Saturday, August 25, 2018

Richard Wagner's Alberich (an incel), and the curse of the Rhinegold that ultimately dooms the world

The Ring of Truth: The wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung
Roger Scruton
The Overlook Press
Copyright © Roger Scruton 2016

Isbn: 978-1-4683-1649-3

Page 182

In the enchanted world of civilized man love granted depends on love withheld. The transferable lust for the human form becomes violation. (The transferability of lust is made plain from the vey outset of the tetralogy, since its object, the Rhine-daughters, is plural) Once the moral law is in place, therefore, love is supposedly confined within the bounds of marriage, maintained by Fricka’s vigilant eye. But real love cannot be so confined. For erotic love, at its highest, is neither sensual delight nor domestic harmony, even if both are in some way implied in it. At its heart lies sympathy, and the sense of the absolute value of the individual, to whose being the lover is attached and whose sufferings he suffers in turn. Such is love between mortals, the love between Siegmund and Sieglinde, and it is a higher and nobler thing than the love enjoyed by the gods or of the conventional tyranny of the hearth, since it involves the gift of the self, and a readiness to sacrifice the self for other. Moreover, the capacity for this kind of love is the greatest gift of personality, and without it our journey into freedom will be incomplete.

On the other hand, the fruits of love are distributed unequally and those who are ugly or unlovable, and who want to snatch love nevertheless, will always be frustrated, as Alberich was. Out of resentment such people may then replace the longing for love with the pursuit of power, treating others as objects to be used, rather than as subjects to be cherished. [emphasis added] And it is on this resentment, buried in the heart of things, that the world of our postponed desires now rests. For this bruised sense of absolute rejection contains a new and disruptive motive—namely the urge to compete, to use others as instruments, and to see everything, love and personhood included, as a means to domination. By instrumentalizing the world in that way the humiliated Alberich can force others to respect him—such is the meaning of his great tirade against the gods in Nibelheim. He also generates something that the blessed gods need but never get round to creating—the surplus that can be used to pay for their castles in the air.
Page 183
…The human world move on from the rigidly structured system of laws, offices and powers, and gives way to a post-religious order, in which it is for us humans to maintain our values, with no obvious help from the gods. At the same time, the resentment on which this all depends—the resentment of those who pay the price of civilization without receiving its reward—remains. All that we esteem and value depends upon our ability to keep resentment at bay. But in the end resentment will surely win, since religion, becoming conscious of itself, can only retire from the scene, unable to justify its rule or to conceal the trick on which it is founded. [emphases added]

Page 303
… Science has removed us from the central place in the scheme of things that once we occupied, and persuaded many of its devotees that the `eternal in man’ is an illusion, maybe even a destructive illusion. No god will come down, now, to rescue us. If we are to be lifted from our cynicism, so as to believe in the freedom and dignity of the human being, it is we ourselves who must come to the rescue.

This, for Wagner, is the task of art—the task bequeathed by the death of our gods. [emphasis added] Art must show us freedom in its immediate, contingent, human form, reminding us of what it means to us. Even if we live in a world from which gods and heroes have disappeared, we can, by imagining them, dramatizing the deep truths of our condition, and renew our faith in what we are.

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

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


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

The term incel, a self-adopted label for a group of men who blame women and feminism for their inability to find sexual partners, first gained public notoriety in 2014, when Elliot Rodger killed six people in Santa Barbara, California, in “retribution” for women refusing to give him the sex he believed he deserved. It entered mainstream discourse again in 2018, when Alek Minassian allegedly killed 10 people in a Toronto vehicular attack after praising Rodger on Facebook and declaring “the Incel Rebellion has already begun!” [emphasis added]

Incel culture has flourished online, where like-minded men post unsigned messages on Reddit, 4chan, and incel message boards, describing their most sinister fantasies about worlds in which women are collected like tax dollars and redistributed for sex. These insular communities have developed an in-group lingo that’s tricky for outsiders to parse. When a community that’s highly anonymous, decentralized, and often contradictory becomes fodder for memes, which are easily stripped of their provenance and edit history, it becomes extremely difficult for observers to understand and contextualize what they’re seeing. Memes can provide crucial insight into what’s really going on in incel forums. They can also warp the truth. Whether a meme is a bit of primary-source incel doctrine, a hyperbolic riff on an in-joke, or a work of satire can be impossible to determine if you don’t spend hours a day steeping yourself in the native language of incel culture.

The core of Houellebecq’s case against modern sexuality can already be found in his first novel, “Extension du Domaine de la Lutte,” which appeared in English under the unfortunate title “Whatever.” The book’s narrator set the pattern for all of Houellebecq’s antiheroes: depressed, misanthropic men who, precisely because they cannot achieve romantic or sexual satisfaction, believe that sex is the most important thing in life. “Lacking in looks as well as personal charm, subject to frequent bouts of depression, I don’t in the least correspond to what women are usually looking for in a man,” the narrator confesses. [emphasis added] Houellebecq has always seen himself as speaking for and to such men; women figure in his novels almost exclusively as their tormentors or saviors. “It may be, dear reader and friend, that you are a woman yourself,” Houellebecq writes. “Don’t be alarmed, these things happen.”

The novel’s French title, which translates literally as “Extension of the Domain of Struggle,” encapsulates Houellebecq’s theory of sexuality (he is typically French in his love of abstraction and theory). The sexual revolution of the 1960s, widely seen as a liberation movement, is better understood as the intrusion of capitalist values into the previously sacrosanct realm of intimate life. “Just like unrestrained economic liberalism … sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization,” he writes. “Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never.” The latter group — the losers — are represented in “Whatever” by Raphaël Tisserand, who is so repulsive that he has never had sex with a woman, despite strenuous efforts to seduce one. He is a proto-incel, and his story builds to a disturbing scene in which the narrator urges him to murder a woman who has rejected him.

