On Intention (part 3)

(read from the beginning)

Tim: On this rare occasion, while I’m in the lead, allow me to reciprocate your question from earlier. Why do you pursue your profession? Why are you in the health care business?

Zak: To help people. A lot of adults are forced to work just for money. I count myself fortunate that my line of work can also be altruistic.

Tim: That sounds generally reasonable, but less so in the context of our current discussion. What if your actions don’t effect the good ends you have in mind? What if your company just devolves into another one of many cases of corporate greed in America? Then you would be only another business man.

Zak: So you’re a communist?

Tim: No, today I’m too busy being a fatalist to be anything else. I don’t propose a solution to systemic avarice, I only recognize it as a problem.

Zak: But you’re not only a fatalist, you’re also a miscreant. This “massive structuralist mechanism” of yours, if it’s not a machine, then what is it?

Tim: It’s the fatal consequence of a vast web of interdependent states.

Zak: Interdependent states? States of the world?

Tim: If you like. Or of the language that construes human experience within that world.

Zak: But how are they interdependent? There is structure, but what kind of structure? Is it communist or monarchical?

Tim: Well…

Zak: I’m almost afraid to ask: returning to language specifically, does one linguistic decision determine those that follow, in some kind of hierarchy, or are all decisions created equally?

Tim: Have you seen the way I write poetry?

Zak: That’s why I was afraid to ask.

Tim: But I will concede. Generally speaking, in order for language to function, a society or an individual must make some decisions before others, and those preceding decisions necessarily limit the ones that follow.

Zak: For example?

Tim: For example. When the Anglos, the Saxons, and the Jutes collectively decided that the porto-english language would not adopt the Romantic system of grammatical gender, they may have limited the structural function that gender could play in the society at large. Not all nouns would necessarily carry a feminine or masculine connotation, the attribution of adjectives would be more ambiguous, and male/female would be more of a private distinction than a social institution.

Zak: And hence the gender distinction is supposed to apply not at all to public social functions, like the work place, the family etc, but only to the bedroom.

Tim: Somehow that is supposed to be the case at present, although this structural mechanism will continue to guide society toward its natural consequence. We have proto-english speakers to thank, at least in part.

Zak: Ok. So each structural choice is predicated on the ones that come before it.

Tim: Where are you going with this?

Zak: Precisely where we should have begun: providence.

Tim: I knew you had a trick up your sleeve.

Zak: In fact. This whole structuralist mechanism of yours consists in a series of contingent entities. New words are predicated on old ones, subordinate clauses depend on main ones, etc. But the chain of dependency can’t regress infinitely—

Tim: —Or can it?

Zak: I’m a classicist, so no: there must at some point be a primal Word from which all language derives its meaning. A Word which means nothing other than itself. Fate, then, is not actually fate at all. The whole universe is really one massive Text, written by the authorial hand of providence.

But the will of Zeus was carrying out its end.

‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for evil, plans to give you a hope and a future.’

One must wonder whether your philological notion of textual “corruption” is not blasphemous to the Divine Intention, which is, of necessity, fully realized through the intelligent manipulations of the structure that recontextualizes and redeems human fallibility. Is not the authorial intent of man rather a corruption of the all encompassing Text written by the hand of God?

Tim: Then all human effort is vain?

Zak: How does that follow?

Tim: All literature written by men is like a palimpsest from the medieval period. Just like a medieval scribe, God intends to, and will, scrape off the original writing to make space for a new text. Then what’s the point of writing the original?

Zak: You’re the one that bothers with that. You should tell me, what’s the point of composition?

Tim: It’s pointless.

Zak: Have you read Boethius’ On The Consolation of Philosophy?

Tim: I’ve read the menus at some very fateful steakhouses.

Zak: Then what about Seneca’s essay On Providence.

Tim: With equal regret, I have experienced providence’s intentions for that much meat.

Zak: You should really learn Latin. Get some culture in your life.

Tim: A fair critique.

Zak: Anyway, we mustn’t suppose that recontextualizing is the same thing as undermining or invalidating the original. It is, in fact, much more artistic. It’s about finding unusual uses for preexisting material. God is a master jazz improviser who allows himself the liberty to make mistakes, always with the foresight and virtuosity to work around those indeterminacies so that they don’t result as mistakes at all. A “wrong note” or a “corruption” might easily turn into a highlight of the whole composition.

Tim: You make me feel unconscionably warm and fuzzy.

