Saturday, August 26, 2017

HT Jim West, NPR discusses "The Brief, Tumultuos Reign of an Erstwhile Best-seller

West's post linking to the news is "`Best Seller' Lists Are a Farce"

Won't disagree in the least, seeing as regular readers of Wenatchee The Hatchet will have read about the Result Source gaming of the New York Times best-seller list that got Mark and Grace Driscoll's Real Marriage a spot atop a NYT list.  The first print edition of that book was part of a months long controversy covered in the news cycle regarding allegations of plagiarism throughout Mark Driscoll's published work.  The evidence available from the first print edition of Real Marriage as examined here and by Warren Throckmorton seemed pretty compelling.

Eventually it seemed nearly every single book Mark Driscoll had published had something in it that could have been better attributed in the first edition.  Cumulative, as reported by Throckmorton, it seems many of the glaring attributional omissions in Real Marriage got fixed in a second printing and the press began to report the plagiarism controversy in the Christian press as if all the plagiarism alleged were precisely that, alleged.  The total absence of any acknowledgment of the writings and influence of Dan Allender on the Driscolls in the first print edition, in contrast with the note of thanks in the second print edition, makes it difficult to chalk up all the allegations as mere allegations.  That by itself seems like a fairly big adjustment of content across print editions.  It's impossible to make any claim that Mark and Grace Driscoll were simply unfamiliar with Allender's work because, as has been documented extensively here at this blog, the Driscolls name-dropped Allender's work too many times for them to profess unfamiliarity with his work prior to 2012.

Which is wind up for this, the discovery that a new author can somehow land a spot, if briefly, on a NYT best-seller list without even the background of author sales the Driscolls had.

and ...

By way of contrasts, I haven't seen a single review or write-up on Nikita Koshkin's 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar.  This constitutes, to the best of my knowledge, the first large-scale contrapuntal cycle composed for solo guitar by a guitarist composer that has been published in the traditional publishing way, ever.  Nary a peep about it and that's not necessarily a bad thing since a commercially available recording isn't available yet but also because a cycle that's more than a hundred pages long can't be considered and discussed in heat-of-the-moment news cycle ways in any case.

I had planned to have blogged about the Koshkin cycle by now but learning about the Dzhaparidze cycle came up and I've got the Rekhin cycle so I've begun to think that I should probably really blog about all three cycles to the extent that I can.   That will require a mount of listening and score study and even more listening and considering the polyphonic techniques preferred by each composer and ... well ... etc., etc.

Meanwhile, yet another book that hit a best-seller list looks like it got, effectively, its place bought on the list.

While it's no doubt tempting for advocates of high art to sniff that this is just how mass culture works it's not necessarily the case that high art is exempt from being bought its place in history.  If anything it's more inescapable that high art has had its path into history bought for it.

I played the first several minutes of Elliott Carter’s Double Concerto.
Student #1: Who decided that this work was one of the great pieces of 20th-century music?
Student #2: It’s just like what happens in popular music.
Student #1: But no, popular music becomes popular because people like it.
Student #2: No, popular music is made popular by the industry. Somebody decided that Miley Cyrus could be popular, and so they poured a ton of money and publicity into her. Her career was completely orchestrated.
Me: Between the two of you, you have just arrived at the insight that Elliott Carter and Miley Cyrus are mirror images of each other.
[General laughter]
UPDATE: Let me be clear – other examples besides Carter and Miley Cyrus (whoever she is) could have served. I’m trying to teach the class that the canon is an artificial construct, and that it is indeed created by people in power making decisions. Musical academia has its collective narrative, critics tend toward a different narrative, the classical-music performance world has yet another narrative, and the corporate world makes decisions on a different set of criteria. All of these narratives are contaminated by self-serving premises, and none should be misunderstood as resembling any kind of pure meritocracy. And thus every student needs to judge every piece on its own merits as they appear to him or her, and such decisions should not be made on the first listening, or necessarily the second or third. It took me listening to the Double Concerto about a hundred times before I decided there just wasn’t anything there for me. It’s part of what Bard calls “Critical Thinking,” and I’m really into it lately.
Thus a moment in which it is proposed that Elliot Carter and Miley Cyrus became part of the history of music in some way because enough people with enough money decided she should be paid attention made sure that a bunch of people would pay attention to them.  If being the offspring of a previous generation's pop country celebrity system is really so different from someone who inherited money from silk trade as to make Cyrus and Carter different it's not necessarily "only" about the quality of the musical products associated with them.  I have relatively little use for either Carter or Cyrus.  Carter's done a couple of pieces I thought were okay but if his entire output were to have retroactively never existed I'd still have my Stevie Wonder and Blind Willie Johnson and Scott Joplin and Haydn and Stravinsky and Ellington and ... you get the idea.  
If in what's been dubbed the "winner take all" arts and entertainment market seems more difficult to break into what the age of the internet may have opened up for closer scrutiny is how the game has been, well, gamed from within the industry.  

