Friday, August 31, 2012

Quote of the Day from Simon Pegg

To my mind the most memorable thing about the Republican Convention was that the "anointed" Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, was upstaged by pretty much everyone who got up on the stage. As a result, I seem to be less surprised than most that the most memorable upstaging came from Clint Eastwood, who understanding upstaging from both the actor's and the director's point of view. I'm not sure whether last night's speech was the brain child of Clint-the-actor or Clint-the-director. However, Hollywood is about your name being on everyone's lips (or, in the digital age, in everyone's tweets).

There has been no end of amusement in reading the reactions to Eastwood's performance. As might be guessed, you have a lot of Hollywood types trying to get attention with responses that are either indignant (Mia Farrow) or clever (the majority). I suppose it was inevitable that, in covering this affair, BBC News should cite someone from their side of the pond; but they made a good choice. Simon Pegg may well have come up with the most memorable reaction to the whole affair:
Maybe Clint is a sleeper agent for the Democrats sent in under deep cover to make the Republicans look stupid. No wait, that's Romney.
It is also worth noting that Pegg's quote, along with all the others, appeared in a story that ran in the Entertainment & Arts department, which is probably where all the other Convention coverage should have been run.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Pleasantly Surprising “Opera Bump”

Having recently written about the “opera bump” effect on my page view numbers, as observed through Google Analytics, following my article about the Grand Finale of the Merola Opera Program, I was pleases to see the same effect kick in on my national page in a slightly unanticipated way. I say “slightly unanticipated” because the article really had nothing to do with opera. However, it did involve a visit by both conductor Nicola Luisotti (Music Director of the San Francisco Opera) and soprano Leah Crocetto, previously an Adler Fellow with the San Francisco Opera, to the Berlin Philharmonie, for a performance that I decided to attend and review “virtually” through the archives of the Digital Concert Hall. Crocetto was Luisotti’s soprano soloist for his interpretation of Francis Poulenc’s setting of the Gloria text from the Mass, which he performed along with an account of Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 100 symphony in B-flat major (his fifth).

Because of the backgrounds of these two performers, I included “Opera” in the Related Topics list I am supposed to provide for each of my articles; and that seems to have given the Page View Gods reason enough to smile on me!

Karl Kraus' Take on Human Rights

In this time of the Republican Convention, when human rights seems to be providing as much refuge for jingoistic scoundrels as patriotism, it seems appropriate to allow the following modest observation from Karl Kraus onto the playing field:
Human rights are the fragile toy that grownups like to trample on and so will not give up.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Ingredients in the “Tonic of Tragedy”

Reading Stanley Wells’ review of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies in the latest New York Review set me to thinking about Simon Schama again, specifically, his observation that history “delivers the tonic of tragedy, not the bromide of romance.” I realized that he was playing fast and loose with that noun “tragedy’ (such as whether he was using it in the Aristotelian, Marxian, or some other sense). After reading Schama, I chose to rebut him as follows:
I prefer Hayden White’s position that history is best approached as literature, assessed for its quality of writing as well as its consistency with documented evidence.
However, “literature” may also be too general a noun to address how we approach history.

In introducing Mantel’s book, which is a novel, Wells makes an important claim:
History has no plot. It happens randomly, goes beyond human control. People plot, but things go amiss. The desire to capture the past in unquenchable but fruitless. A historian, whether of recent or long-past events, tries to tell it how it was, but the attempt is vain. History books have to have beginnings, middles, and ends. Whether consciously or not, their authors tell stories from particular perspectives; they choose who and what to write about; they select from the multifariousness of human experience, imposing order on randomness, seeing what they choose to see or what their subconscious minds put before them, setting their stories within a frame of their devising, revealing subjectivity even as they seek to convey an impression of objectivity.

