Saturday, August 17, 2019

Between forms of non-choice: Adorno’s criticism of serialism and aleatory as techniques that obliterated the decision-making subject, Leonard Meyer’s observation on the abjection of choice in modernist musical history, and some brief thoughts on jazz


When I read The Classical Revolution I ended up moving from that book to what ended up being about half a dozen books by Adorno.  I eventually got to reading a few books by Roger Scruton, so I have made a point of reading a few books by Future Symphony Institute authors in the last few years.  One of the ironies of my reading has been discovering that Scruton and Borstlap have leveled charges against serialism and aleatory as musical styles that lack musical substance and expressive humanity that were, in sum, made half a century ago by none other than Theodore Adorno.

The irony of all of this, which I hope to demonstrate, is that the legacy of Adorno on aesthetics as a philosophical enterprise may live on a bit more in the work of Roger Scruton than in those who have appropriated ideas from the Frankfurt school in order to praise popular music as a new art music.  Now I think that, ultimately, Adorno was spectacularly wrong in a number of his assertions about the exhaustion of tonality and the non-art status of jazz but I don't want to get into all of that.  Instead I want to highlight the ways in which Adorno criticized both serialism of the Boulez variety and aleatoric music of the John Cage variety on the basis of a core objection to both musical techniques. 

But first ... we have to get to his assertion that these techniques were developed in response to the crisis of the lost legitimacy of more traditional tonal musical language.  

Essays on Music: Selected, with introduction, commentary and notes by Richard Leppert; new translations by Susan H. Gillespie
Theodore Adorno
University of California Press
ISBN 0-520-22672-0
ISBN 0-520-23159-7
(c) 2002 by Regents of University of California

Difficulties (1967)

page 648

The methods that are linked to the traditional language of music have become retrospectively problematic as a result of those that were discovered later--namely, they have become schematic. One hears, through what is newer, weaknesses of the old that were once hidden. There are very many things that sound stereotyped that were not stereotyped at the time. Richard Wagner, who was very alert in these matters, already registered this. Disrespectfully, but forthrightly, he said that in some of Mozart's pieces he could hear the dishes clatter on the table--Tafelmusik, even when it was by no means intended as such. It was possible to follow this schema as long as it was not evident as such, as long as it was still of a piece with the self-evident preconditions of composing. But once composing, and the relationship of the composer to the schemas, has lost its virginity, then the schemas not only emerge baldly and annoyingly, but lead in many places to anomalies, contradict the moments that have meanwhile been emancipated. ...

... The person who commits himself to what is older only out of despair at the difficulties of the new is not comforted, but becomes the victim of his own helpless nostalgia for a better era that, finally, never actually existed.

Adorno concluded, or maybe it is better said asserted, that once schemas were recognized for what they were it was no longer possible to use them legitimately. Once the clichés lurking beneath what sounds original can be heard, Adorno seemed to be saying, all you could hear was the underlying clichés. 

An implication of this kind of judgment on Adorno’s part in light of the era of mechanical recording is that an Adorno style range of prohibitions could expand to as many things as a person can hear on recordings.  Schemas can be discerned in all sorts of styles and then, once identified as such, cast aside.  Those who embraced the old, recognizable styles for want of finding something “new” were presented as helplessly nostalgic for bygone days that never really were.  But then what about those who commit to older styles not out of despair but out of a certainty that what is older isn’t exhausted and that what someone like Adorno might regard as schematic doesn’t have to be so? 

Adorno seemed to have a sense that not everyone who might be regarded as conservative was exactly so from “despair”.

page 648
On the other hand, one should not dispense with reactionary objections in the manner of an apologist, but should learn the measure of correct insights that they offer, which so frequently give them the advantage over moderate, progressive cultural liberalism. ...

So …  Adorno seemed to think there were “reactionary” types who objected to more modern styles whose criticisms should be taken seriously; that there was a measure of correct insights those reactionaries had to offer which gave them the advantage over moderate, progressive cultural liberalism.  What, exactly?  Well, here it seems fitting to joke that we wouldn’t be talking about Adorno if we were beyond all doubt as to what it was he was getting at.

Let me propose a possibility, there is a kind of moderate progressive cultural liberalism that, here in the age we’re in now, prefers to embrace this or that essentialist race narrative of music being white or black and by extension being authentic or inauthentic based on modes of racial narrative identity that altogether avoid the possibilities that can be explore by considering how many styles, whatever their respective differences in rhythm and pitch organization, still evolved in the wake of the standardization of equal tempered tuning.  There can be a new mythology in which urban black music is held up as authentic over against an old authentic that was handed down by way of music pedagogy and musical canon formation.  It’s not that there aren’t new canons or that canons will stop being made, of course; the way Raymond Knapp put it in his monograph on Haydn, camp and the legacy of German Idealism was to point out that rock and jazz critics transposed the ideals of authenticity and raw expression and unmediated Romanticist heart from the symphonic and salon traditions to blues, jazz and rock and roll. 

To the extent that Adorno saw that conservatives could more clearly see what might be amiss in contemporary music, he seemed to claim that a conservative with enough grasp of musical technique in a given range of styles could better identify what was missing from contemporary styles than moderately liberal sorts whose commitment was to some form of liberalism rather than to artistic disciplines.  Was Adorno capable of being a haughty and condescending sort?  Obviously … but his admonition that there were things in aesthetics that liberalism in general would fail to engage that conservatives could be better at might be worth keeping in mind.  After all, if Roger Scruton is a philosopher known to be concerned with matters of aesthetics and also for being conservative … Adorno might have, if you will, warned us all ahead of time that someone like Roger Scruton was going to be better at highlighting what was wrong with modernist art forms.

Although, as we’ll see, Adorno managed to say much about the problems of high modernist styles in his own day.

pages 649-650
Today, the discrepancy between the subjective state of composition and the technical development that is identified by catchwords like integral composition and electronics has grown infinite. Compositional subject and compositional objectivity face each other across an abyss.  This often leads to an opposite result compared to the previous generation.  Composers frequently capitulate to the means, which they must utilize without really composing with them. Hence the first difficulty would be to achieve an appropriate relationship to the state of technique, either by the composers utilizing and forming the latter in accordance with the state of their own consciousness, or by their pushing their self-criticism so far that they catch up with the state of technique.  How this should be done is something for which there are no general rules.  ...

page 651

... Experimental, in the legitimate sense, means nothing other than art's self-conscious power of resistance against what is conventionally forced upon it from the outside.  ...

To attempt to unpack these claims a bit, Adorno was pointing out that the gap between subjective decision-making in composing and “objective” means at the disposal of a composer had increased; the chasm between what the “subject” could do with the “object” had grown, particularly in the wake of the schematic nature of tonality being shown up for all of its “exhaustion”.

The “state of technique” reminds me of any number of things from Jacques Ellul about the problem of “technique” as an article of faith, and of things he wrote about in The Empire of Non-Sense regarding technocratic art in technocratic societies.  Since for the moment I’m focusing on Adorno, however, it’s to Adorno I will, again, turn.  Adorno described the nature of what he saw as the problem of contemporary music in surprisingly clear and simple terms when he wrote this:

page 652
... The paradoxical difficulty of all music today is that every music that is written is subject to the compulsion to create its own language for itself, while language, as something that by virtue of its own concept exists beyond and outside of composition, as something that carries it, cannot be created purely by the will of the individual. 

