did not yet exist at all rather than existing as less prevalent a subculture within the mainstream than the author wants?

The paradox is that once something becomes mainstream it's terrible.  It's entirely possible for a product made in Japan to get introduced into a mainstream American market with a newly-introduced backstory that permits participatory involvement and ... oh ... wait ... would that be Transformers?  It sure would be Transformers. 

So the dream that the alternative to the mainstream could become the new mainstream doesn't mean that the coteries of the anti-mass culture left and the snobbery of the highbrow aristocratic right are changing.  They're both going to damn Transformers in the harshest possible terms.  It's not like there aren't gay Transformers now. 

On to the official observation from the quotation, the proposal was that the criterion for being able to look down on the unwashed ignorant under-caste is their lack of open-mindedness and education.  The role of education is to ensure that your taste is ultimately worthy of your class. This is something Richard Taruskin explicitly brought up in his Oxford History of Western Music, even if it was recycled content from ideas he put forth decades ago in his 1990s writings--the liberality and globalist omnivore cultural taste of the current cultural elite is the way they exonerate themselves from being the guilt of a ruling class status they have no problem imputing to their forebears. 

For an old leftie like Dwight Macdonald there would be no point in excoriating the low brow fans their love of Batman or Transformers.  It might often be crap but you don't hold that against them.  The people who love junk have their reasons just as the people who love the high-brow stuff love what they love.  His condemnation was for the middle-brow, the people without the temerity to exult in the trash but without the intellectual daring to move into the difficulties of the highbrow while wanting the satisfaction of being able to imagine themselves up to the challenge.  His remark on Our Town was to say that it explicitly formulated this idea, that deep down there's something divine inside every human being.  His complaint was that on paper he agreed with every word but he would fight to the death against authors saying that idea so explicitly in that particular way.   Perhaps the nice way to put this is he set himself against not the truth of a pious observation but against the pious bromide.  Maybe we could put a spin on this and regard the pious bromide as an educated stereotype. 

To have a truly educated stereotype in the era of science you need a scientific verification of some kind and for that we have things like statistic and toward that end it would help to have something like the social sciences. 

The crisis of replication in the sciences is series but it's more series in the social sciences because the dishonesty and cruelty of some of the pioneering social scientists is impossible to escape.

We could do a whole post just on the criticisms leveled against Zimbardo for the ethics (or lack thereof) he was considered to use in his famous studies.   Throw in after decades of burgeoning concern about the duplicity employed in the social sciences the unsettling pattern that we can't even necessarily replicate their famous results, and social scientists really can start to seem like kinds of priests in our age. It would be nice to believe that social science can actually be something resembling a science but on the whole I can't shake my belief that there is ultimately no such thing as a social science because there are no scientific laws in the social sciences and the theories have uses but limits.  We may have a crisis in the form of the statistical models being used to reinforce the stereotypes given to us by the caste of social scientists have come under deserved scrutiny.

So as depressing as it may seem, when college professors are aghast that people without college degrees may have voted for someone they can't stand it's not as though the highly publicized crisis of what should be regarded as a question of the foundational credibility of the entire academic field wouldn't go downstream to the lay readers.  There are people within the academy who have recognize the scope of the crisis for what it seems to be, the long-term revelation of the possibility that contemporary Western social science may be the supple deployment of statistical methods to arrive at or reinforce stereotypes--for people who never went to college is it unfair that they be skeptical about the fairness of the stereotypes academics may cherish about them? They may well have their stereotypes but they can't back up those stereotypes with a semblance of scientific methodologies.  That may not make their stereotypes less vicious ... but it might mean they have to "own" their stereotypes in ways that social scientists have excused themselves from having to do through the appearance of having used statistical methods.  By now we know the old adage about lies, damned lies and statistics, though.  if anything the press has soft-pedaled the ethical and social implications of the crisis.  The way I was taught science in high school and college is that everything ultimately depended on the replicatable nature of your results.  If you couldn't arrive at the same results each time you subsequently did the experiment the hypothesis failed.  Best case scenario social science has to contend with a raft of failed hypotheses.  Worst case scenario, social science is in denial about the very question of whether or not it can ever legitimately be regarded, moving forward, as actually being science. 

