Reconstructionism

Day 102: Wednesday

Good Morning Zak,

Zak this morning I find myself in the middle of a very busy season as well as of Umberto Eco’s Trattato di semiotica generale.  I’m not really sure which of the two deserves more of my attention.

What’s the difference between a gerund and a gerundive? …

The reason I bring up Eco is… well… how can I explain?

That!  That phenomenon is exactly the reason I’m bringing up Eco.  You know that feeling, where you have something to say, but you can’t seem to find the words to say it. How does that happen?  I mean, I use words to think, don’t I?  How could I have a thought for which there are no words?

… About four hours of excruciatingly dry explanation.

Or have you ever said a word over and over so many times that it seemed to lose it’s meaning?  Frog legs, frog legs, frog legs… frog legs…

We’ll there’s a word for that.  It’s called jamais vu…  The neglected cousin lurking in the shadow of déjà vu‘s limelight.

Anyway, my question is basically this: which comes first, thoughts or words?  As I put it a while back:

Which came first, the chicken, or the word we use to distinguish said young-domestic-fowl-raised-for-meat-and-dairy-products from the so-called “egg”?

Or maybe the title of that post captured the question more concisely:

“What are words, even?!”

Well, it’s a difficult question… one that would take a lot of words to answer.  Faced with problems like these my first impulse is usually to read some ancient Greek:

“In the beginning was the word…” (John 1:1)

I guess that solves it.  Words come first.  That’s what that means right?

But what about every time you’ve tried to say something and the words just wouldn’t come?  What about that time you forgot the word for piano and accidentally called it a “pumpkin”?  Or when you had an entire conversation with someone about your pet cat before realizing that the words “your pride and joy” were probably intended to refer to your daughter instead?  Or what about that time you gazed longingly into someone’s eyes, and all the brokenness of the world seemed to somehow reconstruct itself for just a minute—but the only words that would come to you were a dry exposition on the meaning of the term fungibility in modern philosophical usage?

What… are those examples a little overly specific?

Anyway, one thing Umberto Eco brings to the table is his insistence on the general semiotic function of culture as a whole, not just of language.  Zak, I believe there may be some contributors on this blog who feel that language is a precondition of moral agency.  Eco says that (moral) intelligence can exist without language but semiotic function is the same thing as intelligence.

I’m not sure if I feel language has much to do with morality.  I do believe there’s something moral about expressive clarity… you know, that magical phraseological tension that happens only intermittently between the usual drunken babbling of life.  Every once in a while you pick up a book and encounter this mystical sort of translinguistic purity… something that seems to escape the limits of words and directly expresses l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.

The so-called deconstructionist perspective that’s dominated literary theory since the later part of the last century seems to represent a breach of faith in that Amor which gives structure to the universe.  On the one hand there’s nothing wrong with our desire to move beyond the pedantry of a purely structuralist reading; it’s perfectly understandable.

But at the same time, there’s no escaping the fact that the very act of reading is predicated on structure.  The moment the receiver of a semiotic expression loses faith in the structural integrity of that message, he or she ceases to be a reader.  A reader is someone who intentionally seeks to reconstruct the coherent meaning of semiotic fragments.  Human contact simply cannot exist without that reconstructive process.

It’s a good thing that semiotics have been deconstructed.  I think Derrida’s school would be cool with me saying this: without deconstructing, how would we ever be able to reconstruct?

Frog legs,

Tim

 

 

Read all about it

Day 101: Tuesday

Morning Tim!

I lament not writing sooner. It’s been far too long.

We had a sermon this past Sunday that I found interesting. It was ultimately about grace, and the blessing that it is. He gave an example that resonated with me, and I wanted to share.

The story is about a man, watching a sporting even at the top of the stadium. Eager for the game and wanting to take part to the full, he grabs a plate of nachos and a beer. As the game goes on, so too do the beers. The team is losing, he is frustrated. He continues to cheer. Cheer and drink. The game passes, the home team notching a loss

The game passes, the home team notching a loss. The man stays after, finishing his last sip. At this point, many have started to pour out of the stadium. He looks down, like tiny ants they seem. He slips over the railing, and falls, bottle clinched in his hand.

This is like all of us, the story would go. We are all eager for the game of life, and as the innings go on, we find bad things can happen. The sin in our life, like the cup, pries its way into our senses, first impairing the way we see then being the lens through which we do so.

But that’s not where the story ends. It has two possible endings. Read like a newspaper, it could go one of two ways.