Any account of the past requires artistry in the telling, but those storytellers who proclaim their artifice, melding the stuff of history with the forms and conventions of art, are more honest about the illusory nature of their endeavors than those who seek to convey an impression of impartiality.
That “artistry in the telling” is, of course, narrative technique. In other words it is the framework of narrative that facilitates sensemaking: the perception of order in that randomness that is “beyond human control.” From this point of view, White is less interested in the generality of the concept of literature than he is in the specificity of the concept of narrative. To invoke the terminology of Friedrich Hayek, narrative provides the device that facilitates “sensory order” on what is little more than a random array of events. However, it is only through that order that those events can register as memorable, thus establishing history as the literary vehicle of memory.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Mursi’s Attempt to Embrace the “Team of Rivals” Concept

BBC News just ran a report suggesting that Mohammed Mursi, the new President of Egypt, is willing to embrace that same “Team of Rivals” concept that Barack Obama saw in Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet and attempted to apply to his own:
Egyptian leader Mohammed Mursi has appointed a Christian intellectual, a female university professor and two Islamists as presidential assistants.
Samir Murqus, a liberal Coptic writer, was named assistant for democratic transition, officials announced.

Pakinam al-Sharkawi, who teaches political sciences at Cairo University, will be in charge of political affairs.
The Islamists are the following:
Imad Abdul Ghafour, the head of the ultraconservative Salafist Nour party, is in charge of relations with civil society, while Issam al-Haddad of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, will look after external relations and international co-operation.
In addition Mursi is forming an “advisory team” whose initial members were named in the same report:
They include former presidential candidate Mohammed Salim al-Awwa, Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam al-Aryan, political expert Seif al-Din Abdul Fattah and writer Sekina Fouad.
Personally, I am hoping that Mursi is more sympathetic to Lincoln’s principle than Obama was. The fact is that in the Obama team, where diversity was most needed, in dealing with the economic crisis, there seemed to be little attention to giving serious “rivals” a level playing field. Egypt is in an even more delicate position, since it still has to work out a new constitution.

Nevertheless, I feel it is important that Mursi has attached significance to the need to allow different voices to speak; and, if he can keep the speaking from deteriorating into a shouting match (which has been the sad fate of our own country), then he may be the sort of leader that Egypt (if not the rest of the Middle East) currently needs in these difficult times.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

What if They Delivered the Paper and Nobody Came?

The San Francisco Chronicle often gets delivered later than usual on Sunday mornings. It may have been later than usual today due to the need to accommodate the Neil Armstrong story. Since it was not available over breakfast, I did my usual review of my feeds to Google Reader and then moved on to my morning writing tasks. As a result of those activities, it did not even occur to me to check to see if the paper had arrived until 10 AM! I am beginning to think that my wife has become the only member of the household for whom a print subscription matters. For my part, once I leave the breakfast table, I am happy to live only in the digital world!

Friday, August 24, 2012

John Cage Takes on the Opera

I once heard a (self-proclaimed) "expert" on blogging declare that, if you wanted to get page views for what you write about music, your should write about opera. Since I am in a position to write for the sake of writing, rather than for the sake of page views (which, on, translates into revenue), I tend to ignore that kind of advice. However, the analyst in me likes to look for evidence that will either warrant or refute any such claim.

Sure enough, my article about the Grand Finale of the Merola Opera Program rewarded me with a nice bump in my numbers. However, as fate would have it, that "popular" offering took place the night after sfSound gave one of their John Cage programs in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church. This happened to be an all-instrumental affair that demanded a fair amount out of the sympathetic listener; but those true to their sympathy were more than duly rewarded. Since Cage's 100th birthday is now a little more than a week away (September 5), I was curious as to how attention to Cage would fare in comparison to attention to "sure-thing" opera. According to the latest numbers from Google Analytics, Cage has not been doing badly. He is in second place, but the difference is narrower than I would have expected.

I find this encouraging, since I can remember the days when Cage was anathema to any "right-thinking" (yes, those are scare quotes) concert-goer. His music may rarely (if ever) prompt those stirring cheers of "Bravo!," without which (apparently) opera singers cannot survive. On the other hand those who take their listening seriously now seem inclined to take Cage seriously as well, perhaps more seriously than they might take (just to choose an arbitrary example) Vincenzo Bellini!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Apple Fixes Small Bugs in Favor of Large Ones

Topher Kessler seems to have gotten it right about the OS X 10.8.1 update to Mountain Lion. I would not dismiss the bug fixes as being merely cosmetic (nor did he); but he was certainly right to observe that “true” bugs (as he called them) would probably not be repaired. Thus, Safari is still in a bad way, often going into a coma while trying to load a Web page with too much (read “advertising”) on it; and all you can do is stop the load and try again. (Of course, you cannot do this when Activity Monitor tells you that Safari is not responding, which is basically what the spinning rainbow say. When that happens, you may have no alternative other than Force Quit.)