Thursday, February 09, 2017

over at the Washington Post Tom Rachman says that contemporary art world is not up to the challenge of resisting Trump (which should surprise nobody)

The article photo with the Jeff Koons culture is practically a self-implicating statement all on its own but ... an author asks the question of how the art world (presumably defined in the most vastly inclusive sense possible) can ...


Those in the American arts are in a difficult position at the dawn of Trump time: damned if they damn him, damned if they don’t. Lamenting the president in public, they face eye-rolling and charges of self-importance; avoid taking a stand, and they risk vitriol, too. But are artists even capable of political influence nowadays?

Right-wing commentators have spent years sniping at liberals in the arts, with notable success. A generation ago, “politicized artist” might have conjured, say, the Soviet dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Today, “politicized artist” is as likely to evoke a whiny, entitled, bobble-headed creative.

The irrelevance of art owes partly to the ascendant populist mood, and partly to protest art being so reliably liberal, so soothingly safe. Artists may claim they’re nailing “redneck racists,” but how many of those attended the gallery opening? Politics in the arts often looks more like group bonding than anything that might effect change.

Not that artists aren’t trying. Efforts to avoid a Trump presidency ranged from slapping down cash to sketching in bodily fluid. Jeff Koons, Marina Abramovic, Ed Ruscha and Chuck Close are among those who made contributions to try to help elect Hillary Clinton. One young artist drew an imagined nude of Trump with a notably small penis; another portrayed Trump in the medium of her own menstrual blood.

Somehow, none of this — no degree of scorn, no foe — could stop The Donald.

How would any of that have stopped Trump from being elected by the Electoral College?  Contributing to a political cause, sure, and voting, but the thing about districting seems to have made it clear that as the red and blue districts sorted into what they were and districting happened that, as some liberal/left folks have been lamenting for months now, a bunch of rural red districts ensured Trump won the Electoral College.  The "Hamilton" moment for the electoral vote had Clinton losing pledged votes.  And amidst all that what do artists think they can do?

Something like not doing something like this?  It may be a strange testament to the irrelevance of some types of modern art that I'd never before heard of this person until this year. 

Rachman name-dropped Solzhenitsyn as the point of contrast between an artist or author as dissident and what we have today.  Sure, but Shostakovich's status as a dissident is, to put it politely, hotly contested and yet the music he wrote is still pretty popular.  Perhaps too few artists and writers in the West are capable of grasping that artists and writers who live in totalitarian regimes have to live with the impossibility of some kinds of freedoms.

But at another level, if the National Endowment for the Arts actually gets gutted the art world will get a chance to find out how it gets by in the age of Trump.

But if the art world consists of people like Jeff Koons who says it needs to survive?  Wouldn't this be the perfect moment for people to make art for the sake of art and make it at a constant monetary loss as an offering made to the beautiful?  Or is that too ... religious a motivation for making art?  Kind of back to Solzhenitsyn a bit there, whose Russian Orthodoxy has had its detractors but even a new atheist like Christopher Hitchens could appreciate that if that gave Solzhenitsyn the courage to dissent when and how he did we should be grateful for that.

This WaPo piece is a reminder that when the old left and old right complain about the self-congratulatory vices of social justice warriors or academics or entertainers that, well, it's not really funny because it's like shooting fish in a barrel.  The writers and artists seem eager to volunteer for the public record that their entertaining the mere possibility that art could somehow defy a regime is the same as having an alternative. 