In another passage he likened the challenge of contemporary art to a playwright having to birth his own actors, teach them language, and create the materials from which they would perform.  That’s a bit absurd but it gets at the larger assertion that the trouble “today” is that every music that could be written is written such that the composer must create a musical language from scratch despite the fact that language by its very nature is impossible to create in such a way.  This was a point that would later be observed by Leonard B. Meyer in his monograph on music in the Romantic era and I’ll get to Meyer’s comments eventually. 

Just when it would seem Adorno has simply specified that the problem with contemporary music is that each composer has to invent a musical language from scratch that can avoid the clichés of bygone eras, he introduced another problem—language develops in communal and social ways and yet …

page 653
... Everything that in music attributes to itself the ethos of community inclines toward totalitarian forms of society. The difficulties of composing can be mastered, not by casting sidelong glances at a social space, even as Brecht still did, but, if at all, then only by proceeding from the thing itself--by giving the compositions themselves such a compelling quality that as a result they acquire an objectivity that would also, ultimately, partake of social meaning after all. Without this trust, as problematic as it may be, it is no longer possible to write a single note. ...

Okay but for those who don’t get what that is, what it entails, this can constitute a double bind, or it can be a double bind for those who do understand what those statements mean.  I.e. populist bids at clear, simple and direct communication constitute totalitarian bids in the arts … but … somehow … compositions can be given “such a compelling quality that as a result they acquire an objectivity that would …  partake of social meaning after all.”  Yes, well, whatever that means.

I am going to pass that set of statements by as vapid condescension and move along to something else Adorno mentioned because it is at this next point Adorno articulates why he regards the emergence of what Ellul would have called technocratic art as having such an enervating effect on the arts:

page 654

If one examines the musical development since, say, 1920, as a whole from the perspective that I have identified here, the developments that are to be taken seriously are almost exclusively efforts to develop, out of the form of musical objectivity, i.e., from the material, idiom and technique, methods of proceeding that relieve the subject, which no longer has confidence in itself alone, because it is bent over and crushed by all those difficulties. The musical history of the past forty years seems to me to be in large part a history of attempts at musical relief. ...

New, modernist art evolved in such a way as to relieve the subject of the responsibility of making artistic decisions.  Sure, Adorno regarded tonality as “spent” but he did not therefore advocate that people then develop techniques the purpose of which was to ensure by way of exclusion making artistic decisions that could preclude all of the clichés and schemata of the Romantic era and earlier simply by way of the rejection or abjection of all previously known clichés.  A compositional technique devoted to the exclusion of things considered cliché would, at length, generate clichés all its own on the one hand and, on the other, would do something more dangerous, relieving those subjects (i.e. people) who resorted to these new techniques of modernist composition from doing the most important thing in art-making, making decisions.

It is at this point it seems best to simply quote Adorno as extensively as he chose to address what he regarded as the fatal problem with the development of integral or total serialism:

page 656

... The serial principle, from the perspective of twelve-tone music, means that everything that projected heterogeneously into what was composed and pre-formed by twelve-tone-ness--everything independent of the twelve-tone technique, all the material and structural traces of the old tonal idiom, are removed.  Stockhausen formulated this accurately and strikingly when he said that in terms of his musical language Schoenberg, despite all the innovations, was actually still tonal. The serial school wanted to radicalize the twelve-tone principle, which they regarded, in a sense, as a merely partial ordering of the materials.  They wanted to extend it to all the musical dimensions, to elevate it to totality. Absolutely everything is to be determined, even the dimensions of rhythm, meter, tonal color, and overall form, which in Schoenberg had still been free. [emphasis added] In doing so, the serial composers took as their starting point the thesis that because all musical phenomena, including pitch and tonal color, are, in their acoustical regularity, ultimately temporal relations, they must all be able to be reduced compositionally to a single common denominator--time. From a series' given, original material, which should be as brief as possible, everything--every note, every rest, duration, pitch, color should strictly follow. [emphasis added] It may remain open whether the equation actually works; whether one can simply identify objective physical time, according to the rate of vibration and overtone relations, with musical time, the feeling of musical duration, which is essentially subjectively mediated.

(pages 656-657) The serial composers encountered this problem a long time ago. The most advanced among them, Boulez and Stockhausen, are laboring at it with great intensity. What is of greater concern to me is the idea of total determination as such. It is already implicit in the twelve-tone technique, to the extent that it is not clear why this and that dimension should be strictly determined in it, and others not. Accordingly, one may perhaps say that the serialists did not arbitrarily concoct mathematicizations of music, but confirmed a development that Max Weber, in the sociology of music, identified as the overall tendency of more recent musical history--the progressive rationalization of music.  It is said to have reached its fulfillment in integral construction. If from a given basic material absolutely everything else, in fact, were to follow, then this would be the greatest relief of the composer that can possibly be imagined. He would then only have to obey what is contained in his series, and would be delivered from all cares.

But this does not leave one with a good feeling. [emphasis added] The reification that is already perceptible in the twelve-tone technique, the disempowerment of the living, listening act as the authentic constituent of music, is so intensified that it threatens to destroy all meaningful context.  I recall a young composer who brought me a composition in Darmstadt, perhaps as much as fourteen years ago, that appeared to me as the craziest gibberish. You couldn't make out any way up and down, front and back, logic and setting--no articulation of the phenomenon at all that you could grasp. When I asked him how everything related to everything else, what the musical meaning of a phrase was, where it ended and began, and other such elementary questions about structure, the young man demonstrated to me that some number of pages later there was a pause that corresponded to a single note in a particular place, and so on in that vein.  He had truly, as Philistine enemies envision it, reduced the whole thing to a mathematic example, which may have even been correct--it was too boring for me to figure it out--but which absolutely no longer translated into any recognizable and compelling musical context.  The subject, on which music is thrown back in the absence of a social space, and which is supposed to be relieved by all these machinations, is not only relieved but virtually eliminated. [emphasis added] But along with it also the control that it exercises and that helps to constitute musical objectivity. If it were seriously just a matter of composing out what a series like this contains within it, then--the joke is as cheap as the thing itself--one could compose better with an electronic computer than by troubling a composer. The help he is offered threatens to overwhelm him. He is subjected to a set of laws that are alien to him and that he can scarcely catch up with. The resulting music, however, becomes something deaf and vacant.[emphasis added]   ...

I have over the years heard it said that you can’t teach music composition or that a musical style cannot be taught.  I find this assertion specious at best and fraudulent at worst but I do believe there is a more positive way to articulate what these bromides may be aiming to describe.  You can be taught all kinds of things about all kinds of styles but in the end you must make a decision and no amount of theoretical instruction or formal training ever takes the place of making a decision.  Adorno regarded the evolution of total or integral serialism as a style that, once codified, no longer needed human beings to make decisions.  This is the same Adorno who at one point championed Schoenberg but here he is in the later 1960s inveighing against total serialism as advocated by Boulez and Stockhausen and providing a pointed philosophical objection to the very conceit of serialism. This is the kind of music that can be  written by machines, entities bereft of human consciousness.