fans of Samurai Jack, the entire series hits blu-ray later this year, plus season 5 on the usual formats

You might already know this if you're into the show but if you missed the pretty glorious return of Samurai Jack for season 5 you'll get to see it later this year if you grab the complete series on blu-ray or grab season 5 on dvd or blu-ray come mid-October.

For as many years as fans of the show were hoping for a movie (as GT was, by his own account) it's worked out for the best that the end came in a complete fifth season.   Unlike another landmark cartoon from that 00's era, The Last Airbender, Samurai Jack doesn't really lend itself to that dubious and seemingly ubiquitous  blight that characterizes television in the prestige TV era, the desire to spin off things endlessly into prequel and sequel stuff.  I've had other things incubating in writing projects and composing projects so I haven't written "Legend of Entitlement" yet but I hope to get to that some day. 

There's a potential plot hole involved but through the first four seasons we were shown that the sword could not be used against the innocent or the righteous. shown in a triumphantly ridiculous way in an episode of Samurai Jack that dropped so many allusions to Sam Raimi films it would be a waste of time to mention them all if you aren't already familiar with Raimi's films.  But season 5 presented a plot point in which we're shown that while the sword could not be used to kill the righteous this didn't preclude the sword being used in unrighteous anger, specifically by Jack himself.  Jack is forced to go on a journey where he discovers that he thought he had lost his sword in the most literal, physical sense when, it turns out, he had lost the sword in an ethical sense. 

In contrast to Korra's endless quest for more power and varieties of power to perfect her status as the avatar, Jack has to reach a point where he recognizes that he lost the sword because his anger got the better of him, an anger that showed he had continued his journey out of, well, a sense of entitlement rather than service is how I interpreted the scenes.  Jack had to cast off an anger that seemed legitimate and partly was legitimate, seeing how bad Aku was, to remember that led him to kill minions of Aku who had become so against their own will (since, viewers of the show will know that one of Aku's powers can include hijacking the wills of his targets).  Along the journey Jack recovers his sense of proportion in pursuing the destruction of Aku, and the most important element in this journey involved helping those influenced by Aku's cruelty find freedom from that influence rather than simply striking them down as if they were defined by nothing more than their being the then-current fist of the shape-shifting master of darkness.

If you haven't already seen the end I won't spoil it, but I will see the final reveal was really, really funny.  "Oh no." 

Friday, August 25, 2017

over at newmusicbox Kyle Gann published an overview of microtonality
Not that I'm planning to become a microtonalist composer but Gann's been reliably fun to read when he's blogged.  I'm working through his monograph on the Charles Ives Concord Sonata.  He's also written a succinct summary and defense of John Cage's 4'33" in a book called No Such Thing as Silence.  That doesn't mean I'm a huge fan of that particular work but that I can appreciate what Cage thought he was trying to do.  I can even appreciate being inspired to compose a work of silence in reaction to endless canned Muzak in department stores. 

Lawrence Dillion on appropriate appropriation in concert music--he mentions the banjo and I politely dissent that certain purities of style are necessary for the instrument


The outliers in this summer’s group are the two songs.  A month ago, I wrote a bluegrass song – my first – for two voices, mandolin, banjo and guitar.  When I finished it, I had this nagging feeling that the lyrics could really benefit from a high, intertwining bassoon line, of all things, so I replaced the banjo with a bassoon (I sure hope, for the sanity of our civilization, that I’m the first person to say those words: “replaced the banjo with a bassoon”) and started over, adding an electric bass in the process and ending up with a completely different piece to the same text.