I admit I've tended to be moderately conservative on both religion and politics my whole life and I figured the DNC had ensured Clinton would get the nom so there was no point in either voting against Clinton in a blue state on the one hand by voting for a conservative candidate or for voting for any Democratic contender that wasn't Clinton (i.e. Sanders).  Sanders fans seemed to be angry radicals not entirely unlike the angry reactionaries who seemed to be drawn to Trump, though perhaps it'd be good to say it's not necessarily Sanders' fault.  Still, Sanders' approach seemed to fit broadly into a social democrat/New Deal reborn view.  We did that in the 1930s and if you're going to run blue you might as well go for it.  Clinton's compromises were more numerous and serious than her fan base has wanted to concede and if it came down to who was more willing to vote for X just to spite Y, well, we saw how that played out.  In a way both candidates were running campaigns of self-congratulatory entitlement but one of them managed, in the eyes and ears of the press, to seem dignified about it.  Unfortunately dignity can be appearance.  It was hard to shake the impression that if these two candidates were what the two party system was going to give us we're screwed. Maybe we should be. 

The entertainment and arts scene has become a kind of default priesthood in Western cultures.  It's been a long time taking shape and the failure of the arts to reconstitute themselves as a kind of post-Christian civic religion in the West has inspired legions of books spanning the spectrum left and right, religious and irreligious.  For any artist to ask what artists can do in the age of Trump besides voting for causes you believe in and seeking to inform the public is lunacy.  You either have to admit your art has to serve the purpose of propaganda (because its' not just propaganda only when someone else makes art for a team you dislike). or you have to settle for the possibility that your art won't matter as political speech.  So per the WaPo article and picture ... if Jeff Koons can't identify his whole career and work as part of the problem he's not going to be part of a solution.  What may be most galling for the arts/entertainment world in the election of Trump is that, reality TV star though he's been, he's still very much one of them, just not the highbrow respectable sort. 

It might almost go without saying that if an artist is making stuff that gets coverage from WaPo or The New Yorker it's probably not having an impact.  I know it seems a little too jaded but there's a point at which you have to concede that maybe arts coverage is still advertising by another name.  Certainly marketing types get this, and even performers and writers can grasp that the business is business.  That being the case, how far can you go in repudiating someone you believe is in it for their own advantage and renown if you are trying to do the same? 

Now I can certainly say that writing the truth as best you can document can and does change things but not overnight, not in any usually observable ways, and only when literally thousands of people take what is reported and make decisions that can't be controlled for.  In no ay did this blog "take out" Mars Hill, and that wasn't even the goal.  There wasn't even a goal, beyond documenting things so they could be considered for public record.  Properly understanding the power of artistic communication can depend on understanding just how profound its limitations are. It also helps if you understand that even the most solitary act of artistic creation is simultaneously a social act. 

But then I recall reading an interview with Denzel Washington about his early politically engaged films and he said something about how he was proud of the work he did on those movies and of the movies overall but that he had to realize that not very many people went and actually watched those movies.  Washington may have reached a point where he realized that if he was trying to use his role as an entertainer to be a prophet or priest in the hopes of getting a message out that he wasn't just "preaching to the choir" that choir was himself and he concluded he had to make his politics his politics and his work his work. 

Recognizing that there are real limits to your influence doesn't have to be discouraging.  Knowing how little influence you really have in this giant world could give you a clearer appreciation of what it is you can do within the sphere of influence you do have. 


As to what I'd personally say an artist can do, I wrote a guest piece for Internet Monk back in 2012.

There Is neither Art nor Pop, neither Indie or Mainstream…

a little reflection on passages from Galatians and Colossians, and how if Christ has reconciled all things to Himself; if in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female; then in music we should not think that people from every tribe and tongue can find salvation in Christ but their musical expressions are not included.

via Rod Dreher, one of his commenters describes the social justice warrior as a result of neo-liberalism

Now it seems a bit of an over-statement to describe all social justice warriors as

SJWism is the logical result of neoliberalism. As such, they will reinforce the globalist, imperialist Empire. The power of the meritocratic society gives our untitled aristocrats a belief in the rightness of their rule through the power of the resume and college credentialing. It’s kind of like being Born Again, except there’s not even the ghost of a belief in Sin to keep them in check. And there’s nothing like Confession, except making a list of grievances.