That far Adorno has a point that has been recycled by writers like Roger Scruton and John Borstlap who, perhaps ironically, have retained a range of arguments against total serialism completely indebted to Adorno, whose work they have regarded as having had a singularly pernicious influence on Western classical music in the post-World War II era in Europe.  Yet here we can see that Adorno’s assessment of serialism was, on the whole, pretty damning.

Neither, we’ll soon see, did he believe John Cage’s alternative provided anything Adorno considered a viable alternative:

page 658

Into this situation of serialism barged John Cage; it explains the extraordinary effect he had. His principle of chance, which is familiar to you under the name of aleatory music, wants to break out of the total determinism, the integral, obligatory musical ideal of the serial school. He, the American, was not pressured in the same way, not compelled by the same historical necessity as the musicians of the European tradition, who exist within the context of the obligatory style, the general onward march of the rationalization of music. But even the principle of indeterminacy that Cage introduced remained as alien to the ego as its apparent opposite, serialism.  It, too, belongs in the category of relief for the weakened ego.  [emphasis added] ...

... The Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti, who is as perceptive as he is truly original and significant, observed correctly that in their effect the extremes of absolute determination and absolute chance coincide. Statistical generality becomes the law of composition, a law that is alien to the ego. Certainly the absolute indeterminacy of Cage and his school is not exhausted in it.   ...

So John Cage’s aleatoric music obliterated the decision-making ego as completely as did the integral serialism of Boulez or a Stockhausen in Adorno’s estimation.  Okay, well, we know that Adorno rejected any possibility that a fusion of improvisational decisions over modified schemas was an acceptable option because he rejected the artistic viability of jazz but I would suggest that this was one of Adorno’s grand mistakes, and it’s a mistake that people across the proverbial left and right can, if on almost nothing else, basically agree about.

The other thing about which there is a potential consensus is Adorno’s observation that total serialism of the Boulezian variety did not, in the end, amount to something that was going to displace earlier musical idioms.  If Boulez were to blow up the opera houses he was not, so far as Adorno could tell, composing anything musically significant enough to take up residence in any new performing spaces:

page 659

... Until now, integration frequently has become impoverishment. One can observe, along with an extreme increase in compositional means, a kind of regression to homophony. As I described this, borrowing an expression of Boulez's, blocks are being added together rather than lines being drawn. Hardly any harmonic tensions are created; hardly any complementary harmonies; hardly any monodonic, much less polyphonic lines.  This shrinkage is out of all proportion to the compositional expenditure of means and construction. ...    Frequently a music is assembled that actually doesn't want to go anywhere. ...

As Jacques Ellul put it, we are witnessing art made by elites for elites and that those without the modicum of education necessary to understand how or why technocratic art in a technocratic society could even be recognized as such are left out in the cold. 

Adorno wrapped up his criticism of both serialist and aleatoric music by saying:

page 660
... Music today sees itself faced with an alternative, that between the fetishism of the material and the process, on the one hand, and unfettered chance on the other.  ...


Yet it does not seem that difficult to imagine, fifty years after the death of Adorno, that Adorno was ultimately trapped in the intellectual legacies of the Romantic era.  David P. Roberts argued as much across three books, most explicitly in Art and Enlightenment: Aesthetic Theory After Adorno and Dialectic of Romanticism. Adorno had objections to Stravinsky’s music and to music he declared to be music about music, but Adorno turned out to be wrong, Stravinsky’s arch detachment may have seemed unacceptably cynical and too fascist for Adorno, but we live in an era of musical culture in which sly and knowing appropriation has become so common it saturates popular music; that pastiche has come up for discussion in things regarded as art music could invite questions as to whether someone like Adorno could realistically say we could cast off all conventions.

We had enough revolutions in musical styles and ways of conceiving music in the twentieth century the more interesting and inspiring work, I think, is not in continuously rejecting the old conventions or artistic norms but in finding ways to gently and subtly recalibrating them.  Breaking all of the old rules is potentially a needless activity when so many rules, whichever rules they are, have been broken.  There’s more to artistic innovation than sweeping away the old.  Leonard B. Meyer’s writing suggests that many of the great artists of earlier eras were not even innovators who devised completely new rules.  Meyer, writing in the late 1980s, observed that the century had been full of bids at developing new rules. 

Where Adorno claimed the difficulty of contemporary composing was that a composer had to develop a new musical language, Meyer surveyed the same century and concluded that for the most part attempts at codifying new rules had not led to a conclusive set of solutions to the problems people believed the new rules could address.  Nor, for that matter, did it seem to be the case that great artists of the past could even be identified as those who “broke the rules” as much as they were strategists who figured out how to play by existing rules and norms in inventive ways.

STYLE AND MUSIC: THEORY, HISTORY AND IDEOLOGY
LEONARD B. MEYER
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS
COPYRIGHT (C) 1989 BY LEONARD B. MEYER
ISBN 0-226-52152-4


page 109-110

... most of the stylistic movements broached during the past seventy years--serialism, neoclassicism, aleatory music, statistical music, and so on--can be regarded as attempts to devise viable stylistic constraints not merely on the level of strategies, but on the level of rules. Because choosing becomes problematic in such circumstances, one of the symptoms of stylistic instability is, as noted earlier, a noticeable decline in the productivity of composers.

Conversely, when the stylistic constraints inherited by composers are coherent and well established, as well as compatible with prevalent aesthetic/cultural ideals, innovation will tend to be quite modest, taking the form of the elaboration and refinement of existing strategies. In a broad sense, this was the situation in which J. S. Bach and Mozart found themselves. Stylistic stability facilitates choosing because possibilities and alternatives are clearly understood and coherently interrelated; as a result, periods of stability are usually characterized by high rates of productivity.

But there is another, intermediate possibility: a situation in which the fundamental principles of a style--its basic rules and strategies--have already been established, but significant compositional possibilities remain to be realized. In such situations, innovation involves the devising of new strategies and schemata. Haydn's development of some of the possibilities latent in the dramatic principle of sonata form were strategic innovations of this kind. here the general stylistic situation merges with specifically compositional problems.

Every composition, even the most conventional and routine, is an actualization of possibilities latent in the constraints of a style.