Imagine the owner of the building knew this kind of thing happened. He prepped for it — perhaps with a large circus net over the railing. Maybe even a giant jet-pack, binoculars in hand, ready to scour the skies as necessary.

One way this story ends is without this owner. The story, if made about us, reads poorly. “Drunken man freefalls to death, clinging to vice”. Perhaps slightly nicer, depending on the paper you read — but that’s the gist.

The other way is with the owner. The story dramatically changes. Not only is the man saved, the drunken man isn’t a central figure at all. Instead, having faded to the background, the story tells of a hero who, without any contribution from me, the drunken man, saved a life that was otherwise in ruin, otherwise headed directly to a dark end.

I’m not sure why this resonated so well. Perhaps because, as with most of us, I love to make things about me. Reading in a newspaper what ‘me’ gets is sad, though. Perhaps it was the way the story reads to give full credit, inspiring others who were to read that paper about the one they should emulate. Perhaps it’s because there is an acknowledgement that we are blessed — but that we also get thirsty. If we aren’t regularly drinking of a cup other than that of sin, we will choose to quench our thirst some other way.

Until tomorrow,

Zak

Whining and Lament

Day 100: Wednesday

Good Morning Zak,

So I really enjoyed your post about the top 1%.  To answer your question, I think I may be in the top 1% of devil’s advocates… or maybe pedants.

I think I’d prefer the title, devil’s advocate.  “Pedant” sounds a little too severe; it makes me think of the surprise concert lectures some artistic directors feel compelled to throw in after pieces of an otherwise perfectly pleasant evening.

Nothing against lectures in general, but giving them for an audience that’s expecting music is like giving eggplant to someone who thought they were getting chocolate cake.

Anyway, the point is, I’d like to take a minute to play devil’s advocate to your concept of the top 1 %

From your post: “being in the top 1% in the world in musical ability won’t cut it”

Now, Zak, I think you’ll agree that when we talk about being in the top 1%, we’re talking about something objective.  For there to be a top 1%, there needs to be a definitive ‘good’ and a definitive ‘bad’ that appertains directly to the object in question.

Today’s Sames and Opposites: what’s the difference between morality and mortality?

Most people have the intuition that morality is an object that works like that.  There are good moral choices and there are bad moral choices.  (Whether we can discern between the two is, of course, an entirely separate question.)

Naturally, it’s the letter t.  Let’s pause a moment to appreciate the combination hashtags on this post: #mortality, #funny

But when it comes to things like music or the arts in general… there our intuition is generally less clear.  It doesn’t seem impossible that the labels of good and bad art might derive less from the object than from the subject who perceives it.

All this is just my eggplanty way of saying that it’s not obvious whether there really is a top 1% for aesthetic decisions.

On the other hand, not all decisions that an artist makes are so subjective…  What’s the difference between poetic lamentation and plain and simple whining?

Beatrice hath betaken herself to heaven,
on high in that dominion where God’s angels
are at peace, and you, O ladies, are left
bereft of her.

-Dante, Vita Nova XXXI

That’s one way to elegize.  Here’s another:

Alas, with what deaf ears
Death hears my wretched cries
and savagely refuses
to close my weeping eyes!

–Boethius, Cons. Phi. I.m I

Now, I won’t pass judgment on someone in pain; I know that only makes things worse. I wouldn’t judge an artist for writing a lament one way or another… However, that doesn’t change the objective fact that whining is like fecal matter where you’re expecting eggplant.

news-1426352673-9536_large-1

Remains from Pompeii Volcano

To be fair to Boethius, I must point out that the author himself includes a sober palinode shortly after the passage cited above (I.m II).

What I’m trying to say is that even in the arts we don’t really have time for this kind of nonsense.  There’s very little time.  As each of us slowly parishes from the Earth, we get to decide what kind of expression to make along the way.  We can whine or we can make a sound of thankfulness, but we can’t delay the inevitable end.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Name that sound challenge

Day 99: Monday

Morning, Tim!

I have missed you. I suspect you are holding off writing in order to get the 100th post. While normally I’d be stubborn, I’ll let you have this one I suppose.

Hoping to entice you back, I have a challenge for you.

Name this sound:

Now, to clarify, I don’t mean give it a name. I know your kind.

I mean identify this sound.

Happy to provide hints in the comments for you, so just ask 🙂

Until tomorrow,

Zak

The top 1%

Day 98: Tuesday

Morning, Tim!

I went to a beautiful concert last night. The program was truly beautiful:

civic_orchestra.jpg

Beethoven Overture to Egmont
Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn
Mendelssohn Symphony No. 5 (Reformation)

I was also well rested and, thankfully, had less stress from work and school. I was able to truly appreciate the music.