There’s a reason they’ve attached themselves to identity politics and gender ideology as opposed to climate change. They can jet to Southeast Asia for a semester, volunteer in South America for a year, travel to Turkey twice a year, and never think twice about their carbon footprint. They dine out more than any generation ever has, but they vote the right away and never think about warehouses or trucking lines. One fights climate change through the government, not through one’s personal choices.

Put that way it might seem that the social justice warrior as an iteration of neoliberalism combines the worst aspects of a liberal nanny state thought police officer (often self-appointed at an informal level but able to hold roles of institutional power) with the most libertine elements of libertarian ideas.  Or as the satirical website Stuff White People Like said about "hating your parents", the white parent is screwed either way because if they provide firm boundaries they get labeled as controlling and abusive and if they don't provide boundaries and the kid ends up in a Thai prison the parents are to blame for not establishing safe boundaries.  Or something vaguely like that.  One of my conservative friends lamented that it would appear that 16 year olds should be able to have as much sex as they want with access to birth control options across the entire spectrum because "we" can't stop them from being mature enough to handle their own sexuality ... and then ten years later they want complete forgiveness of their student debt?  The disconnect is in the power to bring new life into the world through sexual reproduction on the one hand and the ability to fiscally manage merely one's own life on the other.  If you can't pay your own bills how do you pay the bills for the person you could bring into the world? 

Neither the let nor the right seem worth anything there.  The social conservative seems aghast that people are post-poning the debt-incurring processes of starting families and raising kids on the one hand but the beef seems to be the benchmarks of socially recognized adulthood as formalities.  If people on the left seem to view sex as liberation they sem to view actual family life as some kind of invisible hell/gulag that follows you everywhere you go unless the state steps in.  It sometimes feels as if the left and the right are both really just totalitarian ideologues whose only debate is about what kidn of police state they want.  If there's a mainstream comedic show that gets anywhere near this point it might be South Park.

Still, one of the problems I keep seeing with how the left and the right write about each other is it hardly seems as though there have been coherent alliances on either the left or the right.  If anything ... we'll get to that later.  There's this from the commenter quoted at Dreher's post:

It almost makes you long for an aristocracy where the power was an accident of birth, where there were reciprocal obligations. Interesting that the gap between the rich and the poor has never been greater than in the global meritocracy. They believe they actually have earned the right to tell the lower middle class why they were replaceable, or the poor why they should be grateful to be forced to stay in their failing schools. I, too, fear where this will lead.

Not really!  The aristocratic castes of yore didn't feel a whole lot of obligations to be nice to people they didn't consider worthy of niceties.  What was different back then was that the aristocracies may have had established religions within which they could get arguments from theologians about how far afield of the professed ethics of the religion of the realm they were ruling.  Now that's possible now, and if anyone were going to be in a position to make that kind of constraining case it would, on paper, be social justice warriors.  But the problem may be that the paragons of privilege are the social justice warriors who have, at times, acclimated themselves to only seeing the privilege of other people 

When the different ruling castes have an ideology or religion in common there's room to "speak truth to power" from somewhere close enough to the seats of power to get a message across.  One of the more famous examples of this in the Old Testament would be Nathan and David, for instance.  More often than not the speaking-truth-to-power not only falls on unreceptive ears the prophet could ... often get killed or exiled.

Neoliberalism presents a slightly different possible case.  You can hardly exercise a prophetic voice speaking to the powers that be when the powers that be ultimately regard themselves as above reproach both in the abstract and in actual practice.   King could write a letter from a Birmingham jail appealing to a common faith.  What do we have?  In a sense what the social justice warriors are doomed to fail for is the lack of an ideological rationale for the kind of plurality they want.  If in the last decades we've had "the end of history" or talk of the problems of teleological views of history then you can't even appeal to being on the right side of history anymore.  You can't because all histories are power claims and once all histories are power claims truth is a matter of whose power claims should be granted for grounds that may or may not correspond to what may be traditionally described as facts.  So as odious as alternative facts may really be it's a little tough to get worked up about that in a post-structuralist neoliberal order. 