In the end, however, Raphaël doesn’t go through with it: “Blood changes nothing,” he observes fatalistically. And this is a key difference between Houellebecq’s characters and criminals like Rodger and Minassian: They recognize that violence will not change their situation. They are victims of generational trends that Houellebecq believes have plunged the West, particularly France, into incurable misery. Houellebecq’s second (and best) book, “The Elementary Particles,” reiterates his case against “sexual liberalism,” while adding a host of new culprits, from New Age spirituality and women’s magazines to social atomization and the decline of Christianity. “In the midst of the suicide of the West, it was clear they had no chance,” he writes of the characters in the novel, in what could be a slogan for all his fiction.

This sounds like a familiar kind of reactionary pessimism. But it is not quite accurate to call Houellebecq a reactionary, since he does not believe that it is possible to return to the sexual regimes of the past — in particular, arranged marriages — which he suggests did a better job of providing mates for undesirable men. In his novel “Submission,” Houellebecq mischievously toys with the idea that such a return could be accomplished by a mass conversion to Islam. After all, a society in which women submit to men while men submit to the divine can be seen as Houellebecq’s version of utopia. “Screw autonomy,” his narrator muses — though he uses a more vulgar word; autonomy is the root of alienation.

And it is in this sense, as diagnosis and evidence, that Houellebecq’s novels are now more urgent than ever. The portrayal of hatefulness is part of fiction’s mandate to give a truthful account of the world; there are characters in Dostoyevsky as revolting as anyone in Houellebecq (perhaps more so, because Dostoyevsky is a better writer). Houellebecq is able to give such a convincing portrait of incel-thinking because at some level he seems to share its core assumption, representing sex as something that women owe men. This misogyny can make reading Houellebecq an ordeal, and he ought to be read with the suspicion and resistance that his ideas deserve. But all the same, he ought to be read.

What to do when financial stability is beyond one’s grasp? Over the past decade, a coterie of pundits and think-tank scholars have arrived at a surefire answer, a simple one that comes with a snappy title and puts the onus on the individual: pursue the “success sequence.”

The slogan refers to a time-honored series of life events: graduating from high school (at least), getting a full-time job, and marrying before having kids (in that order). [emphasis added] As the conservative columnist George Will wrote last year (in a piece headlined, in part, “Listen up, millennials”), “Of the several causes of descent … into the intergenerational transmission of poverty, one was paramount: family disintegration.” He called the success sequence “insurance against poverty” for young adults.

The success sequence has a powerful allure for its adherents. But just as strongly, the idea repels: A number of critics—many of whom are academics and have sturdy research to back up their position—reject it, not because following it is a bad idea, but rather because it traces a path that people already likely to succeed usually walk, as opposed to describing a technique that will lift people over systemic hurdles they face in doing so. The success sequence, trustworthy as it may sound, conveniently frames structural inequalities as matters of individual choice.

Whitehead, who argued in a 1993 essay for The Atlantic called “Dan Quayle Was Right” that increasing numbers of step-parent and single-parent families “weakens and undermines society,” firmly agrees. Any promotion of personal responsibility and the success sequence, she says, should take a back seat to addressing the growing institutional barriers that make it difficult to raise a family out of poverty. Many now live, she says, in a society that is “every man, woman, and child for him or herself,” with a loss of institutional solidarity and the social contract. “It’s one of the tragedies of the times we’re living through.” Any debate over the success sequence pales by comparison.

Jennifer Lundquist, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, lent support to this structural approach to marriage, poverty, and child bearing. When she studied marriage in the U.S. military, she found that when the economic and social structures around people were stable and equal, differences in marriage rates largely disappeared. “Black civilians are less likely than white civilians to marry, whereas black and white military enlistees exhibit similar—and very high—propensities to marry,” she wrote.

The appeal of the success sequence, then, appears to be about more than whether it’s a good idea. In a society where so much of one’s prospects are determined by birth, it makes sense that narratives pushing individual responsibility—narratives that convince the well-off that they deserve what they have—take hold[emphasis added] Democracy was established in part as a reaction to the notion that there should be any preset order to the world, with rich and poor, sovereign and ruled. But, especially when paired with capitalism, democracy still creates winners and losers. The resulting dissonance between the ideals of democratic life and the reality forced new explanations for inequality. “If I say, ‘All are created equal,’” Coontz says, “how can I countenance slavery, or hungry factory workers?” And if slaves are set free, and workers given new rights, “I say, ‘We have a country that no longer keeps you down, so you must be doing something wrong.’ We say, ‘Alright, the only way I can live with inequality is to see it as the fault of those who have failed to do as well as I.’” To do otherwise leads to a dangerous idea: that the system itself fosters inequality.

Kristi Williams, a sociologist at Ohio State University who studies the intersection between health and family formation, says this explains why the promotion of the success sequence comes mainly from think tanks, not academic researchers. A good experiment to test the success sequence is impossible, she explains—researchers can’t just force one group of women to have babies without marriage and a control group to wait until marriage, and then follow the families for years. But suppose it wasn’t—assume such an experiment confirmed its validity: “The question becomes, ‘Then what?’” she says. Pass a law requiring marriage?

Another limitation: The success sequence is defined recursively, in that the steps to satisfying it are also the very things that mark what’s considered a successful life. Of course one becomes successful after graduating high school, getting a good job, and marrying—those are how many Americans define success. That’s why Cohen calls it “a meme in search of a policy.” And Matt Bruenig, the founder of a think tank called the People’s Policy Project and a former National Labor Relations Board attorney, has argued that the sequence in truth amounts to just one item: Have a decent job, and you won’t live in poverty. Despite this view of the sequence as empty platitude, though, some have a strong investment in it because it is both a good blueprint for many people and it can, consciously or not, be used to justify all sorts of inequities. That makes it a very powerful bumper sticker.

In Wagner's Ring Cycle Alberich is the ur-incel, the ultimate fugly dude who can't get any and who renounces love for the sake of obtaining the Rhinegold, which he takes and turns into a ring that magically gives whomever wears it the power to rule everything.  The ring is taken from him by Wotan through Loge (Loki) and Alberich, realizing he has been robbed of his treasure by the gods, curses the ring.  We're never given an explanation why this curse works or from what power the curse emerges.  Scruton might present the power of the curse as residing in resentment.  The have-nots whose labor provides the largesse from which the haves enjoy their exalted status bridle at the reality of the inequality. 