I suppose the most informative paragraph in Kessler article was his first:
Generally when Apple releases a major upgrade to OS X, it quickly follows with an update to tackle some of the immediate and outstanding bugs with the software. The time frame for this update has been between 13 days (for Snow Leopard) to 26 days (for Lion), and while Mountain Lion has gone for about a month so far in its initial release, the first update is now available and addresses pertinent problems with Thunderbolt audio noise and Mail accounts not working, among other issues.
My guess is that Apple has now gotten itself smart enough to know a “real” (thank you, Topher) bug when one surfaces. They may even be smart enough to know that they cannot solve these problems as effectively as they used to do. In other words they are now in a resource problem that they cannot manage, either because they no longer have the resources at all or because they believe that resources are more “cost-effective” when applied to mobile devices, rather than desktops and laptops. This may mean that Apple has seen the future and decided that people no longer write nor file stuff for later use any more. Has it come to the point that, when my PowerBook is getting ready to give up the ghost, I shall have to choose a vendor on the basis of whether or not I am viewed as a dinosaur fending off extinction?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Political Questions That Matter

I rarely get beyond the Public Eavesdropping portion of Leah Garchik's column for the San Francisco Chronicle. Today, however, I found a better quote at the bottom of the column itself. She attributed it to Janice Hough:
Don't you wish that someone would ask Mitt Romney what he thinks of the Pussy Riot situation?

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Sword of Hatred Can Cut Both Ways

It would seem that, from the time the Democratic Party nominated Barack Obama as their candidate for President of the United States, the Republican Party has been dedicated to campaigning based on the lowest common denominator of hatred. Those of us whose memory stretches back to 2008 probably recall that this denominator got so low that even John McCain had the good sense to back away from it (a moment that was included in the HBO Game Plan movie, to the great credit of that film’s production team and to Ed Harris for depicting just how offensive that moment was to anyone with common-sense regard for truth and humanity). Nevertheless, those wheels of hatred kept rolling, building momentum through the rise of the TEA Party, to a point where maintaining momentum was more important than getting anything done in Congress. (After all, if Congress achieved anything of value, that might be perceived as going to Obama’s credit; and who would stand for that?)

This weekend, however, we may have seen a tipping point. When it comes to triggering hatred, Republican Congressman Todd Akin may have crossed the line in justifying his hard line that abortion can never be accepted as legitimate, even in the most extreme circumstances. As just about everyone knows by now, the “trigger words,” so to speak, were the following:
If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.
These words have the power to tap into that same sort of visceral hatred that Republicans have tried to direct towards our President and those who agree with him that government has a role in trying to offer a better life for all of its citizens, rather than just the wealthy ones. Akin’s statement might not offend all women. However, they are likely to cut through to a strong majority of them, even those with Republican loyalties; and, given Mitt Romney’s immediate distancing from those words, one might expect that there are plenty of men out there, regardless of party affiliation, will to recognize that Akin went far over the line of basic human decency.

It would be nice if Akin inadvertently sounded the wake-up call that hate-mongering is no way to run a political campaign. I would not hold my breath. Nevertheless, it is about time the Republicans get a better feel for what it is like to be on the receiving end of such irrationality. I suspect that hate-free campaigning is beyond reasonable expectation; but, if Akln’s behavior leads to even a slight turning down of the rhetorical heat, there may be a glass of lemonade coming from his oversized lemon.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Turning the “Aggressive Audience” into an Art Form?