The last couple of years have highlighted a breakdown between the old right and new right and the old left and the new left.  While the new left, which seemed to back Clinton avidly, seems devastated at Trump's victory, people with more old/hard left inclinations seem dismayed but not the least bit surprised.

There was a commenter at Dreher's blog noting that the right and left fringes can start to sound really similar.  Which reminded me of something John Halle blogged about the self-rewarding nature of this era's cognitive elites.

(Translation of Bourdieu’s 1983 Racisme de l’intelligence republished here.)

It is necessary to understand that there is no such thing as racism. Rather there are racisms-as many racisms as there are groups which need to justify their status, which is the usual function of racism. It seems to me therefore very important to apply the same analysis to forms of racism which are undoubtedly the most subtle, the most elusive and therefore the most rarely denounced, possible because usually those making the denunciations are themselves inclined to this form of racism. I’m referring to the racism of the intellect.

Racism of the intellect among the dominant classes is distinguished in several ways from that which one typically designates as racism, namely, the petit bourgeois form which is the target of most critiques, most notably beginning with that of Sartre.

This form of racism is characteristic of a dominant class whose maintenance depends to some extent on the transmission of inherited cultural capital understood as inherent and therefore natural and innate. Racism of intelligence is that through which elites aim to produce a “theodicy (rationalization) of their own privilege”, as Weber characterizes it, which is to say a justification of the social order which they dominate. It is this which makes elites convinced of their own inherent superiority.

All forms of racism are based on essentialism and racism of the intellect is the rationalization of the social order characteristic of the elite class whose power resides in the possession of credentials which, as do scholarly credentials, are supposed to confer the possession of specialized knowledge. These have taken the place of aristocratic titles of previous epochs in many societies-and confer access to positions of economic power-in the same way that the latter did.

If we could translate that into a possible interpretation of the last ten or so years we could try this, college students who have the privilege of attending liberal arts colleges and get humanities degrees or go into social sciences can't exempt themselves from being bourgeouis class enemies in more traditionally Marxist dialectics of history just because they can quote Derrida or Walter Benjamin.  In the wake of Trump's election pretending that that was all about anti-intellectual loathing is too easy a way for academics to let themselves off the hook. 

But ... in spite of the fact that a great deal of higher education quite literally is the government ... it seems that education is in peril.

Not since the era of witch hunts and “red baiting” has the American university faced so great a threat from government. How is the university to function when a president’s administration blurs the distinction between fact and fiction by asserting the existence of “alternative facts”? How can the university turn a blind eye to what every historian knows to be a key instrument of modern authoritarian regimes: the capacity to dress falsehood up as truth and reject the fruits of reasoned argument, evidence and rigorous verification?