One thing I observed during the break was how good these musicians were, and how difficult it would be to ‘make it’. In school, being in the top 1% (99th percentile) on standardized tests would be remarkable. In a room of 100, that means you’re the best. Which is very impressive. Yet despite that, being in the top 1% in the world in musical ability won’t cut it — after all, with a world population of 7.5 billion people, being of 1 in 75 million may not work. In fact, according to some quick google searches (look at the rigor I put into that!), total professional musicians may well be under 1 million people worldwide.

Yet this got me thinking. Everyone has to be in the top 1% at something — be it music composition, photography, juggling, baking, banking …or even facts. In fact, many top 1%s might be on facts — related to their job, sports interests, family — or even random things, such as facts about trains, planes, cranes, or the ever-present aches and pains.

What things are you in the top 1%? Knowledge, skills, etc.

Looking forward to comments and learning more!

Until tomorrow,

Zak

A Child Could Have Drawn it

Day 97: Friday

Good Morning Zak,

So it’s no secret that lots of people find contemporary art disillusioning. When most people think of modern art they probably think of scribbles and random shapes and lines. It’s become almost a cliche; these proported masterpieces look like they could have been painted by a child.

Well that’s exactly the premise of the project I’ve begun with my students at the elementary school: if a child could draw it, then why not ask one to go ahead and do so?

img_1258

My example of the project

We’ve been studying Kandinsky. You know, the random-shapes guy.

Today’s “Sames and Opposites:”

IMG_1257

“Area for dogs”

Humans are different from dogs; there are no areas for humans.

Seriously, none!  The dogs have absolutely no reservations about following us even into church…

But back to Kandinksy.  As the poster-boy of the so-called Expressionist movement, Kandinsky is one of those figures that shows up in every textbook.

kandinsky-comp-8

Composition VIII, Kandinsky

So how random are these shapes, actually?

Well, in music, we tend to associate the Expressionism with the so-called Second Viennese School, a movement that probably represented the acme of structural rigor in Western Music history.  Like, these guys were intense.  You wouldn’t wanna sit down to tea and cookies with one of them.

So anyway, it’s basically the exact opposite of random.  The music of Weber, Berg, and Schoenberg is about as far from random as you can possibly get.

BTW I know it might seem reckless to just haphazardly mush all different art forms together under the same umbrella term of ‘Expressionism’, but… well… it probably is reckless.  The main reason we do it is because of Schoenberg’s several famous encounters with Kandinsky, who was a synesthete.

Synesthesia is the phenomenon in which one type of sensory stimulus (such as Schoenberg’s music) causes a person a second type of sensory experience (imagining colors, for example).  No cure for this has yet been found… fortunately.

The funny thing about Expressionism and the Second Viennese School is that when people say the music sounds random, well, frankly, they’re right. When Schoenberg told his student, John Cage, that he had no sense of harmonic structure, Cage—in his typical chillness—just did away with structure all together.

What surprised some people was that the new music of Cage and the American school ended up sounding basically the same, despite being—quite literally—completely random. Now days people flip coins, roll die, and use other aleatoric processes to choose pitches.

You heard me, aleatoric.  It’s a more pretentious version of the word “random.”

Frankly the only thing wrong with the phrase, “a child could have made that” is the connotation.  The negativity is insulting to children.  As far as the art itself goes, though, the observation is entirely accurate.  Contemporary sensibilities on both sides of the Atlantic are united by a prevailing interest in child-like wonder over narrative positivity.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Sames and Opposites

Day 96: Tuesday

Morning, Tim!

I disagree with you. The United States has lots of colors, at least as many as Italy. But you’ve got some other great points. Like Python is great. I enjoy it. Jumping in:

I’m pretty sure drink-calories work just the opposite of colors.

I laughed heartily at work. Outloud. Couldn’t control it. I love this kind of observation. It reminds of me Demetri Martin, who does a bit on sames and opposites. An example

A musical is the same as a burlap sack
I would not want to be in either

Lots of things can be related. Isn’t that a joy?

  • Yarn is the same as headphones. I untangle more than use them.
  • Bed room and a bedroom are not the same. Direct opposites in dimensions, in fact.
  • Blenders are the same as toasters. Both had lazy namers.

Look forward to your observations of sames and opposites around you!

Until tomorrow,

Zak

p.s., the bed room / bedroom was a stretch, but I wanted to weave that joke in somehow 😉