Over on, I have been giving a lot of attention to the fact that September 5 will be the 100th birthday of John Cage. Today I even went so far as to give a shout-out to the London Proms series for dedicating last Friday night to Cage, as well as to Ivan Hewitt of the London Telegraph for giving such an excellent account of the occasion (not bad, considering the right-wing politics of that newspaper). In the midst of all of the positive vibes about Cage and his work, I found myself thinking back on when the times were not so good.

My favorite example is the Cramps recording of Cage performing the third part of his Empty Words at the Teatro Lirico di Milano on December 2, 1977. Empty Words does not make for a particularly felicitous listening experience. I remember that it was one of the last things I heard performed at Brandeis University after I had completed my doctoral dissertation and was preparing to start my first academic teaching job at the Technion in Israel. (I was pretty sure I would not hear very much Cage over there.) The work resides somewhere between reading and chant of a syllabic breakdown of texts from the notebooks of Henry David Thoreau. It does not require quite the patience of a performance of Erik Satie’s “Vexations;” but it sure comes close.

The thing about the Cramps recording is that the Italian audience lacked that patience. The result is less a concert recording of one of Cage’s performances and more a historical document of the audience riot than ensued. (Don’t you wish that we had a document like that for “Le Sacre du Printemps?”) Almost exactly three years ago, I wrote about that recording on this site in a post entitled “The Aggressive Audience.”

What I did not know when I wrote that post was that, back in 2004, Angelin Preljocaj had created choreography for 63 minutes of that full-length concert recording, which had been performed by Ballet Preljocaj at the Biennale nationale de danse du Val-de-Marne. The title of resulting work was (appropriately enough) Empty Moves. Preljocaji’s text on the company’s Web site talks about “the alienation effect,” without distinguishing between how that effect applied to Cage’s treatment of Thoreau and how it applied to the audience’s treatment of Cage. I am not quite sure how I would react to seeing a performance of this choreography. In the context of all the different ways in which Cage is now been honored around the world, I find that the major value of the Cramps recording is to remind us all that audiences were not always very receptive to Cage. For my part I am also reminded of the stoicism he brought to any of these hostile reactions. My guess is that Preljocaj’s choreography contributes little to either of those reminders.

Ironically, Cage was already beginning to receive honors for his work in the United States long before he encountered that hostile Italian audience. Over on my site, I wrote about hearing Cage read an acceptance speech for “some prestigious award whose details I have since forgotten” in the fall of 1973. The speech was one of those rare occasions when he let go of his stoicism, since the basic message was:
Where were you when I needed you?
These days I find myself more worried about audience hostility than I used to feel. Between soccer hooliganism in Europe and “men with guns” in the United States, I no longer take it for granted that a performance audience is a “safe place.” Back in the day, I remember that the only thing Robert Ashley had to say about audience hostility was:
Don’t throw things at us!
These days the ante seems to have been raised where causes for concern are evaluated. Even the London Olympics seems to have added chips to that ante.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

What “Choosing Chance” Really Meant to John Cage

I just finished a piece for about the latest concert given by sfSound to celebrate the centennial of his birth. (His 100th birthday will be on September 5.) All of the works on the program were instrumental; and most of them were composed by some deliberate chance procedure. (The most important exception was “Atlas Eclipticalis,” which was composed by tracing star charts onto staff paper.) I wrote about Cage’s motivation for “choosing chance” as follows:
Cage’s interest in chance was grounded in his desire to find an approach to remove the ego from the process of making music. As Cage would later observe in an interview with Roger Reynolds (published in the The Musical Quarterly in October of 1979), the ego was only responsible for deciding what questions to ask, which would then be answered by chance operations. If he wanted to reject the answers, so to speak, he could only do so by posing alternative questions.
This turned out to be a rather long piece, because there were such significant differences across the pieces being performed. So I chose to write about the Reynolds interview, rather than cite it. Nevertheless, in this more flexible forum, it seemed appropriate to reproduce just what it was that Cage said about chance:
It says in the I Ching that if you don’t accept the answer, that you have no right to ask again. I have never used chance operations to arrive at a preconceived goal. In other words, I’ve never been in the situation of not liking, and because I didn’t like, changing the answers I received. I have sometimes renounced the questions that I’ve asked. I have thrown away some work, seeing that it was trivial, since I had not found the proper questions. But I’ve never thrown away the answers to the questions that I’ve considered to be useful questions to ask.
I chose to reproduce this because it makes clear just how deliberate Cage was in his use of chance. Cunningham was the same way; and I strongly suspect that both of them sometimes (often?) had to revise the ways in which they framed their questions in the interests of coming up with results that were not impossible to perform. For that matter the philosophical goal of detaching the ego is also a deliberate act, and what this quote shows is that it was far from as aspiration to mindlessness!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Tim Parks Echoes Northrop Frye