The atmosphere of suspicion and insecurity created by the undermining of truth provides the perfect environment for President Trump’s recent actions on immigration. The American university’s future, indeed its most fundamental reason for being, is imperiled by a government that constructs walls on the Mexican border, restricts Muslim immigrants and denigrates the idea of America as a destination for refugees.
Again, to the extent that American universities are extensions of the state (Ellul went so far as to describe all state-funded and state-administered education as, by definition, some form of pre-propaganda), the education sector living in fear of government is one extension of government fearing another level of government.  That the educational ruling castes fear what the executive and legislative branches may do is understandable but it can blind people in those ruling castes from their actually being in one of the ruling castes of the United States.  If anything the realm of narratives predicated on alternative facts that are themselves predicated on identitarian political narratives might be one of the weirder self-fulfilling prophecies of American academics in the course of the last twenty years. 
I get the part where it's frustrating to have German idealist philosophers cripple the terms of discourse in a range of subjects.  I get that part.  I think Adorno was wrong about jazz but then MOST Americans who know what jazz is and know what Adorno said about jazz probably think he was wrong about it. 
I admit I've kept coming back to this idea that neither the left nor right have been coherent teams in the last few years but perhaps something from The Baffler can elucidate why, even within what might be dubbed the liberal/left spectrum there were people who regarded Clinton as worse than just boring and compromised. 
How, exactly, had this carefully choreographed moment of executive feminist triumph come so disastrously undone, after so much concerted mobilization of Democratic clout and expert planning and largesse over the past two years? To get to the bottom of this catastrophe, we must begin with the many elite-engineered catastrophes that have gone into Hillary Clinton’s storied résumé.
And this requires some careful acts of historical reconstruction, since there is so much Hillary Clinton wanted us to forget. There was her role in helping to bring about the “end of welfare as we know it,” and the disastrous effects of that policy reversal on the lives of the poor. There was the 1994 Crime Bill, which she promoted from the bully pulpit of her historic mid-nineties “co-presidency,” and which coincided with an equally historic rise in mass incarceration—together with that now-infamous clip of her maligning black youth as “superpredators.” There was that ridiculous lie about sniper fire in Bosnia. And there were, of course, the entirely uncontrollable stories about her husband’s multiple dalliances.

After all of that it could seem as though when the shoe was on the other foot red state voters could decide that if personal character's really not relevant to holding high office then, well, okay then!  This is another point at which the old/hard left may have had a clearer understanding of what the new left/pro-Clinton scene really gave up in terms of being able to assert some kind of clear moral high ground.  Even the uglier tales of what Trump's said to have done still seem to veer into the zones of things done by a Kennedy or a Polanski that people have been willing to overlook. 

One of my black friends startled me last year by saying he voted for Trump.  He really likes Trump.  But, more than that, he also really distrusts Clinton and he said that people who simply assume the Democratic machinery leaders actually have the best interests of black people in mind don't know how the Democratic party has had no problem screwing over black communities when it suited their goals.  He also told me that if Sanders rather than Clinton had gotten the nomination Sanders probably could have won.  At least he was clearly against high finance big banking sectors. 

Unfortunately the level and nature of the scapegoating by people on the left and right for the electoral demographics on the opposite teams suggests that neither the left nor the right will get past their historically cultivated grievances to agree on stuff.  That might change, and we can certainly hope for that, and people can suggest ways in which working together for the public good can happen.  But it can seem as though the people least likely to have help to offer would be the Clinton supporters who deluded themselves into thinking that the Clintonian legacy, cumulatively, was anything but a raw deal for working class types. 

While a joke could be made that the old left and old right seem to agree on stuff and that seems crazy (and it is if that thing were anti-Semitism) the agreement that the social justice warrior set are basking in a privilege they are hyper-tuned to spot in others but never examine in themselves doesn't seem crazy at all.

The Stranger's reaction to Trump's victory was what I would have expected (imagine so many iterations of a short word that starts with "f" that it'd be pointless to replicate the title), but the irony of The Stranger editorial staff lament in light of their explicit "rural Americans aren't real Americans and don't matter" in The Urban Archipeligo is hard to forget.  It's easy to look with contempt on rural redneck voters for being racist ignorant rubes and some of them, no doubt, are.  But it's often felt like the people who are in positions to feel this way don't have the honesty or nerve to admit to themselves they are part of a ruling class.  Some of them, however, are, and not just old school conservative elitists of the Roger Scruton type, either. We all expect that of Scruton, don't we because he's been saying so for decades, right? ;)

[and back to the rest of the first draft]

When cases for epistocracy are explicitly discussed in mainstream outlets such as the Los Angeles Times and The New Yorker this might not really be a sign of neoliberalism as such, because the paradoxical possibility here is that many a social justice warrior can get angry about the long-term influence of neo-liberalism, it might be a sign that the academic ruling castes are getting closer and closer to the point where they just admit they think they have the right to rule world by dint of their wisdom.  That would get us back to medieval scholastic clerics reaching a somewhat similar conclusion but back in medieval Europe there was room for a Protestant Reformation to happen by challenging established institutional interpretations.  The kind of scholastic orthodoxy American intellectual life may eventually settle on may never provide such a countervailing possibility.   It's not just that, as the left would have it, capitalism can assimilate dissent. 