What's interesting about all of this is that progressives seem Wagnerian in their response to those men known as incels.  Fugly dudes who can't get laid are a threat to the foundation of law and order, men who would rather watch the world burn because they cannot attain the steps of the success sequence.  If progressives regard the success sequence as catering to those already capable by dint of sheer privilege of attaining it, the incels reject the success sequence, too.  Those men, particularly, who can't "win" by the rules of the game reject the game of domesticity in favor of a lower set of goals. 

In Current of Music, Theodore Adorno proposed that popular song presented a kind of inversion of poetic/lyric conceit.  If in art song sex was a subtext or an implication then in popular music sexual content is just barely censored which Adorno believed could invite a new thesis, that with sexual content so front-and-center and barely disguised in pop songs, we could be looking at a case in which the "text" is sex but the "subtext" might be something else.  Adorno, being the Marxist that he was, proposed that the real subtext of songs that seem to be brazenly about sex isn't sex but socioeconomic status. 

Someone probably already has done an examination of Madonna songs as explorations of sex on the surface that could be declarations of status or power so there's no need to do more than mention this idea in passing. 

Progressives have often enough said that conservatives have a "forget you, I got mine" attitude about money and material comfort.  There is probably a lot of evidence that could be collected in favor of that axiom but it seems that it could be just as true that if the "forget you, I got mine" attitude permeates conservatives on the issue of money it permeates progressives on the matter of sex.  If this is the case then contemporary progressives may not understand the possible irony of how utterly Wagnerian their view of the world may be with respect to incels like Alberich.  Scruton put it plainly enough, there are people who will never get the sex they want so they renounce love out of resentment. 

Here's the thing that has stuck with me as I think about these things, the progressives and a conservative like Roger Scruton can debate whether the success sequence is a good or bad thing but at no point does either side contest that the "Alberich" is ever going to get laid.  Progressives seem, on paper, to differ at a manifesto-writing level with the proposal that those who can't get sex should just live with that reality if the opportunity for a counterpoint against a conservative is in the making; but in practice writers who are progressive do not seem to really believe that there's an injustice to those whose inability to get sex because of inadequate status have suffered an injustice.  I.e. the incels deserve to be incels if only they would recognize why.  Progressives may shift the basis for this inherent unworthiness of action to a set of progressive ideological talking points but they have, I propose, conceded a point that even a conservative like Roger Scruton makes, that some people just don't get the benefits of society.  If a Scruton can propose that those who can't get laid or get the luxuries of society harbor resentment his solution seems to be that those people need to bridle their resentment for society to function.  It's all doomed anyway in Wagnerian terms but ... the Alberichs "should" just be content. 

When the shoe is on the other foot if incels are from demographics that have been historically oppressed, repressed or sidelined then they apparently do have some kind of right to get the sex and status they want in their lives.  The thing that may rankle progressives about a Jordan Peterson can be that in a sense he's advocating for a hero's journey that is ultimately banal, yet another variant on a post-Joseph Campbell Jungianism in which people are advised to redeem themselves and in this sense there's nothing in all of that which cannot, as Roger Scruton expounded at book length in The Ring of Truth, by Richard Wagner.  "Redemption" or "salvation" is for those who can already get laid. 

The meritocracy, if speciously defined, may look differently for a progressive and a conservative in some respects but it may be what both take for granted, if in different domains--the conservative may assume the meritocracy applies with respect to wealth while the progressive may assume the meritocracy applies with respect to sex but there's going to be some metric-based law of averages that says that somebody doesn't get X because somebody doesn't deserve X.  There's an injustice to it and an injustice that there's probably no getting around.  Conservatives like to say, often, that they are in favor of equality of opportunity rather than for equality of outcomes.  Liberals who reject this axiom in the realm of economics don't reject it, generally, in the realm of sex.  Equality of outcome for everyone would be the worst possible thing in a world where anthropogenic climate change and worries about population control permeate the First World.  If everybody had sex as though it were a universal human right (and that seems, with slight exaggeration, to be a progressive/liberal presentation on the nature of incels) the world couldn't feed all the babies that might result ... though positive Malthusianism emerges on the progressive side as a countervailing tendency ... .

A stereotypically conservative rejoinder would be that, well, if you can't afford the babies that result from you having as much sex as you want you shouldn't be having that sex. 

But notice that Scruton wrote that without a certain kind of self-giving love one's humanity will be incomplete.  Without this kind of love one cannot attain "freedom", though the freedom is paradoxical.  But then who says that "freedom" is really freedom? 

The Alberichs have cursed the power of the ring, apparently, and while we've got no explanation for exactly how or why this curse has power, or how or why it works, we can be sure that it was fugly bros who couldn't get any who cursed the ring and the Rhinegold and, well, there's nothing for it apparently except maybe redemption via the power of self-renouncing love for those who already have its benefits, more or less. 

Progressives may believe they are different from conservatives at all sorts of levels but in the last few years the way progressives write about fans of Jordan Peterson ... it's not clear to me that progressives actually are different from conservatives in this one very limited sense, the sense in which they see in all those incels the Alberich whose curse ruins the possibility of law and order and civil society.  The just-so story of the Alberich being evil can be transposed to whomever an interpreter wants in the most abstract sense but in Wagnerian terms the Jew is inescapably the scapegoat for a lot of societal ills.  Even though I regard Wagner's operas as working at the level of, oh, a Michael Bay Transformers franchise I can still try to take seriously that people like Roger Scruton think that Wagner's operas are profound.  When progressives or liberals write about the incels as those primarily white men who resent that women don't give them the sex they believe they are entitled to it's admittedly difficult to imagine that those bromides about the bros are being written by celibates.  The criteria of the just meritocracy may reside in the realm of wealth for one group and sexual expression for another (which isn't in any way contradictory with a belief that equality of economic outcomes would be the fastest way for equality of opportunity for sex), but there's an Alberich for the left and the right whether they're always comfortable admitting it in formal debating points.  The proverbial proof in the pudding may be most readily read in the put downs.  

the action hero breaks the fourth wall

it is far better
to be a dying lion
than a living dog

Toto repays Weezer's cover of "Africa" with a cover of "Hash Pipe"

remember how Weezer covered Toto's "Africa"? Well, Toto returned the favor by covering "Hash Pipe" with the jokey reasoning since they were all smoking hash before anyone in Weezer was even born it seemed like "the" Weezer song they ought to cover.