There’s an important lesson here.  There are standard ensembles – for example, bluegrass band – that have cultural resonance, and we need to respect those traditions.  At the same time, it’s important to respect the imagination, especially when it comes up with something that doesn’t fit a specific tradition.  Finding the right balance between those two – tradition and imagination – is one of the tasks of art.

I'm not quite a genre purist.  I mean, in a way I am a genre purist but in a way I'm not.  I reject the NewMusicBox bromide popular with some of their contributors that genre doesn't exist and is just something corporations invented to market music.  You can distinguish between Delta blues, Chicago blues and Texas blues if you've listened to enough blues in your life.  You can also hear differences between ragtime and stride.  But it's also the case, in my experience, that as real as the boundaries between genres are these boundaries are all in some sense permeable.  I've been interested in composing music that explores the permeability of the boundaries in very direct ways.  So if I were to write something for banjo I'd make a point of explicitly composing a sonata form.  I might have a central slow movement that is a set of variations on a shape-note hymn and then round things off with a spritely rondo that recapitulates and invokes thematic materials from earlier movements--that's boilerplate Beethovenian macro-structural work there, but it works.  And there's nothing wrong with exploring the ways in which high and low can interact.  What I've loved about Haydn's work is how he mixed the high and low idioms of his time and place in ways that respected the "roots", if you will, of his respective idioms. 

As to what such an imagined aforementioned sonata for banjo and guitar would actually sound like ... something like this.  A similar experiment in writing a sonata for ukulele and guitar can be heard over hereWe looked at an overview of the history of the banjo that was featured at another blog a couple of years ago.  A more abstract question as to whether anyone had written in sonata form for the banjo was asked back here

some links for the weekend: Friedersdorf on the danger in saying the 1st amendment shouldn't protect hate speech in the Trump era; Slate authors name-drop Adorno on occultism while skipping his comparison of occultism to monotheism, and another Slate author on antisemitism in the LGBTQ left being a thing to be mindful of

Conor Friedersdorf has something about what he regards as a dangerously short-sighted effort on the part of some groups in the left to curb freedom of speech that is regarded as hate speech.  The problem, as Friedersdorf put it, is that in the era of Trump the idea of giving the powers that be even more power to decide that a variety of views and modes of expression are no longer speech worthy of protection under the First Amendment will most likely not work out in the favor of groups that are against a Trump presidency.


Yet even now, at the bottom of the slippery slope, a broad reading of the First Amendment is still the framework that best protects ethnic and religious minority groups. In fact, marginalized groups—street activists, Muslim immigrants, Black Lives Matter protesters—would suffer particularly at this very moment if the faction of progressives who want to limit free speech got their way.

Charles C.W. Cooke captured why in a satirical response to a recent New York Times op-ed in which K-Sue Park called on the ACLU to change its approach to free speech, arguing that it provides help to hateful causes and that “the legal gains on which the ACLU rests its colorblind logic have never secured real freedom or even safety for all.”


Under a legal regime where hate speech was not considered free speech, Trump and Sessions could likely punish words used by members of Antifa and Black Lives Matter. Do you think he’d police their speech more or less vigorously than white supremacists?

Under a legal regime that treated more kinds of speech as incitement, on the theory that Nazis and other white supremacists are pushing an inherently violent ideology, Trump would very likely use the same rules and precedents to target, say, imams at whatever mosques Sessions judges to be inciting Islamist violence; or Twitter activists who tell their followers that punching Nazis is woke. Those whom Trump has taken to calling the “alt-left” would be most at risk

...  A weakened First Amendment in today’s climate would be marshaled against Trump’s opponents, even as it robbed them of their ability to fight back. It would be a gift to white supremacists, not a blow against them.

But there are those on the left and right who are interested, it seems, in articulating what they believe should be the limits of freedom of speech, whether in terms of protest against or support of the current regime.  In that sense it's been depressing to consider the way people behave on Twitter and Facebook and social media in general because it can seem as though the nature of the debates is not really about whether or not we're going to embrace some form of totalitarianism but merely what flavor it will have.  We seem to have groups who only regard X or Y as inherently totalitarian when it's the "other" who has access to institutional power or communication norms.  Last year Friedersdorf said that it would be important to tyrant-proof the executive office regardless of who won but his implication over the last year or so seems to read as a statement that this tyrant-proofing process hasn't happened and that we've been looking at a trajectory that has crossed the aisle of distinctions between Democrats and Republicans. 