Somewhat contra Adorno, Meyer’s position stakes out a claim that there is no way to avoid culturally assimilated constraints and stylistic norms.  Meyer proposed that a fixation in twentieth century music theory, analysis and composition on the value of innovation had prized innovation at the expense of considering other elements. But there is a paradoxical conceptual overlap in what Meyer observed as a problem in innovation as an aesthetic goal unto itself in theory, history and practice that ties into Adorno’s criticism of serialist and aleatoric music:

page 142

Our understanding of influence has to a considerable extent been biased by the scientific model. That model, which emphasized the importance of the discovery of new data and the devising of new theory, was complemented by nineteenth-century beliefs that stressed the value of innovation (as progress). As a result, our age has conceived of creativity almost entirely in terms of the discovery and use of novelty. Investigators have asked, in repeated studies of little children as well as of famous artists and scientists: How are new ideas generated? Where do they come from? What is the role of the unconscious? and so on. Though doubtless of great psychological interest, this concern with causes and sources of innovation has had unfortunate consequences for our understanding of history. For undue emphasis on the generation of novelty has resulted in almost total neglect of the other facet of creativity--choosing. [emphasis added] Of course, choosing is always done by some individual. But the constraints that seem most to influence the compositional choices which shape the course of music history are not those peculiar to the psyche of the individual composer, but those of the prevalent musical style and of the larger cultural community.

Richard Taruskin has described a kind of “race to the patent office” approach to modernism and musical innovation and if his comments to that effect come with dryly snide remarks about the New Complexity there’s something to be said about the general complaint, something that was probably put more directly by Meyer—emphasis on generating novelty was prized at the neglect of considering choice.  Yet, as we’ve seen, Adorno’s criticism of serialism was that it was a technocratic approach to art that relieved a composer of ever having to make choices.  Creativity studies can still harbor what is ultimately a technocratic ethos, prizing discovery of how we approach creativity so that, ultimately, it is sublated into technique for its own sake.  A paradoxical insistence on instrumental reason in the pursuit of the cultivation and creation of beauty seems like the kind of thing Adorno was setting himself against, at least as I read Adorno.  Others may reach different conclusions.

Meyer claimed that in the end conventions are inextricably woven into how we think about and in the arts.  Adorno regarded the sounds of the Romantic era as spent but we might be able to suggest that in his criticism bordering on outright condemnation of serialism and aleatoric music Adorno was grasping that there was … I’ll just borrow a theological term here … a kind of postmillennialist triumphalist philosophy of history being worked out in modernist music that needed to be repudiated.  Ideologies commensurate with some kind of Manifest Destiny, so to speak, had to be rejected.  But Adorno was, arguably, trapped in a “race to the patent office” conception of musical history.  He might have wanted the patent office closed but he insisted the old styles were “spent”.  If they were spent, however, there was still nothing for it but to move forward with the paradoxical effect that Adorno could not really ultimately prescribe a meaningful path out of a double bind imposed on composers by his own approach to music history. 

Leonard B. Meyer put things a bit differently but partly addressed the core conundrum of what conventions would be left if all conventions were rejected.

pages 344-345

The repudiation of constraints may be possible in aesthetic theory, but it is not so in compositional practice: some means must be found for selecting sounds--or nonsounds.  ...

There is, then, an inherent incompatibility between radical originality and individual expression because the latter depends on deviation from shared norms for its delineation. Therefore, to the extent that the prizing of originality leads to the abrogation of such norms, the delineation of individual expression either becomes attenuated or requires ever more radical departures from whatever norms are still prevalent. Thus, especially in those styles of twentieth-century music in which constraints have been affected by a compelling concern with originality, originality ceases to be connected with individual expression.  [emphasis added]

The special prizing of originality and the consequent radicalization of deviation in the twentieth century were related to a number of facets of Romanticism. First the belief that the arts, like other realms of culture, progressed made innovation seem desirable--even a kind of moral/historical imperative. Conservative composers were often looked upon as renegades. Second, the common conception of artistic innovation as somehow analogous to scientific discovery (exemplified in the phrase "experimental music") implied an association among categorical novelty, creativity and value. Finally, the existence of radical novelty made innovation itself an important basis for critical evaluation. For, as shared constraints--rules, strategies, and other conventional norms--became less and less important, the evaluation of relationships within compositions became increasingly problematic. What could be judged, however, was the novelty of a composition. As result, one of the chief concerns of criticism (for instance, from the 1940s through the 1960s) became the identification and often the celebration of innovation.

If the concern of criticism was frequently with novelty, the concern of twentieth century music theory has been with innate, natural universals to the virtual exclusion of any consideration of the role of learned, cultural constraints in the shaping of musical experience. ...

In other words, we were still trapped in the ideological paths laid out during the Romantic era.  It’s not surprising that a musical style or, better yet, technique, developed in reaction to the Romantic ideals was a kind of pastiche that explicitly flouted the idea of originality at every conceptual level.  This is not necessarily done as a matter of parody, satire or spoofing; it’s possible that this meta-level technique that we could call … oh … let’s just call it sampling, could play a role in recodifying musical conventions in a way that gets around or gets out of Adorno’s double bind that insists we reject the old worn out clichés on the one hand while noting that composers are somehow obliged to develop musical languages as if from whole cloth on the other.  Adorno’s faith that humans could develop enough consciousness to enjoy Schoenberg might have put too much faith in humanity’s capacity to overcome what others have regarded as music appreciations constrained by, well, cognitive constraints.

page 349

... human communication is for the most part dependent on learning. In this sense, all competence leads to exclusiveness and, for any particular in-group, to elitism.

The answer to the question posed earlier seems clear: it is not in our nature to be naively natural, without cultivated concepts and conventions. Innate cognitive capacities and predispositions can provide only a portion of the constraints necessary for successful communication. The remaining constraints must be provided by culture--by stylistics rules and strategies, and by the classes and conventions, the syntax and schemata through which rules and strategies are realized. Without cultural constraints, memory is emasculated by the momentary; envisaging is enervated and choice crippled by confinement to the immediate. And to preclude all but immediate choice is to dehumanize the human animal. Human nature without cultural nature is an impossibility, a grand delusion.

Rejecting conventions in and of itself is easy.  But there may, in the end, be no art to it. Art may involve something trickier, learning the conventions and then manipulating those conventions themselves in the pursuit of developing and continuing artistic traditions. For a time Adorno thought Schoenberg’s approach could accomplish that but I am inclined to agree with Ben Johnston in saying that Schoenberg had an inventive short-term solution to the perceived exhaustion of Romantic era tonal resources that did not address the reality that twelve-tone proliferated its own range of spent idioms without addressing the possibility that the range of non-cliché materials was shrinking due to the standardization of equal temperament, not because a broader concept of tonal organization based on pitch hierarchy had ever truly been “exhausted”.

For all of the efforts of twentieth-century composers to formulate new rules to replace the old ones, a grand extension of the Romantic project in music, Meyer’s conclusion was that in the end basically little to none of those efforts achieved what they were intended to:

pages 349-350
The overriding need of twentieth-century composers--the need for a generally accepted set of compositional constraints reconciling the claims of nature and nurture--has led to a restless, almost Faustian, search. But few lasting or fundamentally new constraints have been forthcoming. Most innovation has involved extrapolation from principles already latent (or, at times, manifest) in nineteenth-century practice. Schoenberg transforms motivic similarities into the permutational and combinatorial operations of the twelve-tone system, and these, in turn, extended to other parameters; the Impressionist valuing of sense experience is elevated into an exclusive, almost moral, goal; and ... Stravinsky derives a general compositional strategy from individual instances of rhythmic/metric displacement found in folk music.