And so they did

an internet reaction to a Madonna VMA tribute to Aretha Franklin that seemed less about Franklin than about the Material Girl

Having never been a fan of the Material Girl I can't say I've missed her low profile in pop cultural terms ... although as these things go Madonna seems more substantial than any number of other pop stars from the last fifteen years.

But my sympathies for women who were career entertainers who got started in the 1980s veers far closer to Annie Lennox than Madonna.  Madonna's songs are well-crafted but not so well-crafted that I find her weak voice persuasive ... but then I have generally hated John Lennon's voice and his songwriting chops just barely inspire me to put up with his vocals in a way that is, honestly, comparable to Madonna.  These are both cases of honestly fairly shrewd songwriters with tepid voices.  But then whether it's Madonna or John Lennon or Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen we've got a lesson in popular songwriting, you can have a weak or anemic voice but if you write well-crafted songs people can forgive the voice part.  Very few singers in the industry can be a Whitney who, despite her phenomenal pipes could pick some too-sugary ballads and that might go triple for Carey on the sugary songs ...

But ... Madonna got in the news cycle for apparently transforming what could have been an ode to the great Aretha Franklin into a "my struggle" narrative.  Yes, that terrible joke is on purpose ... since it would seem fitting for one of the great trolls of pop music to be the butt of a trolling joke ... 
Because it would have been a scandal if Madonna sang. And it sounded like Madonna herself knew that. In the speech she gave instead, she foregrounded the late ’70s and early ’80s period when her desire to be an entertainer ran up against obstacles such as the fact that she didn’t have the octave range that other singers had. Today, the notion that she’s a limited vocalist is one of the great clichés surrounding Madonna’s career, and she hasn’t shied away from it. “I know I’m not the best singer and I know I’m not the best dancer, but I’m not interested in that,” she once said. “I’m interested in pushing people’s buttons, in being provocative and in being political.”
Even the current president can push people's buttons by pushing buttons.  If that was Madonna's lifetime goal then maybe that set the bar low.  As for being provocative ... well, sure, but in an era in which South Park has wrapped up its twenty-first season whether or not Madonna's idea of provocative counts for much in 2018 seems moot ... as in I can't remember the last time she was actually in the news prior to this Aretha Franklin moment.

It does seem Madonna has gotten a pass on allegations of cultural appropriation.  Not that the allegations may make a difference to her at this late stage in her career (by the time you're sixty in pop music you've reached institutional status if anyone even still remembers who you are). 

Franklin, by contrast, did pride herself on being the best singer. Of the relatively few controversies she kicked up over the course of her life, many came from her defending her title as Queen of Soul on the merits of her vocal ability. And, of course, she was more than just a singer: She was an all-around cultural, political, and religious leader of lasting and deep influence. Paying adequate tribute to her is going to be difficult for anyone, and it’s certainly conceivable that the Queen of Pop—someone without Franklin’s singing power but with plenty of ingenuity and significance—might have some role to play in the mourning. But as the first big televised memorial? After Madonna famously and clumsily took a crack at honoring Prince, another vocally distinctive black icon? Just … Couldn’t we find someone else?
Probably. But the truth is that an event like the VMAs is one ruled by expediencies. Perhaps the producers looked down the list of people they’d already booked, remembered that Madonna’s the Queen of Pop, and figured they could ask her to do something on behalf of the Queen of Soul. And if she wasn’t going to sing, what could she do? Speak.
Her speech could have been fine, or even excellent. But instead the “tribute” mythologized Madonna way more than it did Franklin. The story she told centered around her own audition, decades ago, to sing backup for the French artist Patrick Hernandez. At the time, Madonna was living in Detroit—the city Franklin loved most—where she was poor, scared, and repeatedly mistaken for a prostitute, she said. She met up with the talent scouts, but hadn’t prepared a song to sing, and in a panic chose a personal favorite, Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Weeks later, the scouts called her and told her she wasn’t right for their gig, but that they had another one for her. That call led to a few months in Paris working with the producer Giorgio Moroder, after which she came back because she “wanted to write [her] own songs and be a musician, not a puppet.”
The point of the anecdote was that Madonna loved Franklin’s songs and drew upon them in a time of need. The take-home message: “None of this would’ve happened, could’ve happened without our lady of soul. She led me to where I am today and I know she influenced so many people in this house tonight, in this room tonight, and I want to thank you Aretha for empowering all of us, R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Long live the queen!” As bottom lines go, it’s a heartfelt and true one—but it had been preceded by a lengthy and overly detailed story about a weird time when Madonna was trying and failing to become famous.
In the last few years I've read more than a few rants against the pernicious influence of what's known as neoliberalism, the idea that what is good for the individual and for society can be mediated in terms of the market and deregulated market forces.  Very often when this applies to musicology one of the arguments can be that popular song is as significant or more significant for many people today than classical music or jazz.  That is basically true if we go by market share.  Classical music is so small a percentage as to have hardly more than a drop's worth of presence in a glass of water.  It may be even more true to say that jazz is marginal.  Does that make these musical traditions unimportant?  No.

But the Madonna moment with Franklin may shed some potential light (as well as heat) on what neoliberalism can look like at a practical level in purely intra-pop terms.  It's been reported that Michael Jackson's Thriller is no longer consider the top-charting album of all time.