Having been on the road for the better part of this week, I just got around to reading Tim Parks’ “Does Copyright Matter?” post to the NYRBlog. The first thing Parks does is lay the groundwork for why we have copyright law at all:
You will only have copyright in a society that places a very high value on the individual, the individual intellect, the products of individual intellect. In fact, the introduction of a law of copyright is one of the signs of a passage from a hierarchical and holistic vision of society, to one based on the hopes and aspirations of the individual.
While searching through this site to see what I had written about copyright in the past, I discovered that Parks had echoed an observation from Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. Here is how I summarized Frye’s position in that book:
I had forgotten that in this book Frye had coined the phrase "copyright age" to express how he felt our view of artistic creativity had been corrupted. This term reflected what Frye called "a tendency, marked from Romantic times on, to think of the individual as ideally prior to his society." His point was that all creativity takes place in a context of established conventions; and the problem with the priority he was considering was that all attention was focused on the individual creator, rather than the contextual influences of prevailing conventions under which creation took place.
The point I was making was that the very nature of creativity is in dialectical opposition to the concept of intellectual property, to the point that prioritizing property has a corrupting influence on creativity. Thus, in Parks’ observation, it is not just that the individual is valued but that the value itself has been reduced to material terms, namely the monetary value of “property objects.” Thus, while Niall Ferguson may have a point that money is a necessary element in the “ascent” of civilizations, the consequence is that, as a culture, that “advanced” civilization tends to address the concept of “value” only in terms of a monetary quantity. The result is a parallel “ascent” of “market-driven art,” most recognizable recently in the work of Damien Hirst. Whether or not this constitutes advancement is left as an exercise for the reader!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Clarifying a Minor Detail in Today's Arts News

I was glad to see that the Album Review by Joshua Kosman for today's San Francisco Chronicle covered a new release by the imaginative pianist David Greilsammer. However, the review gave the impression that this was Greilsammner's recording debut, while, strictly speaking, it was only his debut for the Sony Classical label. I see from my records that I reviewed two CDs of Mozart piano concertos, which he recorded for Naïve Classics for his own Suedama (an anagram of “Amadeus”) Ensemble, for I used these recordings to prepare for Greilsammer's Mozart performances with Labadie conducting the San Francisco Symphony in 2011 (which I also covered for!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Does “High Fidelity” Matter?

For a change “audiophiliac” Steve Guttenberg hit on a significant insight. Admittedly, he arrived at it because it undermined the title of his latest Audiophiliac post on CNET News, “Why do musicians have lousy hi-fis?” He even arrived at his conclusion through an informative path that deserves repeating:
I remember a bass player at a jazz recording session who grew impatient with the time the engineer was taking to get the best possible sound from his 200-year-old-acoustic bass. After ten minutes the bassist asked the engineer to plug into a pickup on his instrument, so he wouldn't take up any more time setting up the microphone. The engineer wasn't thrilled with the idea, because he would then just have the generic sound of a pickup rather than the gorgeous sound of the instrument. I was amazed: the man probably paid $100,000 for his bass, and he didn't care if its true sound was recorded or not. His performance was what mattered.

From what I've seen, musicians listen differently from everyone else. They focus on how well the music is being played, the structure of the music, and the production. The quality of the sound? Not so much!
Other than the fact that I would prefer to use the noun “execution” in place of “production,” that second paragraph pretty much gets it right. Of course, if we want to stick with his wording, then we can say that the real punch line is that, for a musician, production is always far more important than reproduction. Another way of putting it is that musicians are more interested in listening than hearing. “High fidelity” may have a significant impact on the signal that reaches the ear. However, one listens with the mind, rather than the ear; and the mind can be very good at compensating for shortcomings in the signal, as even a cursory examination of results in the psychology of music reveals.