...  when the egalitarian repudiation of learning and convention leads from disguise to denial, it conflicts with the fundamental characteristics of human nature.

page 351
Mention of aesthetic goals calls attention to a question posed early in this book: is it possible to infer "the rules of the game" (institutional facts) simply by attending to the "play of the game" (brute facts)--the succession of stimuli? I think that the answer is an unequivocal "no." There is no such thing as understanding a work of art in its own terms. [emphasis added] Indeed, the very notion of work of art is cultural. The choices made by some compositional community can be understood and explained only if relationships can be discerned among the goals set by culture, the nature of human cognitive processes, and the alternatives available given some set of stylistic constraints.

To put this in musical terms, music is always conventional, expressed by way of conventions, and understood by means of conventions.  Music communicates on the basis of non-musical or extra-musical conventions that may be subverted, knowingly played with, leaned into, and radically or gently modified but these conventions are part of any cognitive process of understanding what can be considered music. 

Half a century after Adorno’s death, we know perfectly well that we don’t have any obligation to not use tonal musical language just because Adorno said it was “spent”. We can also say that Adorno failed to grasp that jazz, a musical idiom he regarded as an example of popular music; a modular musical non-art in which schemas were too easily heard as ever-the-same with stereotyped hot breaks and solo fills at cadential moments may not have been art to Adorno but they provided something anyone who has played jazz, however badly, knows is restored to musicians and composers with every break, a musical moment in which a musician gets to make a choice.  The tragicomedy of Adorno’s legacy in relationship to jazz and his criticism of serialism and aleatory is that it was in jazz that the possibility of musical choice was reinstated but Adorno was too committed to viewing jazz as a popular style completely subjugated to the destructive power of capitalism to see any ways in which jazz provided composers and improvisers with the kinds of musical decision-making he found so absent in the serialism of Boulez or the aleatory of Cage. 

Even if we as musicians decide to not play or write jazz or other kinds of music, we can still observe that Adorno's criticism of aleatory and serialism combined with his rejection of the legitimacy of tonality constitutes a double bind predicated on an understanding of musical history that we can completely reject.

POSTLUDE 9-7-2019

FORMALIZED MUSIC: THOUGHT AND MATHEMATICS IN MUSIC
IANNIS XENAKIS (PENDRAGON REVISED EDITION)
Copyright 1992 by Pendragon Press
ISBN 0-945193-24-6 


PAGE 38

Before generalizing further on the essence of musical composition, we must speak of the general principle of improvisation which caused a furore among the neo-serialists, and which gives them the right, so they think, to speak of chance, of the aleatory, which they thus introduce into music. They write scores in which certain combinations of sounds may be freely chosen by the interpreter. It is evident that these composer consider the various possible circuits as equivalent. Two logical infirmities are apparent which deny them the right to speak of chance on the one hand and "composition" on the other (composition in the broad sense, that is):

1. The interpreter is a highly conditioned being, so that it is not possible to accept the thesis of uncontrolled choice, of an interpreter acting like a roullette game. The martingale betting at Monte Carlo and the procession of suicides should convince anyone of this. We shall return to this.

2. The composer commits an act of resignation when he admits several possible and equivalent circuits. In the name of a "scheme" the problem of choice is betrayed, and it is the interpreter who is promoted to the rank of composer by the composer himself. There is thus a substitution of authors.

The extremist extension of this attitude is one which uses graphical signs on a piece of paper which the interpreter reads while improvising the whole. The two infirmities mentioned above are terribly aggravated here. I would like to pose a question: If this sheet of paper is put before an interpreter who is an incomparable expert on Chopin, will the result not be modulated by the style and writing of Chopin in the same way that a performer who is immersed in this style might improvise a Chopin-like cadenza to another composer's concerto?  From the point of view of the composer there is no interest.

On the contrary, two conclusions may be drawn: first, that serial composition has become so banal that it can be improvised like Chopin's, which confirms the general impression; and second, that the composer resigns his function altogether, that he has nothing to say, and that his function can be taken over by paintings or by cuneiform glyphs.

Notice that Xenakis' criticism of aleatory and of what might be called "moment" form are predicated on a criticism that, at its core, is like Adorno's--the composer who uses aleatory is passing the buck and the composer who uses moment form, for Xenakis, is set up a dice game in which the performer is the one who is really creating the finished work.  Xenakis may not have been amenable to approaches in European concert music in which that kind of musical dice game was acceptable, although as music historians have pointed out, Mozart and Haydn and their generation were okay with musical dice games. 

But the sticking point for Xenakis was the abdication of choice.  I wonder if Xenakis would have regarded that as not really being a problem in more vernacular or popular styles, i.e. Greek popular music or jazz, in which musical schemas that invite variation are part of the musical game.  There's no misconstrual as to whether it's a musical game that invites performer participation there, is there?  Xenakis, if nothing else, seemed to set himself against both total serialism and Cage style aleatory as forms of non-choice.  There are enough elements of chance in the stochastic processes we can observe in Xenakis' music that he wasn't declaring a free-for-all, but he was laying out ground rules for where and how pitches and rhythms would be played. 

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor--Song of Hiawatha, Hiawatha's Wedding Feast conducted by Malcolm Sargent

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2tHUYb_fdI

Hiawatha, as some have put it, is the most famous literary Indian who didn't exist, and Coleridge-Taylor was drawn to the Longfellow poem about Hiawatha and composed a cantata cycle based on it.  A student of Charles Stanford, the musical style is post-Romantic and pretty zippy.  Since I found that I liked Stanford's choral writing when I sang a work or two of his in college I don't consider it any kind of put-down to say Coleridge-Taylor's work is fun.  It really is fun.  The other two cantatas from the cycle I'm still getting to but Hiawatha's Wedding Feast is worth a listen.

We've lived in the era of recorded music for a long time and so I feel obliged to point out that there is, as some music critics have liked to say, music that comes off like it's a lot more fun for the performers to perform than for a listener to listen to, such as for a review written up for a platform like The Guardian.  Yes, I suppose we do live in such times.

I learned about this work as I've been going through Michael V Pisani's book Imagining Native America in Music.  Coleridge Taylor's work could, by light of contemporary discourse on race, cultural appropriation and musical depiction, be viewed in a harshly negative light.  The Hiawatha of the poem didn't exist, yet a British composer thought to set the work to music and thereby depict Native Americans through that poetic narrative.   As I think I've probably written before, I don't think that's an approach we have to take or should take.

That an African-British citizen was inspired to set to music a long and popular poem about a fictional Native American can be read in a more positive light that discussion of cultural appropriation or presentation.  There are forms of musical appropriation and amalgamation that are steadily taking place in music that I think we should encourage.  What I believe we should move away from are purity narratives, whether white or black, which attempt to frame music in terms of authenticity.  That far I think Andrew Durkin's work could have been helpful if the form of authenticity he attacked was not one dealing with the fuzziness of musical scores but the ideologically and often racially charged notions of authentic musicality based on extra-musical cultural scripts around skin color, i.e. "real" white or black music.  The trouble is, as I've hinted at here and there before, those purity scripts have tended to be mediated by literate white liberals.  Raymond Knapp was more explicit about that issue in Making Light, his monograph on Haydn, camp and the legacy of German Idealism.