It can, but academic life has millennia of history to demonstrate that it can exonerate itself from complicity with whatever the reigning repressive regime is in play.  The ideological justifications for aristocratic castes can change but the end result seems to be that the aristocrats of our ages always agree that they deserve to run our lives because of good reasons.  The trouble with the social justice warriors may not be that they notice their demographic is under-represented in the ruling castes but that they don't yet get that the ruling castes won't be different just because they see someone who reminds them of themselves in a power position.  Or as Pete Townsend put it in a song, meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

incubation phase 3

the "what" to write about hasn't exactly changed.  It's just there's a ton of reading to do for a couple of these projects and for some of the other stuff a lot of watching cartoons.

Which is to say between now and March 11 I might be watching a whole ton of Samurai Jack.   Writing about animation is one of the things that happens here.  Batman: the Brave and the Bold is going to get some attention but it's going to take a month or so.  This month there's the Lego Batman film and supposedly a new release by Studio Ghibli, The Red Turtle, which is temporarily impossible to find any showings for in Seattle.

I'm trying to soak up a bunch of Theodore Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Emil Brunner, some of Gann's writing on John Cage, and a few other things.  I finished a book by David P Roberts on the total work of art in the European avant garde, which was a fascinating if at times diffuse read.  Still not quite done with Taruskin's gigantic Oxford History of Western music but I've got 3.7 of the 5 books read through, I think.  I've been rereading some of Leonard B. Meyer's landmark books. 

I'm also experimenting with a ragtime fugue for banjo and guitar.  I've written bits and pieces here in the last year about ways to manipulate durational units within the syntax of sonata form and ragtime form to arrive at a fusion of ragtime with sonata forms.  I'm doing something sort of like that with ragtime vocabulary and contrapuntal procedures this year. 

Ever since I read that there was a Blind Willie Johnson tribute album I couldn't bring myself to listen to it, just read about it.  I've loved Blind Willie Johnson's music since I was a teenager and I've loved Blind Willie's work more than Robert Johnson's stuff or just about any other blues performer from the pre-war period.  Not that I don't like other singers.  I like Patton and Hurt, for instance, and Lonnie Johnson did some amazing stuff with Armstrong and Ellington besides his own charming work.  But Blind Willie Johnson's work has been a touchstone for me.  So I've been incubating a guitar sonata that doesn't attempt to cover any of Johnson's catalog and bears no direct resemblance to his stuff but draws on his guitaristic approach--it's going to be refracted through a whole lot of Bach and Haydn, though, and some Joplin and Monk. 

I'd write more about the possibilities of a fusion of ragtime with sonata form but to do that I might need to soak up some more theoretical stuff on music.  Gestural manipulation across styles and languages of music must be a field of study but sometimes it feels like the identity narratives can stifle musical exploration at a more technical level.  If you're not already a fan of Haydn or Clementi on the one hand and of Joplin and other ragtime composers, then I could try to explain the significance of regarding structural repeats as essential rather than redundant to understanding the manipulation of associative memory for hybridizing forms.  For now I'll just say that the further away I get from German 19th century pedagogical concepts about what sonata forms "ought" to be, the easier I find the possibilities of synthesizing blues, ragtime, country and jazz vocabularies into sonata forms.  The very idea that sonata forms are somehow obsolete or that 19th century guitarist composers didn't master sonata forms because they didn't approach sonatas like Beethoven is something I've rambled about before. 