Now as for The Eagles ... I'm with The Dude about them. When I hear songs by The Eagles I hate them so much that they convince me (with help from James Taylor and Jackson Browne) that second wave feminism was a necessary thing!  But let's get back to neoliberalism and popular music vs. popular music.  If the power of the market to speak determines greatness then The Beatles are the greatest and ... let's see where Madonna and Aretha Franklin rank in terms of sales.

If we go by Billboard the top-selling artists of "all time" are in order:
1. The Beatles
2. Madonna
3. Elton John
4. Elvis Presley
5. Mariah Carey
6. Stevie Wonder
7. Janet Jackson
8. Michael Jackson
9. Whitney Houston
10. Rihanna
11. The Rolling Stones
12. Paul McCartney
13. Bee Gees
14. Usher
15. Chicago
16. The Supremes
17. Prince
18. Hall & Oates
19. Rod Stewart
22. Aretha Franklin
23. Marvin Gaye
24. Taylor Swift
25. Katy Perry
26. Phil Collins
27. Billy Joel
57. Ray Charles

77. James Brown


If Madonna has sold more albums than Franklin so ... it might be harsh to put it this way... 

couldn't it be said in the era that some say is the era of neoliberalism or the era of surveillance capitalism that it's Madonna who is "greater" than Aretha Franklin by the measure of the market?  Sure, pioneers have important roles to play but in the sense that stories of trend setting and trailblazing and innovation pave the way for newer and greater things can it be argued that Aretha Franklin paved the way for the Madonna who is greater than Aretha Franklin?  Did Beethoven role over so The Beatles could be the top sellers by (among other things) ... stealing riffs from Chuck Berry? 

In terms of sales ranking Janet outranks her brother Michael and Prince.  By a "rockist" measurement Michael Jackson and Prince probably rank above Janet Jackson but not in terms of sales.  This introduces a range of questions that poptimists could explore.  If Billy Joel has moved more units than Ray Charles is Billy Joel "greater" as a popular selling artist?  Yeah.  Is Billy Joel greater than Ray Charles or James Brown because he sold more records?  I ... have a lot of doubts about that. 

I'm not sure that "Borderline" or "We Didn't Start The Fire" are better songs than "Superbad" or "What'd I Say?"

But if sales are the measure then, well, Justin Bieber has obviously beaten Bruce Springsteen in terms of artistic success. 

Somehow something seems wrong about this blunt metric.  It doesn't seem to be the case that Madonna is greater than Aretha Franklin or that Aretha Franklin's legacy is such that it is "just" a ramp upon which Madonna drove her way to being the top selling female recording artist of all time. 

Not that it's a given that neoliberalism is "true" or that there can't be accommodations to other variables in a canon because, make no mistake, canons exist.  What I find dubious about claims that we should have a post-canon world is that canons keep getting made.  I'm not so sure that a poptimist canon in which Mariah Carey outranks Aretha Franklin or Justin Bieber outranks James Brown is necessarily where even self-professed poptimists want to take the argument, let alone a metrics-based case that Janet Jackson is greater than Michael Jackson by dint of sales figures. 

Because if we look at the absolute top of the Billboard listings it's looking pretty white in the top four slots.  Thriller may still really be the top charting album of all time and if so that's fine by me.  It's aged pretty well.  I felt his musical output began to steadily (though slowly, mind you) drop off as his life went on.  He was never less than a solid songwriter even if I thought "Speed Demon" was meh.  But I suppose my point is made, that even if we try to measure success in the arts by something besides German idealism and Romantic measures of greatness it seems that even within the pantheon of pop music white people are still at the top of the heap. 

Which is why I'm not sure the poptimist case is necessarily better than the rockist case, and why I'm not so sure a pop-centric approach to the arts is necessarily "better".  Mahalia Jackson and Judy Mowatt aren't even in the top 100 selling artists but I admire both of their musical legacies. 

Friday, August 24, 2018

The Strang Report blog post on Mark Driscoll went up in August and then came down

Earlier this month Steve Strang had a blog post about Mark Driscoll

Pastor Mark Driscoll is a fascinating person with an interesting story. He's written several popular books, and his powerful teaching videos have garnered a huge following on social media. His former church in Seattle, Washington—one of the least-churched cities in the U.S.—grew to 15,000 members across 15 locations with roughly 10,000 baptisms.

Since Mark is generally theologically reformed, some charismatics may be surprised to discover that Charisma House is publishing his latest book, Spirit-Filled Jesus. But what many may not know is that Mark is also charismatic and believes the gifts of the Spirit didn't die with the early-church apostles. In fact, in his cover story for Charisma's September issue, Mark shares how his mother came to Christ after experiencing a miracle. If you don't already subscribe to Charisma, click here to get a copy of that issue.

Mark's message in Spirit-Filled Jesus, which releases Oct. 2, emerged as he taught the book of Luke verse by verse for two years. I've read the book myself, and I hope you will too. I believe his message will impact your life as it has mine. Click here to pre-order his book or to learn more about his message.

Not too long ago, Mark and his wife, Grace, visited our Charisma Media headquarters in Lake Mary, Florida. I invited the couple into the podcast studio to talk to me about what's going on in their lives and ministry.

As well-known as Mark is, many may not know that he launched a new church in Scottsdale, Arizona, over a year ago with his family. Mark tells me that the idea to plant a church grew as his family talked around the dinner table. The children were enthusiastic about the idea, so Mark and Grace prayed about it.

"I thought, Well, what better way to have a church that can minister to a whole family than to have a family plant it?" Mark says. "... It's been a fun family project. All the kids are serving in ministry and love the Lord. And honestly, doing it together as a family has been a super fun experience."
Mark says his family's goal as they minister—and as they simply live life together—is to exemplify just how good God's forgiveness of sins and life with the Holy Spirit are. Listen to my podcast to hear how the Driscolls seek the Lord as a family and how God is using them to further His kingdom as a result.

For whatever reason the blog post came down.  If you find it, though, let us know via a (moderated) comment.  Maybe it just got shuffled somewhere.

This is still up, a piece by A. Larry Ross Communications

and this

But the Strang post came down.