A good deal of the time when I read articles by authors proclaiming classical music needs to die or be reborn I regard that as a dubious argument.  The symphony has never quite taken hold in the United States.  We don't lack for a robust body of symphonic literature in American music, we lacked a critical establishment willing to take that musical work seriously in comparison to Beethoven and Wagner and other European masters.  As a guitarist I don't dismiss the beauty and value of the symphonic literature so much as I recognize it is worthy of study but not necessarily going to play out in a direct way in what I do as a guitarist composer.  I don't have Yamashita level chops to transcribe Mussorgsky.  I could maybe transcribe Hindemith works, for instance, that's workable, but chamber or piano music rather than symphonic music.

There are enough choral societies in the U.S. that I hope one will tackle a recording of the complete Coleridge Taylor cantata cycle at some point.  I'd rather that than recordings of more Beethoven choral music because while I love Beethoven's piano sonatas and string quartets and like his symphonies alright I find his choral music to be a chore at best.  Of the big name Classic era composers I like Haydn's choral music the best and find Beethoven drab and Mozart ... eh ... he sang, too, but I find I'm not much of a Mozart fan.  So, sure, I'd rather hear a full recording of the Coleridge-Taylor cycle, even if it's not considered "important" by music journalists, than yet another recording of Mozart's Requiem.

I have found that I have limited patience for arguments to the effect that classical music is Eurocentric or white supremacist.  That white supremacist cultures produced a lot of the people who created music that has made it into the classical music academic canon doesn't necessarily have to entail a rejection of the musical work.  To flip the script, I don't have a reason to believe that increased diversity from composers in the present means those contemporary composers are nicer people than Brahms or Beethoven or Haydn (it's really a bit difficult to imagine which composers would be nicer than Haydn, for some reason).

Coleridge-Taylor's work has some very fun hooks.  It may be a testament to his era of training he overplays his hooks a bit but overall I find this cantata charming.  I don't doubt it would be a blast to sing.  If you want to study the score ...

https://imslp.org/wiki/The_Song_of_Hiawatha%2C_Op.30_(Coleridge-Taylor%2C_Samuel)


retrospective documentary on China's one child policy, Brandon Yu mulls over the brutality of implementing the policy and how a recent documentary seeks to implicate only the state

We're living in an era in which people with concerns about the catastrophic possibilities the global ecosystem may face if the industrial and post-industrial nations don't change are almost front and center in progressive and liberal publications.  I've had conservationist sympathies much of my life ... but when I've read arguments for how and why the contemporary West needs to radically revise its energy foundation for urban functionality I wonder, often, if thinkers and writers have considered that it may be impossible to tackle those environmental issues without considering things as drastic as the one-child policy.  To put it more bluntly still, progressives with environmental concerns can talk about positive Malthusian as distinct from negative Malthusian policies all they want, the history of the enforced sterilization of those who were not considered fit to reproduce on the basis of race could be replicated at some point in the future more explicitly on the basis of educational attainment or what Marxist writers would call class.

Not that humanity hasn't been here before in the West, a thousand years ago theologians were concerned about how the underclass was breeding faster than agricultural methods had resources to feed them with.  We're basically "there" again here in the twenty-first century and this time around the sticky wicket may partly be that educated people can go back and look up how Catholic theologians were advising against reproduction out of concern for lack of resources to feed the exploding population.

Conservatives, often I think in bad faith, highlight totalitarian elements in progressive and leftist thought regarding the environment. I say I think conservatives can argue in bad faith about ecological disaster as a pretext to limit human freedom because conservatives did not defend traditionalist Catholic sexual ethics on the basis of "this will be good for the global ecological welfare of the planet".   The West is grappling, again, with the possibilities that the West has created crises for the planet that may not seem soluable apart from what are ultimately totalitarian actions.  If you can repackage people not having babies as a form of social freedom or even legal rights then you can bypass the larger global policy goal of having people having fewer people out of a fear that the contemporary Western level of consumption, if merely sustained (not to say anything of expanded out into the rest of the world as the consumer-activity derived basis for understanding human rights), could render the planet barren.

Conservatives can point out the changing of freedom to slavery and slavery to freedom a bit too easily.  But in mentioning conservatives I haven't clarified whether I mean some Russell Kirk style conservative, a neo-con, a libertarian or some variant of fascism.  But when it comes to Western concerns about global ecological collapse caused by Western consumption patterns a fascist and a communist are not necessarily going to be different if the observation is that the contemporary West has to make an abrupt course change to prevent environmental catastrophe.

Placing the welfare of humanity in general over the individual doesn't have to be just a fascist or a communist paradigm, it can also exist in some kind of neoliberal form, too, because an impulse on the part of those who feel and think in terms of an obligation to save humanity from its worst impulses can find ways to argue their cases.


...

During the 35 years when it was in effect, from 1980 to 2015, the one-child policy was often framed by the international media as a notable example of a strict government known for emphasizing the country over the individual. Despite moments of scrutiny, coverage of the rule in recent years—in both a heavily censored China and abroad—has mostly consisted of narratives quantifying the policy’s economic and demographic effects, rather than exploring the details of how it was carried out. Many commentators have characterized the law as an austere but reasonable sanction: At the time of the policy’s adoption, China’s government forecast widespread famine as the country’s population neared 1 billion people. As a result of the estimated 400 million births prevented, the standard of living in China has consistently climbed.

But the logic of pragmatism seems absurd, almost irrelevant, in light of the human costs laid out in One Child Nation. “In those days, women were abducted by government officials, tied up and dragged to us like pigs,” Yuan, the midwife, recalls in the documentary. She describes traveling the country performing sterilizations and abortions, most of which were coerced by family-planning officials. Parents who resisted were detained, their homes demolished, Yuan says. The most haunting scene of the film is wordless—a nearly unbearable sequence of images revealing what appear to be full-term fetuses discarded in garbage heaps.

As One Child Nation continues, the trail of horrors it depicts becomes long and winding. When China opened its doors to international adoption in 1992, many state-run orphanages became sites for human trafficking. Through her interviews, Wang learns about how newborns from families who violated the policy were kidnapped by family-planning officials and sold to orphanages, a detail that was repressed by the government (in the film, Wang speaks with a journalist who was eventually forced to flee to Hong Kong because of his reporting). To this day, many adoptees—and their families—find learning the truth about their origins nearly impossible.

A significant number of the babies sold were abandoned by their families or given to “matchmakers” for adoption. Many of the infants were girls given up by parents who hoped instead for a male child to carry on the family name. In one scene, Wang’s uncle recalls the loss of his newborn daughter, who was left on a meat counter in a market and died two days later when no one took her. Another of Wang’s relatives talks about how she gave away her own daughter to a human trafficker, fearing the child would die if abandoned.

