Friday, August 17, 2007


I was rather interested in Lou Paglia's latest correlate post on the obsolescence of terminology. The specific term that triggered his thoughts was the concept of the "column inch," invoked by the Vice President of corporate products at Dow Jones. This led Lou "to question as to whether 'column inch' has now become a quaint term such as 'horsepower.'" This, in turn, let me to speculate over the fact that "horsepower" actually became and remains a standard of measurement, while, in the absence of a standard column width in the newspaper business, the column inch will never be so fixed. Furthermore, as we do more and more of our news reading on a Web browser, the very concept of a column seems headed for obsolescence.

These thoughts were still with me when I resumed reading It's All in the Music, Doris Monteux' memoir of the life and work of her husband, the conductor Pierre Monteux. This was written when Monteux was in his eighties and most of the book involves her documenting conversations that had in which he reflected on his past. The whole thing is structured as a series of letters with no named recipient, meaning that they could also be "Dear Diary" entries. This gives the whole text a very personal style in which both husband and wife have distinct "voices." At first I was not sure what to make of this kind of writing, but it has grown on me as I have progressed through the book to the point where I now enjoy it.

The issue of obsolescence arose while I was reading an account of a meeting in London in September of 1963 between Monteux and Pablo Casals, both of whom were octogenarians. Here is the paragraph that jumped out at me:

After a while, I heard Casals say with vehemence that the modern composer's music could not last, as it is soulless and lacking in melody! (Indeed, Maestro [how Doris refers to Pierre] has a magnificent letter from him written from Puerto Rico to this effect.) Monteux remarked that the modern is a product of the age in which he exists, that is, a scientific and mechanical century. Since scientific and mechanical production becomes obsolete soon after its introduction, it is his opinion that much modern music conceived and composed by today's composer will no doubt have the same destiny.

This has led me to return to the question of the extent to which our "age of technology" must, of necessity, also be an "age of obsolescence." My very first blog post addressed the question of whether or not our technocentrism was bringing about an neglect of the quality on permanence in our educational curricula; and I tried to introduce the concept of "half-life" applied to much of the highly specialized content driving such curricula. My argument then was that such permanence could be found in the values behind the curriculum of a liberal education, and I still hold to that position. The question remains, though, as to whether this is just a matter of neglecting liberal education in the interest of specializing in the "scientific and mechanical."

Here I would argue that the problem goes deeper to the more foundational level of the production economy that is now so dependent on "scientific and mechanical" expertise. There is a dangerous narrowness to the view that life is all about what one produces and the corollary that the value of one's life is determined by the value of one's products. Alma Mahler, in her memoirs of her life with Gustav Mahler, attacked Richard Strauss for evaluating the merits of his own compositions in terms of the royalty checks he received. However, there is also the joke about George Gershwin seeking out Ravel (Stravinsky in some versions of the story) in Paris in order to study composition with him. Ravel asked Gershwin how much money he had earned in the last year and then announced that he wanted to be Gershwin's student! These anecdotes precede the rise of audio recording as an industry that just keeps growing in unexpected ways and directions, and both the composition and performance of music become more and more productized. Similar arguments can be developed about the "progress" of written texts during the twentieth century. In other words the very contents of the liberal education have, themselves, become productized, leaving us in an unfortunate position of viewing them only through the lenses of productization. Thus, it is not concepts like the column inch that have become "quaint" but the very idea of concepts that endure over centuries, rather than from quarterly report to quarterly report. Permanence has now gone the way of the column inch!

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