Driscoll has shared a few times how the idea to plant a church or to consider the Driscoll family itself a church.  There's a discussion of that that was in an interview with Sheila Walsh but that also vanished from its original site of publication.

404 error there, too.

the link to the transcript of the interview .... still works

and you can see the interview Driscoll gave Walsh and Robison over at Driscoll's Patheos site

if you're game to read a multi-thousand word analysis of said interview go over here.

It makes sense if the common thread for why these interviews got pulled had something to do with kids, though.  It would be preferable, personally, if the Driscoll kids were not trotted out so regularly by Mark Driscoll as having had the idea to plant a church.  But since Driscoll has kept mentioning the claim it has to get mentioned now and then.

But as such we don't have reasons why Strang pulled the post down.  Meanwhile, the A. Larry Ross stuff is pretty sleek. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Alex Ross on a book about music "after the Fall" (of the Berlin Wall) and shifts in music, such as a decline of what can be called 20th century high modernism

In composed music, the big news was the retreat, and possible demise, of modernism. After the Second World War, prodigiously complex systems of organizing music spread to all corners of the globe: twelve-tone composition, its serialist variants, chance operations, and so on. The archetypal modern piece was knotty and abstract, with angular gestures and abrupt transitions. Traditional musical forms fell from fashion, and direct emotional expression was considered vulgar. The high priest of the epoch was the late Pierre Boulez, who declared that any composer who had not absorbed Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method was “useless.”

One of the sharpest critiques of the modernist ethos came from the musicologist Susan McClary, who, in a 1988 paper, “Terminal Prestige,” dissected the “mystique of difficulty,” seeing modernism as a “reductio ad absurdum of the nineteenth-century notion that music ought to be an autonomous activity, insulated from the contamination of the outside social world.” Behind the defiant modernist façade she detected a macho pose, an aversion to “soft, sentimental, ‘feminine’ qualities.” The modernist disdain for popularity and commercial values masked an alternative marketplace in which élite artists competed for grants and professorships. All this could be seen as an offshoot of a Cold War mentality in which abstruse pursuits were propped up with scientific-sounding language.

The seventies and eighties saw the gradual return of tonally based composition, in the form of minimalism, the New Simplicity, and the New Romanticism. These developments aligned with postmodern trends in other art forms: the return of ornament in architecture, of figuration in painting, of episodic narrative in fiction. The first work that Rutherford-Johnson discusses in his book is Steve Reich’s “Different Trains,” from 1988, which incorporates a live string quartet and a digital soundtrack of speaking voices, prerecorded string tracks, and ambient sounds. Its chugging motion and repetitive gestures present an invitingly smooth surface, even as the recorded material pivots toward stories of the Holocaust. The piece typifies the late-twentieth-century return to fundamentals—what McClary describes as “composing for people.”

Not that I'm quoting this part of the article but Ross points out that Kendrick Lamar's win of the Pulitzer was a much splashier headline than, say, Henry Threadgill a few years ago for In for a Penny, In for a Pound.  I'd read an interesting interview Threadgill gave with Ethan Iverson a few years ago and checked out the album which is alright if you are into avant garde jazz although it's not likely to win over a lot of people.  Black artists have won the Pulitzer in the past, whether we're talking about Henry Threadgill in jazz or George Walker in concert music but the news this year was hip hop.  It reminds me that while people are celebrating the hip hop win not everyone has objected to the prize on account of the music as music but on account of the shift from music in a scored form to technologically mediated documentation--i.e. it used to be for literate music that depended on scores rather than masters of tape or data. 

I'm half sympathetic to McClary's polemic about Romanticism and high modernism but only about half sympathetic.  Anyone can get the idea that conventions are a foundation for artistic activity and that conventions are socially mediated even if it's wildly popular in certain artistic circles to insist on rejecting conventions.  The trouble is that this can be overplayed.  McClary has probably no chance of living down her most notorious claim about a passage in Beethoven.  Even if I get the incentive to troll advocates of a Wagnerian style art religion centered on German masters I don't think we're going to be free of artistic canons.  There's every reason to hold Aretha Franklin in higher esteem as an artist and singer than Madonna, for instance.  It's not that Madonna hasn't been a competent purveyor of pop songs it's just I never really liked her music.  If anything the back and forth about cultural appropriation has had me wondering why she has not been prominently singled out for cultural appropriation.  Would not "La Isla Bonita" seem like egregious cultural appropriation?  Or does Madona get a pass fo rhaving pissed off so many conservative cultural pundits? 

What people who object to McClary's polemics from the modernist side find troubling is that whether it's Susan McClary or, say, a Richard Taruskin, there's a worry that what these people are doing is advocating what amounts to socialist realism and stumping for a neo-tonal idiom that just takes us back to Shostakovich or popular music or whatever else isn't Brian Ferneyhough and company.  These sorts of caricatures seem impossible to resist for the various sides and it seems like a shame but it seems to just be how people are when making polemics. 

Ross can be fun to read but every so often he'll write something where I just go "eh?"  I mean, okay, I get it if he likes Bjork.  I have a couple of her albums but ...

I have only heard a bit of Arcade Fire and wasn't all that impressed.

"Everything Now" sounds like what would happen if Neil Young listlessly covered the kind of song Bryan Ferry sang with Roxy Music in the 1980s and butchered the thing the whole way through.  The arrangement itself is fine, just to be clear, it's the zoned out vocal that can't sell me even if it's supposed to be a study in irony. 

I have my issues with Baby Boomer pop canonism.  I hate The Doors and I think The Beatles were the greatest boy band to transcend the limitations of their initially bubblegum pop idiom.  I don't much care for a number of the entries in respectable rock or pop.  I don't think "Tarzan Boy" is as "responsible" for the disease in pop music I call Millenial Whooping Cough as much as R. E. M.  But it's interesting to read how pop music journalists lay out an ancestry for the "whoop" in pop music that stays within the lane of pop music, as though trends from "indie" couldn't have influenced the repetitious nature of pop songs.  When I think back on music that drove me up the wall from the 1990s Kurt Cobain was high on the list.  Mumbling the same would be hook four times before screaming it an octave higher with the distortion pedal on was never my iea of a fun time.  there's a lot of the worst traits I hear in contemporary pop music that didn't come from the pop music of the 1990s so much as from the indie rock.  Madonna didn't have a very strong, wide-ranging or supple voice but she had the sense to vary her phrases.  The grunge scene was more like white guys in flannel yowling like forsaken dogs who thought tha ti fthey owled the same stuff over and over enough times it would become profound.