Throughout One Child Nation, Wang never indicts her subjects, nor is her interview technique one of coaxing out truths. “These individuals did not have a choice. [Zhang and I] didn’t want [audiences] to look at them and think they are just evil or backwards or stereotypical,” Wang told me. Indeed, the stories in the film are complicated. Wang’s uncle says his mother demanded that he give his daughter away, threatening to commit suicide or to kill the baby herself before taking her own life. “I thought I could save her life by giving her away. But she ended up dead,” Wang’s uncle says, a sadness welling in his eyes. The moral calculus behind these situations—nurses performing forced abortions, families abandoning newborns, and traffickers (many of whom were saving babies from certain death) selling them—may seem muddied, but One Child Nation seeks to cast the state as the sole and true perpetrator.

I have come to believe in the last ten years that Americans venerate the power of  pre-emptive lethal force but this veneration can take different forms based on other social or political allegiances.  The red-state version can be seen in the cult of the gun and the cult of the soldier but the blue-state form favoring abortion does not seem, on the whole, to be better.  In both cases Americans celebrate or defend the right to use pre-emptive lethal force to defend an American lifestyle and I am not persuaded that in either case these defenses can be made in good faith while simultaneously rejecting the alternative stance.

Nor should Americans be too quick to imagine we haven't done variations of negative Malthusian eugenics practices. The enforced sterilization of Latina and Native women or the recommendation of sterilization of African American women doesn't seem better than the Chinese solution to its perceived population crisis.  China's one-child policy might be of historical significance more for the attempt to enforce it across every demographic category rather than on the basis of eugenics based policy attempted in the United States.  

Friday, August 16, 2019

Conlon Nancarrow Study 37 and Study 40 for player piano

Because ... why not?  I can post a link to it. Even though I love Haydn's music a whole lot more it doesn't mean I can't enjoy some stuff by Nancarrow, too.
37
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFz2lCEkjFk
40
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXFiq19-KSE

I consider myself pretty traditionalist in a lot of my musical interests but ... I also have a streak of sympathy for avant garde stuff, too. 

And I'm awaiting the release of that album of the guitar sonatas of Atanas Ourkouzounov whenever that's ready. :) 


an older piece by Melanie Benson Taylor at LARB on the ways in which liberals and conservatives use Native Americans as a political football without regarding more detailed histories

Melanie Benson Taylor wrote a piece a few years ago at LA Review of Books that sparked my interest in books by Alexandra Harmon, a scholar who has written books about Native Americans and law with a considerable specialization in Pacific Northwest Native American groups.  Her book Rich Indians: Native People and the Problem of Wealth in American History is on my to read list.  MBT wrote about how there is a stereotype regarding Native Americans liberals tend to have and it would be hard to do better than quote her.  If you've read Sherman Alexie's old riffs on how white progressives fabricated an imaginary perfect Indian who was in touch with the earth and didn't own slaves and wasn't killing rivals for fishing and hunting resources you will already have a general idea but ... :



...
Indians have simply functioned far too long and incoherently as ciphers for anti-establishment and anticapitalist idealism, and not just for white liberals. The phenomenon has been a national tradition of sorts at least since the Boston Tea Party, when the aggrieved subjects of a fledgling nation donned Mohawk disguises to toss their pecuniary burdens into the sea. Twenty-first-century Tea Partiers similarly protested Obama’s tax plan while garbed in homemade headdresses, warpaint, and signs that read “On Warpath Against More Taxes!,” “Paleface Taxes Too High,” and “Let Little Brave Keep Wampum” (this last directive affixed strategically to the shirt of a protester’s young child). Indians have been irresistible victim-symbols for anybody who wants to join a struggle against colonial-capitalist aggression.

But Indians have always been held to unfair standards of representation — expected to function as foils for not just our hopes but our deepest fears as Americans. While liberals have understandably partnered with the indigenous cause at Standing Rock, conservative pundits leaped at the chance to condemn Native Americans for their inveterate decision to stand as outsiders of polite society.

That Native Americans can be treated like a political football whose utility more or less begins and ends with their relevance to white establishment figures finding them useful is something I've noticed over the last twenty years to slow and steadily increasing annoyance. I'd write more about that if I felt like it but I don't, not for this post. 

...Our unwillingness to see these histories clearly prevents us from more balanced acts of contemporary witness and coalition. We have barely acknowledged the fact that many Native Americans and their tribes did not board charter buses to North Dakota, but have instead hitched their own wagons to the new administration, eager to see if the president’s commitments to self-determination will extend to Indian sovereignty. [emphasis added] Tribal leaders from the Navajo Nation, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and the Tlingit-Haida of Alaska have all voiced enthusiasm for the administration’s stated goals of energy development, job creation, and educational reform. Several Oklahoma nations have requested meetings with the new president to discuss ways to work toward their common objectives.

Trump’s own history of casino ownership has proven especially appealing for tribes keen to launch their own gaming enterprises, such as the Mashpee Wampanoag of Massachusetts, who have struggled to develop their first casino since winning a protracted federal recognition battle in 2007. In a statement posted on the tribe’s website, Chairman Cedric Cromwell announced, “The president has vowed to put America first. We are poised to assist the president in turning his words into action.” Jason Giles, member of the Muscogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma and executive director of the National Indian Gaming Association, likewise announced, “We’re going into this with open arms.”
These open arms have managed to shrug off Trump’s abundant incendiary remarks about Native Americans, including repeated references to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas.” More insidiously, Trump’s advisors have announced a plan to privatize oil and mineral extraction on reservation lands, which would essentially eradicate nearly a century of federally protected tribal sovereignty. Such a move promises a legal firestorm far more sweeping and enduring than the DAPL conflict. And yet, despite obvious opportunities for exploitation, the increased competitiveness could actually benefit many tribes’ coffers.

One of the proposal’s main supporters is Markwayne Mullin, co-chair of Trump’s Native American Affairs Coalition — himself an enrolled Cherokee tribal member. What drives such partnerships, ultimately, are the more immediate and tangible prospects of economic and social development in indigenous communities plagued by inordinately high poverty and crime rates, or very simply looking for their belated opportunity to take back and get ahead in ways that privileged Americans cannot always comprehend, and certainly should not judge.
...

Whether those tribes still find the Trump administration promising here in 2019 ... would have to dig a bit on that.  I'm reminded of something a relative once said about family land on a reservation ... the short version is that thanks to federal prohibitions on developing rainforest/old growth forest, there was basically nothing much that could be done to cultivate the resources.  That might be for reasons going as far back as the Burke Act and Dawes Act in terms of fractionation of land ownership but I digress. 

I recognize that there are a variety of cases to be made that Trump is a racist and so he may be ... but Native Americans could still, with a somewhat long memory, point out that Woodrow Wilson sure was a racist, and so was Theodore Roosevelt when it came to Indians.  It's not that racism is some positive thing as that contemporary criticism of Trump for his racism can present it as if it's more unique than it has historically been, on the one hand, and on the other the real sting in the assessment has more to do with the mind-numbing power of surveillance and executive power available to the President in our era ... although at that point the question as to why it's terrifying for Trump to have such power that Obama had tends not to come up ... which is one of a variety of reasons why I have begun to distinguish between liberal, left, and progressive writers and thinkers since 2016. 