Zak: If to contradict the Divine was a mistake on the part of man, that blemish rises to something more beautiful in the context of soteriological sacrifice. Contradiction, after all, presupposes that the entities involved are not one in the same thing; when the Divine substitutes himself on our behalf, this presupposition is rendered false, and the contradiction that follows becomes ineffectual.

Tim: So the significance of human action depends on the structural context determined by Providence.

Zak: Precisely.

Tim: But it’s strange, isn’t it?

Zak: What?

Tim: Do you really think that context and structure are the source of meaning, or is it the other way around? Is my meaning the consequent of the relationships between words, or are those relationships determined by what I intend to express?

Zak: Maybe a bit of both. Why?

Tim: If Providence is sovereign over structure, my intentions do not factor in at all, because in the face of Divine Imperialism they are powerless to determine meaningful linguistic relationships. This is all very existential. It means that we have no access to the authorial intent of our fellow man.

Zak: I do suppose you’re right… I do… unless those intentions and the strategy of Providence should result in one and the same thing.

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On Intention (part 2)

(read part 1)

Tim: It’s just… Let me ask you this—did Beethoven write the ninth symphony “rationally and thoughtfully”?

Zak: I imagine he did.

Tim: And Einstein, was he mad and absent-minded when he discovered Relativity?

Zak: I see no reason to believe so.

Tim: And what about that calculated feat of engineering, was Mr. Andrews at all perfunctory when designing the Titanic?

Zak: No, I suppose he was not.

Tim: Then explain to me this. Why on earth, when to all appearances these men acted perfectly reasonably and in good conscience, why or for what shortcoming did their respective works become the foundation of the atomic bomb, the boat grave of more than 1,500 people, and a favorite music to unify that certain nationalist party during the former half of last century? What moral fault did these failures reflect?

Zak: Well I don’t know.

Tim: So Good intentions, at least in this case, don’t equate to Good ends?

Zak: In this case they do not.

Tim: Zak, have you ever been to a frat party?

Zak: My school was too Christian.

Tim: Have you seen the way some people hug each other when they’ve been apart for a few minutes?

Zak: You’ll have to be more specific.

Tim: That absurdly over-the-top gesture. You know, some people think it makes them look high class. They seem like they’ve had too much coffee or something.

Zak: hmm.

Tim: In Milan people kiss each other. Right cheek then left. But sometimes they just kiss the air, sometimes it’s a very empty formality… like a woman finally telling a man for the first time after ten years that she loves him, thereupon only to leave him.

Zak: That’s very specific.

Tim: The point is, what’s the moral weight of those words: “I love you”? Are Good gestures always equivalent to Good will?

Zak: I suppose they are not.

Tim: So Good outcome does not entail Good intention nor Good intention Good outcome.

Zak: It risks appearing so.

Tim: “It risks appearing so?” Now you just sound silly; if only there were an effective way to translate those Platonic Greek phrases.

Zak: εὖγε!

Tim: Further to that point, I’d like to take a moment as the author of this dialogue, to personally apologize for its aesthetic failures. I assure you that they are not the outcome of bad intention, only of bad planning. Usually I like to make my characters vague and mysterious enough that the reader can’t tell if they’re boring. In this case, I didn’t have the time or energy, so the secrete’s out: my characters are two dimensional at root.

Zak: Are you calling me shallow?

Tim: Not you, just your persona.

Zak: Got it. Well I’m sure the readers can overlook that. The philosophic pedantry is entertaining enough in itself.

Tim: That’s very generous of you. I guess sometimes bad writing is better than good writing. Anyway, as I was saying, we appear to have very little control over the outcome of our actions.

Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown.
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.

We’re all caught up in this massive structuralist mechanism. I wouldn’t call it a machine, but I understand why some people might have a predilection for that image. As each of us slowly parishes from this life, we are overwhelmed by external forces over which we exhibit no agency. All this runs contrary to intuitions about our moral capacity for action.

Zak: Moral action is impossible?

Tim: Well the issue is essentially this: I may have control over my own use of language, but insofar as significance is predicated on context, I cannot control that, because I can’t control the language of those around me. In that case, what’s the point of being able to control one’s own words in the first place?

Zak: I’m not sure I follow.

Tim: Perhaps Beethoven wrote a symphony which, to him, expressed the beauty of the human experience and the brotherhood of man. For all that intention, he could do nothing to stop posterity from contextualizing it as an expression radical nationalism… nor, for that matter, from repurposing it yet again, this time as the official anthem of the United Nations. At the present moment the piece may happen to enjoy good fortune, but the whole case just speaks to the fact that language is whore. She submits freely to anyone and everyone.

Zak: Indeed, context matters. But usually I’m the one to point out the futility of the arts. Where are you going with this?