But ... I digress ... obviously. 

Josephine Livingstone at The New Republic on #MeToo, the Argento situation and on how the recent developments clarify rather than alter the premise that the abuse flows from power

By way of a prelude ..,.
While academics and artists can often enough protest that they are not priests they do have what could be considered historically priestly roles.  After all, anyone who has read the Torah may recall who was tasked with teaching the people the law, the priesthood.   
These two affairs illustrate, with depressing succinctness, just how badly power corrupts. Asia Argento may be famous, but she was not protected by tenure. Her allies in what has been a horizontal, democratic movement have no institutional reasons to support her. The Ronell cheerleaders, on the other hand, are almost universally intellectuals who once upon a time considered themselves cultural outsiders—queer theorists, postcolonial scholars, feminist thinkers. They act as if they are a politicized coalition defending a vulnerable person, without the awareness that they are now the tenured, the published, the well-off, the powerful: precisely the demographic that #MeToo proposes to investigate.
It's hardly a surprise if a lawyer speaking on behalf of Harvey Weinstein would suggest the latest headlines about Asia Argento suggest the #MeToo movement is more witchhunt than hunt for justice.  I'm not of a mind to say that even if it might be true in a handful of cases about which it is impossible to know for sure what went on. 
To the extent that #MeToo advocates have said from the start that these things are about the abuse of power it doesn't seem contradictory at all if a celebrity or high profile artist of some kind turned out to have wielded celebrity in a way that could be abusive having protested and brought to light being the subject of such abuse. 
We live in an era that's so reflexively against anything that might seem "Puritan" that it can be easy to forget that Puritans objected to theater and arts practices that could be regarded as predatory and exploitive.  It wasn't as clearcut as the puritans didn't like literature.  Ever try to actually read the writings of a single Puritan and you can discover for yourself how prolix many of those authors were.
There's a point at which having the pendulum swing back the other way might not be a bad idea.  Whatever transpired with the Argento case it's complicating the simplicity of branding but not necessarily discrediting the idea that systemic abuses in the entertainment industry need to be confronted.
Now it might be more evidence that Hollywood is absolutely the last industry to think of itself as being less exploitive of minors than, say, the Catholic Church ...
Livingstone points out that the accusations against Argento have, for the most part, been taken pretty seriously within the #MeToo community but the study in contrasts of late is between how people have reacted to the Argento situation and the Ronell situation at NYU.
The Ronell/Reitman situation looks pretty messy as well, and Livingstone's comparison continues in the article:
Avital Ronell and Asia Argento are both women who held a great deal of power over their accusers. Ronell was Nimrod Reitman’s academic adviser, which means she was not only his mentor but a gatekepeer to his professional advancement. In a lawsuit Reitman has filed (subsequent to NYU’s finding of a Title IX violation), he alleges that his adviser “created a false romantic relationship” between them, and that he was “subjected to sexual harassment, sexual assault, and stalking.” Ronell “asserted complete domination and control over his life,” and threatened to put the advancement of his PhD in danger. Argento cast Bennett in a number of movies, beginning when he was 6 years old and appeared in The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (2004), a movie she directed, co-wrote, and starred in. She is alleged to have given him alcohol and pressured him into sex when he was 17, which is below the age of consent in California, where the incident reportedly took place.

Contrary to claims from #MeToo’s critics, women are capable of believing male accusers, too. Many feminists understand that Argento may have done a terrible thing and can no longer be a public face of the movement. Rose McGowan, her ally in activism, has expressed sympathy for Bennett. Argento’s actions, then, do not compromise the activism of those she previously called allies.

The response from Ronell’s supporters could not be more different. The Times located a draft of a letter written by a group of scholars in support of Ronell, which praised her “grace,” “keen wit,” and “intellectual commitment.” The first signatory to the letter was Judith Butler, the famous feminist scholar. Other celebrity signatories included Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Slavoj Žižek.

The letter’s authors admitted that they have had no access to the dossier of claims against Ronell. But they called Reitman’s allegations “malicious,” while emphasizing Ronell’s seniority and prestige—precisely what the allegations accuse her of exploiting. The signatories said they have “collectively years of experience to support our view of her capacity as teacher and a scholar, but also as someone who has served as Chair of both the Departments of German and Comparative Literature at New York University.” Later in the letter the group noted, “As you know, [Ronell] is the Jacques Derrida Chair of Philosophy at the European Graduate School and she was recently given the award of Chevalier of Arts and Letters by the French government.”

In the last few days, further defenses of Ronell have appeared online from well-known figures in cultural studies and literature like Chris Kraus, Lisa Duggan, and Jack Halberstam. Duggan, a professor in New York University’s social and cultural analysis department (where, full disclosure, my own PhD supervisor is also a professor), dressed up harassment in the guise of sophisticated theory. The language of Ronell’s emails must have baffled the investigators, she asserted, because they could not understand the sexualized language that passes between queers (Ronell and Reitman are both gay). “The nature of the email exchange resonates with many queer academics, whose practices of queer intimacy are often baffling to outsiders,” she wrote. This reasoning echoed the philosopher Colin McGinn’s denial that he sent sexual overtures to one of his graduate students, saying he referred to masturbation in an email only to teach her the difference between “logical implication and conversational implicature.”

Kraus, Duggan, and Halberstam all blamed the victim in the Ronell case. But after investigating, NYU concluded that Ronell’s harassment—including kissing, touching, constant calling, and refusing to work with him when her demands were unreciprocated—was “sufficiently pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of Mr. Reitman’s learning environment.” (You can read the lawsuit lodged by Reitman against Ronell here.)