If you choose to think that you can't write sonata forms inspired by Hank Williams Sr or Stevie Wonder choruses or Blind Willie Johnson songs then it's a matter of course you won't be able to do those things.  the snobbery on both sides of the high/low divide can be aggravating.  People who are into blues might quote John Lee Hooker saying that you don't need fancy chords or nothing, you just need a big beat.  Sure, and I love Hooker's stuff and his ability to vary 12/8 vamps is marvelous! 

Years ago when I ... wrote that bad review of Andrew Durkin's Decomposition, one of the things I found weak was his insistence on the limitations of Western musical notation.  It's a pedestrian point to say that the Western notational system only conveys so much.  And yet last year Ben Johnston's strin gquartets got released, recordings of works defined by microtonality and just intonation.  When a composer can hear the difference between tones that are one cent apart we're talking a rarified ability to hear thesmallest differences in pitch.  If a string quartet with thousands of discrete pitches can get recorded the canard that Western notation is so limited turns out to be a canard.  It'd be one thing to say that blues and jazz performances traffic in microtonal nuances that are perceptible to the ear but not considered WORTH the trouble of commiting to meticulously accurate notation we can say the music is generally predicated on folk idioms and live performance and leave it at that.  But if we've done that then trying to mystify notational systems is a waste of time. 

I was on board with the idea that even the most solitary artistic work is ultimately a social endeavor.  It's just a shame Durkin didn't fish more for examples of contextual collaboration.  The most explicit case study of consciously chosen contextual collaboration in the Western art music tradition would be someone like Haydn or Mozart, knowing enough of audience receptivity to pander to their interests.  Haydn was direct in saying he constantly gauged audience response and revised his work according to what audiences enjoyed and steering away from effects that alienated them.  When one of the most famous composers in the Western canon plainly states that giving audiences more of what they tell you they want by their applause it would have been worth it to quote that composer.  I'm biased, of course, since I love Haydn's music. 

And yet I keep getting older and still don't like a lot of Romantic music.  The 19th century composers I find I do enjoy (Chopin, Mendelssohn) tended to be into Bach.  They also tended to be Bohemian or Russian more than German. 

I've been thinking of writing a bunch of stuff in response to things by Roger Scruton and others at the Future Symphony Institute.  Their abjection of pop music in some of their pieces is more than just annoying.  But I'm not sure I'm going to tackle that just yet.  This is still incubation time. 

And there's a lot of music I've been trying to write.  Ever since that controversy where Yale said they wouldn't have jazz and that jazz wasn't part of the Western musical canon that set me off.  I was unhappy with Yale's approach but also unhappy with the pro-jazz reactions.  Why people seem so set on snobbery for one and against the other when both styles are as inextricably bound up on Western musical art as first and second practice in Baroque music is beyond me. We've got another version of first and second practice in musical art.  If jazz has brought back or rediscovered the art of composing via improvisation on standard grounds that was once characteristic of Baroque music I say make MORE people learn how to play jazz.  The idea that you can't teach jazz, anyway, seems idiotic to me.  It's actually offensive because the kind of essentialist narrative that claim has to presume needs to be examined for the kind of racist essentialism that it is.  If you put the shoe on the other foot and tried to walk a mile in it you'd have to actually agree with Wagner in his claim that Jews couldn't write decent music because they lacked soul.  This gets to another problem I had with Durkin's book, you can't attack the idea of authenticity as some abstracted notion of a reified performance or score o fa particular work, you have to attack authenticity as the social contract of club membership as to who is or isn't legitimately on the team.  Stereotypes about how soulful and intuitive jazz is will miss how abstract, esoteric and thoughtful it is.  There's a whole lot of Romantic era detritus emphasizing music as if it conveyed the feelings of the composer or musician rather than bein ga shared game of associative memories and memory-building.  Music is a game of cognition that can, ideally, engage both hemispheres of the brain.  Unfortunately the partisans of this or that style of music seem pretty hell-bent on emphasizing just one hemisphere over against another.  The Western avant garde overdid the left hemisphere, so to speak, while pop music has overdone the right. 

But I've rambled enough at this point.