Tim: I have no control over where I’m going.

Zak: Hmm. Then let me ask you this—why do you compose music? Is it just to dwell on the powerlessness of human existence?

Tim: It’s a good question. A very strategic one.

Zak: So what? Is composition just another thing you can’t control? You would stop if you could?

Tim: I have no way of knowing what I would do if I could. But the whole crises forces us to reconsider what it means to be an author and what moral duty is involved, if any. Like Aeneas, the author is tossed and thrown at the whims of the high sea. He has essentially no control over where he will end up, but he may have an intention.

Zak: So authorial intent is important?

Tim: I don’t know how important it is from the perspective of the reader, but the creative processes certainly presupposes some form of intention. One may defer causation to a plethora of external sources, but at some point, supposing that even in a small way the author is a liberal agent, he must exercise a certain degree of will in every action, including that of poetry.

Zak: Then he has an intention, but it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

Tim: But it does.

Zak: How so?

Tim: It simply does—as simply and surly as Beethoven is not accountable for World War II. Why outcome should matter is what needs explaining. Intention, as our intuitions tell us, is the central subject of moral discourse; if an intention is good, it is Good without reference to anything outside itself.

Zak: Go on.

Tim: If we are honest, it’s easy to recognize that the best kind of goodwill is the kind that’s indifferent of the object to which it is referred. The Just man donates to charity not because he thinks his money will be useful, but only because he wishes to express that he cares. That willful act of expression stands for itself. It relies on no audience (rhetorical or otherwise) and even no actual beneficiary. The potential situation, which exists inside the mind of the man donating, suffices as context to give the action meaning.

Zak: But the actual outcome is irrelevant?

Tim: The Just man’s intentions, not his fortunes, are what we have in mind when we call him a “good” person.

Zak: Then reading consists in uncovering that first intention, that potential situation, which has been corrupted by external circumstances, such as social context and error in textual transmission.

Tim: Now you’re thinking like a philologist. And I thought I was the one living in Italy for too long.

Zak: So you accept this word, “corruption.”

Tim: I’m a fatalist, aren’t I?

Zak: Today you are. Tomorrow you’ll be something different. I meanwhile will keep on strategizing over my same chess game.

(continue reading)

On Intention

Zak: I went down to see the Peiraieus yesterday with Glaucon son of Ariston.

Tim: Who? You saw what?

Zak: Not much.  There were some rocks that used to be a building I think.  I guess punctuality is kind of important when it comes to attending sacred rites.

Tim: You…

Zak: Relatively speaking I wasn’t late.  I’ve seen what time your family shows up to church on Sundays.  Then again, not all sacred rituals are the same.

Tim: How’s that?

Zak: I mean… things would be different if I’d shown up late to your sister’s wedding…

Tim: You mean your wedding?

Zak: Do you know the legal ramifications of someone saying ‘I do’ with no one else at the alter?

Tim: Wait, are you referring to ancient Greece?

Zak: But you do find it curious then.

Tim: Curious?

Zak: The way context affects language.  The way ‘do’ doesn’t mean the same thing in the restroom as it would at an alter…

Tim: Oh, now I see where this is going.  Before—

Zak: —An unfortunate phrase.  At least in this context.  Anyway, my point is this: language is at once the omni-subsuming stage where all moral dramas take place and also the most relative, contextually-dependent instrument available to human use.  It couldn’t be more relative if it were a series of very expensive slits cut into a blank canvas.  Nothing could be more morally involved than the decision to say ‘I do’ at the alter, but saying it in the bathroom is only embarrassing.

Tim: Point taken.  So morality is relative?

Zak: Not at all!  Life is guided by a bus driver who’s drunk himself silly, but he knows exactly where he’s going.

Tim:  I’m confused.  Isn’t that a paradox?

Zak: Life’s full of paradoxes.

Tim: But you usually aren’t.  You’ve got a trick up your sleeve.

Zak: I do… I do… but like a good chess player, I’m saving it for later.

At this point, the conversation lingered as the participants took a moment to appreciate the exquisitely subtle use of foreshadow on the part of the author.

Tim: Okay, then riddle me this.  How does one define the Good in relation to linguistic arbitration?

Zak: Go on.

Tim: If we suppose that language consists in a hierarchical structure of paradigmatic opposition—

Zak: Wohoo, wohoo, wohoo.  Don’t get too excited.

Tim: I only mean from a semiotic—

Zak: Bless you!  Here’s a tissue.

Tim: Well what words can I use then?

Zak: Most of them.  I just happen to know you really wanted to say “semiotic” for no good reason.