A rather predictable interview/feature at Slate with the author of Hitler's Monsters includes a link to Adorno on occultism.  We'll get to that in a bit but it's interesting to note that the two authors talk about the dangers of superstitious ideas that reject the reality of climate change and the proliferation of dangerous anti-scientific ideas that implicitly seem to be associated with conservative advocates of Abrahamic religions.  What makes that interesting is because merely quoting Adorno's axiom that ... as the Slate piece puts it.

Theodor Adorno [said] “occultism is the metaphysic of dunces.”

Is to skip past Adorno's larger argument, which was that the new occultism was more wrong than the mythology it replaced, which was the monotheistic mythology of Judeo-Christian thought in the West.  Judeo-Christian mythology, at least, insisted upon the inherent unity of physical and spiritual life in the individual.

The part the authors talking at Slate didn't link to from Adorno's little treatise is this:
I   ...  Monotheism is decomposing into a second mythology. ....

The second mythology is more untrue than the first.

VII. The great religions have either, like Judaism after the ban on graven images, veiled the redemption of the dead in silence, or preached the resurrection of the flesh. They take the inseparability of the spiritual and physical seriously. For them there was no intention, nothing "spiritual", that was not somehow founded in bodily perception and sought bodily fulfilment. To the occultists, who consider the idea of resurrection beneath them, and actually do not want to be saved, this is too coarse. Their metaphysics, which even Huxley can no longer distinguish from metaphysics, rest on the axiom: "The soul can soar to the heights, heigh-ho, / the body stays put on the sofa below." [emphasis added] The heartier the spirituality, the more mechanistic: not even Descartes drew the line so cleanly. Division of labour and reification are taken to the extreme: body and soul severed in a kind of perennial vivisection. The soul is to shake the dust off its feet and in brighter regions forthwith resume its fervent activity at the exact point where it was interrupted. In this declaration of independence, however, the soul becomes a cheap imitation of that from which it had achieved a false emancipation. In place of the interaction that even the most rigid philosophy admitted, the astral body is installed, ignominious concession of hypostasized spirit to its opponent. Only in the metaphor of the body can the concept of pure spirit be grasped at all, and is at the same time cancelled. In their reification the spirits are already negated.

V. The power of occultism, as of Fascism, to which it is connected by thought-patterns of the ilk of anti-semitism, is not only pathic. Rather it lies in the fact that in the lesser panaceas, as in superimposed pictures, consciousness famished for truth imagines it is grasping a dimly present knowledge diligently denied to it by official progress in all its forms.   ... 

In Adorno's understanding Judaism and Christianity, as monotheisms, were an old mythology replaced by a newer and more pernicious mythology.  Judaism and Christianity recognized that there was a body as well as a soul to be saved, but the neo-occultic approach in Adorno's estimate did not recognize that such a thing as salvation would even be necessary. 

Now interpretive mileage might vary but it's interesting to read in the Adorno essay linked in the Slate conversation that Adorno proposed that the neo-occult mythology was more toxic and foolish than the earlier mythology of Judeo-Christian ethical and metaphysical thought.  But the part in V. is interesting because there Adorno directly links occultism, fascism and anti-Semitism in a way that suggests that the process of neo-occult or re-paganizing activity would bring anti-Semitism with it. 

One of the tricky things about left writing is that it seems perilously easy for leftists scattered across the spectrum to not recognize that anti-Semitic sentiments are not exclusively the domain of the right.  Mark Joseph Stern touched on this in a column earlier this year in a column bluntly titled
"The LGBTQ Left Has an Anti-Semitism Problem"

Many social movements fall apart because of infighting and petty bickering. The liberal American LGBTQ community is certainly not free from silly quarrels, and many insiders have long predicted that, post-marriage-equality, the community would splinter into squabbling factions. But a half-year out from Obergefell, a legitimately troubling problem has begun to tear at the seams of the LGBTQ movement. That problem is anti-Semitism.

Rather than "no true Scotsman" away the history of groups within the left of being steeped in anti-Semitic ideas it's better to remember that reactionaries and progressives can be racist regardless of whatever formal differences they will say they have with each other or within their own ranks. 

I was planning on doing some writing about the Bayformers franchise but I was kind of hoping to tackle at least some of Gadamer's Truth and Method first and ... well, you've inferred that hasn't happened yet, right?