Furthermore, other former students have accused Ronell of abusive behavior, with one anonymous student accusing her of a variety of unethical practices on Facebook, including breaking her students’ self-esteem, humiliating them in front of others, then using the newly malleable student to do menial tasks for her, like folding her laundry. Andrea Long Chu, who was at one time Ronell’s teaching assistant, wrote on Twitter that the accusations track “100%” with Ronell’s “behavior and personality.”
More locally, Sherman Alexie's literary future seems up in the air now that allegations have emerged that he leveraged his celebrity within academia and literature to ... perhaps the delicate way to put it is play the field.  There's been no reportage on the Alexie case for months so it's difficult to know what has been established beyond the initial allegations.  What makes the Alexie case stick with me is not just that he's local but because a year ago he was giving interviews in which he claimed that "warrior cultures" (i.e. Native American traditionalist cultures on the one hand and any variations of "fundamentalist" Christianity on the other) were disrespectful and demeaning toward women.  Alexie's misconduct allegations seem to suggest that merely saying he isn't like those other guys doesn't mean he's necessarily different.  At this point the idea that a simple profession of ideological difference is all that's necessary to pre-emptively exempt someone from being considered a potential creeper should be set aside.  But the belief that simply because "we" have a different set of dogmas than "they" do we're going to be better people probably can't be shaken. 
So the Ronell situation has some other coverage ... another variant on the observation that the harassment is about power first and foremost and that even in a case where a gay woman and a gay man are involved it's not necessarily a foregone conclusion in this day to assume no boundaries of professional conduct could be egregiously breached. 
While unusually plentiful for a harassment case, the new details are also kaleidoscopic, even dizzying: look at the details one way and get one picture, then shift the view and get another.

But if anything has shaken out thus far in terms of public opinion, and how academe continues to understand Me Too, it is power. That is, there seems to be a growing consensus that gender (Ronell is female and Reitman is male), sexual orientation (both are gay), politics (whether this case -- as alleged by some -- has exposed Me Too and feminism as fraudulent) and maybe even sex are just distractions. And that what matters most is the power that senior scholars continue to wield, for better or worse: the sway that a star philosopher such as Ronell had over a mere graduate student such as Reitman, and the sway senior scholars continue to have within academe, especially when they act as a group.

As Corey Robin, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said in a lengthy Twitter thread, “Even if one-half or one-quarter of what Reitman describes here is true, it suggests a more intense, more extreme, more abusive instance of a pervasive imbalance of power in academia. One that many graduate students have had to negotiate. And should not have to negotiate. And that for all the revelations of sexual harassment within academia that we’ve seen in the past few years, we continue to leave to gradate students, as individuals, to negotiate.”
As Esther Wang, of Jezebel, wrote, “Ronnell’s [sic] case is ultimately a more familiar story -- of deeply fucked up institutions where star professors hold too much power to determine the future of their protégés, and where professional relationships, to the detriment of young academics inhabiting a precarious professional landscape, are often inextricably bound to personal ones.”
As Leonard Cassuto, professor of English at Fordham University, told The Times in a follow-up story, “This sense of dependency that a student has on an adviser is a holdover from the medieval roots of academia, when the student is in the thrall of the master.”
As James J. Marino, associate professor of English at Cleveland State University, wrote in a blog post explaining why he’d started a petition against Butler’s presidency of the MLA, “Protesting against one instance of punishment is only a means to the larger end of preserving senior faculty's privilege of impunity. That is what needs to end … [Butler] was standing up for an old, corrupt, and long-standing way of doing business. The time for doing business that way is over. We should never look back.”
And as writer Amy Elizabeth Robinson said on Medium of Butler's and other colleagues' letter of support, the entire text is "saturated with a devotion to rank, privilege, reputation, acclaim, but above all a devotion to knowing [emphasis hers]. ‘How could they fall prey to their own aporia?’ lamented my fellow feminist historian, about these scholars who wield such ‘knife-sharp dissections of power.’ But I don’t think they ‘fell prey’ to aporia. I think they were trying to climb out. Justice would have been better served if they stayed put. If they had acknowledged the horizon they desired, wondered at their own bewilderment (and Ronell’s quite literal displacement), yet found the moral courage and ethical discipline to put down the pen, and just not know the truth.”
Lisa Duggan, professor of social and cultural analysis at NYU, differed somewhat from these observers in her own analysis of the case, arguing that Ronell’s gender and sexual orientation matter. As “queers are hypersexualized in the public imagination," she wrote, "they are targets for sexual accusations.” 
Still, Duggan said, even if the emails exchanged between Reitman and Ronell were “fully consensual, and no indication of sexual contact, they raise the question of boundaries in advisor/student relationships. Can the tremendous power of the advisor ever be compatible with this kind of expression? If not, where is the line? This is a general question that commonly plagues academics.”
Weaving together different commentary threads on her website, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, director of digital humanities and professor of English at Michigan State University, also suggested that the Ronell matter is about power -- but specifically when it is concentrated among the few. The "academic star system" into which Fitzpatrick's has done "inordinate institutional damage through the kinds of privilege it has created and upheld, and thus the kinds of labor that it has allowed to roll off of some shoulders and to land on others," she said.
The grand jury report is clearly a whole other category of awful ... but that's getting just enough coverage in the blogs I read I don't feel like I have to add too much to it.  The crimes need to be dealt with and the criminals dealt with as far as the law can.  That doesn't mean I am the least bit confident that Hollywood is situated to make films like Spotlight as if it were a bastion of virtue itself or that academia is in a position to denounce the abuses of a Catholic church without which academia in the West as we know it might not have come about.  There's a beam in one eye, perhaps, and a speck in another and it seems as though the praxis of our era is such that as long as you just have a speck then a person can speak as though they see clearly. 
If the Ronell case is a case of wagon-circling around a celebrity academic (however minor that sense of celebrity may be in larger world terms) then academics can do better, can't it?
I'd like to think the super majority of academics don't do anything like the stuff reported upon lately.