Tim: I guess that’s fair.

Zak: As you were saying, language consists in a series of contrasting sounds.  (We like to call those sounds “words” where I come from.)

Tim: Fine.  And these different words have meaning in relation to other words.

Zak: Sure.  Like the word “loquacious” or “pedantic”…

Tim: Yeah, or “laconic” or “philistine” or “Podsnappery”…

Zak: And not to be overtly patronizing, but how exactly do all these words “have meaning in relation to other words”?

Tim: Well they contrast with them.

Zak: In the sense that, if I looked up “loquacious” in the dictionary, right beside your picture I’d see a string of other words: perhaps “using large, unnecessary vocabulary, long since rendered obsolete in the post-Hemingway age.  Antonyms: laconic.”

Tim: Exactly.  Words having meaning relative to other words.

Zak: And your question is?

Tim: My question is what constitutes the Good when it comes to linguistic decisions?  Which word does the Just man choose between those we’ve just cited?

Zak: Well it depends on context.

Tim: Walked right into that one.  But suppose the context is known.

Zak: But it isn’t known.  What’s that poetic mind of yours good for if you only use it to obsess about bow ties?

Tim: Fine… The context… Suppose you showed up late to some kind of sacred ritual…

Zak: What kind of ritual?

Tim: An ancient Roman sacrifice.

Zak: Delicious.  What’s on the table?

Tim: A two-year-old Heifer.

Zak: Nothing but the finest.  The gods must be huffing away on their lard fumes.

Tim: But you missed the whole thing.  The procession, the liver examination, the anal retentive… well… everything.

Zak: An inauspicious beginning.  So what’s the language decision?

Tim: The priest decides to cut you some slake in the form of a nice juicy rib—heifers have ribs, right?

Zak: It’s a good thing you’re a humanist.

Tim: Anyway, there’s an old lady there who’s just appalled at the whole thing.  She’s been complaining the whole time that you, the priest and the heifer were all going to tick off the divinities.

Zak: Naturally.

Tim: When everyone starts to dig in she’s all, “so how’s the meat, need some tardy sauce?” or something like that.  How does the Just man respond?

Zak: Well how is the meat?

Tim: What do you mean?  It’s fine, or whatever.

Zak: Spoken like a just man.

Tim: So the Just man just says “it’s fine?”  But why?  How does he make that decision?

Zak: I presume he makes it the same way one makes any moral decision.  He weighs all possible outcomes and chooses the one that’s most favorable.

Tim: So the one that benefits the most people to the greatest extent?

Zak: If you like, I suppose.

Tim: But how the heck is he supposed to know that?  What if saying the meat is fine will throw the crazy lady into a fit of righteous indignation in which she sets fire to the temple—

Zak: Stone doesn’t burn.  It’s a good thing you’re a humanist.

Tim: Or replying, “it’s terrible.  My appetite is spoiled by profound guilt.” would lead her to depression.

Zak: Then you better not say that.

Tim: But how are you supposed to know?

Zak: Tim.  Morality is just like chess.

Tim: I can’t play chess to save my life and you know it.

Zak: I’ll have to think about how the Just man would respond to that statement.  In the meantime, let me explain a few things to you.  Life is about anticipation.  The whole assumption that life has any meaning at all presupposes a certain human capacity to anticipate the future.  Chess is only interesting if you can anticipate your opponent’s moves to a certain extent.  In other word, the Just man would respond to the lady by making a carefully reasoned calculation of the densely interrelated chain of causality that would follow from each possible linguistic choice.

Tim:  And if he miscalculates?  Do you mean to suggest that all bad chess players are reprobates?

Zak: Not at all.

Tim: What then?  You’re on very thin ice.

Zak: We needn’t presume that morality as an experience and morality as an object are necessarily one in the same thing.  It’s perfectly conceivable that the criteria by which we may, at least in theory, objectively evaluate a moral action are independent of those by which we undergo moral experience.  The Just Man is someone who makes decisions that turn out to effect the greatest possible Good, but he may just as well do so without playing chess like a boss, or at least, without doing so presciently.  He might not consciously perform any kind of “felicific calculus.”

Tim: Bless you.

Zak: Frankly, how he comes to those decisions is none of our business.  It’s enough that he approaches it rationally and thoughtfully.

Tim: Hmm.

Zak: What’s that look on your face?

Tim: What?

Zak: Come on.  You couldn’t be smugger if you’d sold a solid grey canvas for a million dollars.

(continue reading)

Eat what you like

Day 103: Monday

Morning, Tim!