The more Adorno I work through the more I think my half-joking proposal that Francis Schaeffer can be thought of as the Theodor Adorno of the Religious Right may be more accidentally on point than I thought it was when I came up with the idea as something of a joke.  It sometimes seems as though critical theory authors and some foundational writers on the religious right agreed on way more things than they might have thought they'd agree on if they'd ever bothered to read each other ... which makes it hard to resist making the joke that the Frankfurt school inspired left and the religious right may both prove, in the end, to be insufficiently dialectical.  Yet for all that Schaeffer and Cardew and Tilbury agreed on in condemning Cage's philosophy by way of his music I still kinda enjoy the prepared piano music of John Cage. 

I'd throw in some stuff associated with Future Symphony Institute stuff and some writing by John Bortslap but his reissued book is annoying me at the moment.  Still, sometimes there's value in reading the authors whom you find annoying.  :)

Thursday, August 24, 2017

James Cameron to the Guaridan, Wonder Woman is a beauty icon not a strength icon and constitutes a step backwards compared to Sarah Connor

Before we get to the meat of this I can't resist the temptation to self-quote regarding James Cameron and his films, some of which I like.

Years ago a friend described James Cameron's film Avatar as "hard sci-fi" and while in the past I could only snort in disbelief today I can provide a different reply with greater specificity:

James Cameron's film Avatar is to hard science fiction what My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is to socialist realism.

So ... with Cameron in mind ...


Even in a town full of megalomaniac monsters, stories about Cameron’s obsessiveness are part of Hollywood legend: he would get so enraged when crew members’ phones rang on the Avatar set he would nail-gun them to the wall (the phones, not the crew members, that is, although it probably could have gone either way). During the shooting of The Abyss, the crew took to wearing T-shirts that said: “You can’t scare me, I work for Jim Cameron.”

During our interview back then, in which he talked about the 3D-ification of a 12-year-old movie as if it were the most important development in cinema, he pretty well maintained his temper so it seemed safe to ask the question I’d always wondered about Titanic: “Why couldn’t Rose just share her giant board with Jack instead of leaving him to freeze in the ocean?” His face pinked with fury: “Wait a minute, I’m going to call up William Shakespeare and ask why Romeo and Juliet had to die!” You can’t scare me, I interviewed Jim Cameron.
I still haven't seen Titanic and I still don't plan to ever see it.  As soon as I read that it was a fictional romantic drama I was already done with it, never mind Jack or Rose in more particular terms.  There was no necessary reason for there to be a romance to tell the story of the ship.  I riffed on a proposal that James Cameron can be thought of as a Michael Bay for blue state voters around the time Avatar came out.

Since Avatar was more or less Billy Jack in Space, and is yet another riff on the magic white boy who becomes super-Indian and gets the Indian princess and saves the day I would consider Cameron's filmography since 2009 to be more of a step backward than Wonder Woman finally having a feature length film after being a comics character for three quarters of a century.  The difference between a James Cameron and a Michael Bay is not unclear.  Cameron can frame shots clearly and pays more attention to cross-film cohesion but his characters are still tropes. 

I have not really bought that Cameron is the advocate for strong female characters that he seems to be credited for, just as I don't really think that about Joss Whedon, either.  My impression is that these are men who by exigencies of providence were fortunate enough to work with women talented enough, smart enough, ambitious enough and patient enough to bring life into stuff he wrote that, in other hands, would be pedantic trope-work.  It's still pedantic trope-work even in Terminator 2 but it works because of whose shoulders carried that burden. 

A guy who plans on making even one sequel to Avatar is taking the film industry several steps further back than I think Jenkins and company did with Wonder Woman.  I don't think Wonder Woman constitutes a step back, it was an overdue and fun feature length film for the first super-heroine and it's a fun movie, warts and all.  That the film industry has been too swift to congratulate itself, I'm not going to fault Cameron for having complaints about that; it's just that, to me, James Cameron has ultimately done more to make the blockbuster juggernaut what it has been over the last thirty years than Patty Jenkins could have possibly done with just one very fun popcorn movie. 

And Wonder Woman isn't Dances with Smurfs, as South Park called it when sending up Avatar years ago.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's not impossible to imagine this ...

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

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

Something else stuck out:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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