Even though I've tended to think of myself as moderately conservative (and a friend of mine in my early college years went so far as to tell me I was a conservative in an Edmund Burke form) I can be sympathetic to progressive writers and thinkers who argue that the United States should embrace the application of the ideals expressed in the founding documents..  Contemporary narratives that put a great deal of emphasis on the white supremacist aspect of the founding of the United States are not wrong to point out that aspect ... if we're talking about pressing for the implementation of policies that let American citizens benefit from a more just and consistent observation of policies that express egalitarian ideals ... but if the rhetoric starts and stops at America being founded upon white racism because slavery this roughly half Native American will disagree. 

There was plenty of slavery practiced by Native Americans for centuries before whites showed up.  It's not even exactly the case that all processes of Native and white trade and relationship played out in the Hollywood tragic sense of mythology.  A lot of bad happened but, here in the Pacific Northwest for instance, Natives could practice forms of slavery that whites found ghastly but whites and Natives, in the earliest stages of interaction (aka in the Bostons and King George men phase, for those who have read on this topic) people could sorta mostly get along, give or take some tense confrontations. 

All that is to say that I have found it annoying that the kinds of folks I've run into online tend to be red state or blue state in ways where all too often the often implicit reason they bother to invoke Native Americans at all is as a trump card for their own ideological and political commitments.  Or as Adolph Reed Jr. has been putting it, there's a type of anti-racism as ideology that is not concerned with practical policy goals or political activity so much as expressions of righteousness on the part of people sufficiently enmeshed in establishment strata to want to feel good about themselves.  Reed was writing about how a Ta-nehisi Coates can be annointed as a thinker for his case for reparations regardless of whether or not the policies even happen, but I'm thinking of how the relevance of such a criticism could be applied to white liberal and conservative invocations of Native American history as a merely axiomatic rationale for commitments they are already settled on even if there was no Native American history to consult. 

In sum, conservatives annoy me by invoking Native Americans as a case study for why government involvement is prima facie bad.  A bit too often it's a specious nature of the invocation--there's a difference between saying that the United States government ignoring and violating treaties is bad and saying that the United States government taking any regulatory action of any kind is automatically bad. 

Liberals, however, are not necessarily any better.  Native Americans who exist at such times as Democrats are angry about voter suppression activities that they believe could cost them elections are not necessarily expressing anger because they have necessarily done things for Native Americans.  As Sherman Alexie used to complain, the average Native American can be much more socially conservative than the most socially conservative white guy, it's not a foregone conclusion that people of color will lean Democratic because the party machinery assumes such should be the case.  Native Americans were willing and able to fight in most of the wars conducted by the United States even when they had neither citizenship nor legal rights other groups were, from time to time, able to bring to bear on court cases.  In other words, it's one thing for liberals to say it's awful the United States broke all its treaties with Native American peoples and another to actually let them cut down their own trees and mine their natural resources that may be barred from extraction due to environmental protection policies.  As recently as the 1970s American Indians got arrested for fishing and hunting on their traditional lands in the Pacific Northwest, i.e. Washington state, one of the bluest of blue electoral regions. 

Now there can be stuff from the realm of critical race theory I find interesting to read from time to time.  There's a piece at Mere Orthodoxy with a title that invites readers to consider an irony, that white supremacist ideology began to be formulated by Spanish and Portugese imperialists and colonialists in the fifteenth through sixteenth centuries, but their forms of whiteness and white supremacy steeped in a Catholic cultural milieu of colonial expansion were overtaken by more Anglo-Saxon forms of whiteness and white supremacy, leading, over the centuries, to an ironic development in which Latin Americans and Latino populations are viewed as not white whose forebears first formulated why they thought whites were superior to aboriginal Americans and Africans.

https://mereorthodoxy.com/suffering-our-forefathers-sins-a-latinos-reflection-on-white-supremacy/

But this gets into a blunt, indelicate matter, that when people argue that America's original sin involved native genocide and mass slavery this is lately cast in literally as well as figuratively black and white terms, per Adolph Reed's criticism of the ideological cast forms of anti-racism take in his reading of Coates.  There's a propensity to view racism within the binaries of oppressor and oppressed which has some value but which can ignore that the legacy of the Spanish as imperialists and colonizers is the most ghastly when it comes to Native Americans--the English and the French could be bad but compared to the Spanish they were far from the worst.  The trouble is that accounts of racist animus against Latino populations on the part of Anglo-Saxon whites in the United States can't entirely ignore the Spanish legacy of attempting to exterminate Native Americans along the southwest coast of North America, or can they? 

The victims of racist ideology in one context can be ghastly perpetrators of it in another context and it is this aspect, in particular, that can seem to get glossed over in popular level journalism that aims to have a conversation about race.  One of the pastors at my church shared in a sermon how he grew up hearing that whites treated blacks terribly and though that was assuredly true he was confronted with the reality that black animosity against Asian Americans was also something real needing repentance from.  In my own experience I've heard Native American relatives regard Mexicans as more or less job-stealing rapists so as unsettling as that kind of talk is it's important to remember that being part of a people historically exploited by people in power shouldn't exempt us from examining racial prejudices in our communities.  We can replicate the evils brought upon us in how we attempt to address what we regard as evils.  I want to avoid that.  I can affirm both that Native Americans in the region I've lived in were treated badly by whites via state and federal government while also affirming that their practices of slavery were ghastly and inhumane and that I'm glad those practices were ended.  But I can also have some appreciation for how white-Native relations here in the Pacific Northwest are, in some good ways, not like the stereotypical understandings of white-Native relations so often recounted in popular imagination and popular culture from the legacies of other Native groups in other regions.  More on this, I hope, later.

The older I get and the more I read the more I find myself annoyed by liberal and conservative whites attempting to shoehorn Native American histories spanning the continent over the course of millenia into a one-size-fits-all age of Trump master narrative.  I couldn't be a pure-blooded Native American or white person if I wanted to and I emphatically don't want to.  Fortunately that's moot.  But within the context of contemporary racial discourse, to borrow from Adolph Reed's work a bit more, there's a sticky wicket in that Native American people from the Pacific Northwest don't necessarily always "read" as that to people acclimated to discussing race histories in terms of plains Indians or Indians from the Texas region or Indians from the New England area or California.  As I've been slowly getting into some of the scholarly work on Pacific Northwest tribes in the last few years I might end up writing other things later but, for now, this is more of a simple post of frustration that when I look at how white liberals and conservatives make use of Native Americans it's ... just shameless. 

As John McWhorter has put it about the kind of anti-racism he's been seeing in the last few years, the problem with this approach is that it time and again shows that it's not people really being involved in concrete ways to make things better for people who have been discriminated against as it is about certain types of white people wanting to feel good about themselves and their current political commitments.   American Indians lived through the era of Woodrow Wilson and they'll make it through the era of Trump ... and it would be nice(r) if white liberals and conservatives could dial back the apoplectic apocalyptic panic mode a bit in invoking Native Americans for causes that ... I sometimes feel are mercenary clickbait. 

There's a book or three I hope to write about later after I've finished some more reading but tonight it's about time to wrap this post up.