It’s been a while. I could feign a delightful, planned summer hiatus but you know better than that. Perhaps it was your takedown of language’s role in morality but you know full well that’s even more laughable than the summer hiatus line… No, instead it was just an unfortunate end of what had been a fairly stable habit. I hope to rebuild the blog-writing muscles, so bear with me over these first few posts!

Yep. It’s gonna be a rough start.

“The great seduction confronting every individual or family or church or political party or enterprise of any kind in every age is the idea that we no longer need to change. We think, there’s nothing really major about me or my tribe that God would want to reform. I’m sure he wants to work on those people, but not me. That’s a delusion.” – Rev. Dr. Dan Meyer

That seems to me to be about right. I was recently reading Sapiens. It was an interesting read. The author, Yuval Noah Harari, had a knack for laying out his arguments as follows: Fact A, Fact B, Fact C — Therefore X. X was controversial. How did he get there? X as a conclusion seemed was so far away from the original 3 premises.

One piece of text that stood out was an articulation of Buddhism. At it’s core, the idea was that the mind naturally craves more in all situations. And all suffering arrives from craving. The goal, then, would be to rid the mind of any conception of “good” or “bad” and simply acknowledge things as they were — a body sensation, a feeling, the circumstances that brought those about, etc. Acknowledge, but not label.

While familiar, I haven’t studied Buddhism to any great degree, so I asked a few friends who have to give their take. They suggested it probably isn’t the most fair representation — which makes sense. I felt the same way about Harari’s take on Christianity. That said, regardless of religious affiliation, I see this mindset play out in the culture around me at work.

I’m not sure how to segue here. I haven’t yet figured out how to articulate how I see this, how to point to tangible examples. Yet it seems if true, if we do in fact see ourselves as the stable force and the world as what needs changing, we’ve lost perspective. We make up this world — and rather than expecting some outside thing to change, we need to reflect that in what we can control. That is, if we want a world that is more relational and filled with joy, laughter, and empathy, we need to put down our phones, step away from the artificial “connection” and look up at those we interact with every day. If we want to understand issues of race, gender, or political differences we must stop spending 9% of every day on Netflix and 1/16th on Facebook and instead hold conversations with those in all walks of life.

It’s trite at this point to talk about a filter bubble. Yet with all of the time spent on websites that track our every click to feed us information that we like, it seems vital to talk about it. Mary Roach discusses how “People like what they eat, rather than eat what they like.” This harkens back to the question

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”?

Yet in this case, the answer seems clearer — we form our tastes around what we are given. Regular exposure makes things more palatable.

Extrapolating a touch, this is the exact phenomenon that should terrify us when it comes to a digital age. When our every click is known, and we get our news from a feed that is tuned to give us what we’d like (so we spend more time there…), we begin to like what we see. And the algorithm is tuned (because that is how the company is incentivized) to give more information like that. And so we don’t get exposed to anything outside of our circle, our delicate bubble.

Let’s tie these two ideas together more concretely, this time in reverse. We are fed a stream of information that we like — not because of anything external, but because that is what we are fed. When we then come to ‘like’ it, we get more and more of it. This is how we come to see the world — this is “right”. When we are exposed to something outside of this, we don’t see it as us needing to change, because it goes against our whole world (…which just so happens to be made up of the same things we ‘like’ and see repeated every day). And so rather than striving toward any change, we create a world that revolves around ourselves, a world where we sit in the center and the ‘other’ should conform to us.

That’s not tight logic. It’s not crisply written. But if there is a smidge of truth there — oof. Because I’m not in the right. Any glimpse in the mirror tells me I’m not perfect, that I do need to change. It’s the look that sees someone who lies, someone who is slothful at times, overly egotistical and ambitious at others. Someone who struggles with lack of understanding of race, gender, and a host of other issues. Taken to a literal mirror, someone who is obviously gluttonous. I need to change. Not just the world around me, but me within that world.

I don’t want to simply like what I eat. I want to take the time to understand what is good, what is nourishing, and to eat that. I want to eat what I like — with the recognition that taste isn’t the only element of “like”, and that some things I like not because they taste good at first but because I need them to make me a healthier member of the human race.

Until tomorrow,

Zak

p.s. I made some tea to set the mood for writing. However, like blog writing, it had been a while since I’d made a cup of loose leaf and I was out of practice. I made a lot of it, and it was dreadful. A lot of scrolling says the parallels between my tea drinking and blog writing may not have stopped where I would have hoped…

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

 

 

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.

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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

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?

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My example of the project

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

Today’s “Sames and Opposites:”

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“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.

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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