Those who follow Mad Men probably noticed that “high fidelity” was little more than one of the weapons in the general pissing contest of one-upmanship taking place back in those days. It was no different from the size of the tail fins on your car or your ringside tickets for the Friday night fights. Musicians don’t care about such things. They know that music is all about listening; and they tend to be pleased when people in the audience (real or virtual) take listening as seriously as they do. That is what the bass player understood and the engineer could not conceive.

At least Guttenberg seems to be approaching the discovery that just about everything in his column has nothing to do with music, let alone why we take the trouble to listen to music.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Latest Word from “Marissa Meyer Watch”

Don Reisinger just filed a story in the Internet & Media division of CNET News, which is the latest dispatch on Marissa Meyer’s plans to revive Yahoo! In light of my own user-based observations about conditions at Yahoo!, I would like to reproduce his key paragraph:
Mayer's first order of business is to improve the state of Yahoo's search and e-mail, the Wall Street Journal is reporting today, citing sources. She is reportedly holding meetings with Yahoo product leaders to determine why the company's search is seeing its market ownership decline -- its share fell to 13 percent in June from 15.9 percent last year, according to ComScore -- and how Yahoo Mail can be enhanced to maintain its userbase.
Having explicitly suggested that “Meyer needs to conduct a rather thorough audit of all aspects of the ‘public face’ of Yahoo! operations,” I would like to observe that any “enhancement” to Yahoo! Mail needs to be preceded by getting it to work reliably in the first place. This means getting beyond the sort of ludicrous outage that provoked that suggestion in the first place and recognizing that, at least for some of us, “mobility” means getting at the Web-based version of Yahoo! Mail from different browser platforms, rather than “mobile apps.” Apparently, Yahoo! Mail has done nothing to keep up with the changes in Safari brought on by Mountain Lion, meaning that, at the present time, it only runs at the most primitive level. In other words, if you want anything other than plain-text composition with no address lookup support, abandon Safari in favor of Firefox.

I was also amused to read that Meyer removed the monitoring of the Yahoo! stock symbol from the company’s internal Web page. According to Reisinger, this was to make sure that employees are “not distracted by its financials.” I am reminded of an old Scotland Yard routine from Beyond the Fringe. Discussing a major train robbery, the Yard representative tells the reporter that they think it is the work of a “mindermast.” Asked about the word, he is told, “We don’t like to use the word ‘mastermind’ because it distresses the men.” I am sure that all Yahoo! employees are “distressed” about its financial performance. Blocking that information will probably just add to the distress.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

AT&T's Bad Faith

Here in California AT&T landline workers have begun a two-day strike against what the Communications Workers of America calls “harassment” over the negotiation of new contracts. As might be expected, AT&T is claiming that it has been “negotiating in good faith,” at least according to the words of spokesman Marty Richter, documented by Peter Svensson for Associated Press. Richter also claimed that AT&T was “well prepared” (Svensson’s words in the report appearing on Yahoo! News) to handle the work action.

It is hard to assign much credibility to either of Richter’s claims. Contract negotiations have been under way since last February. It is hard to imagine “good faith” making so little progress. As to how well AT&T can manage without those workers, Richter is probably referring to the extent to which the customer-facing side of AT&T has now been automated. These days, if you have a problem, you have to jump through an extraordinary number of automated hoops before getting to talk to a human being; and (no surprise) that human being knows nothing about current local conditions in your area (probably because that person is nowhere near your area). Furthermore, as I recently discovered during a DSL disruption over here, even the human beings are script-driven for just about everything other than creating an appointment for a technician to visit your site.

AT&T has become the model example of how “knowledge technology” can turn a mediocre service provider into a thoroughly stupid one. For those who think that problems in the landline business are no longer irrelevant, because everything that matters now happens in wireless world, just remember that the problem is one of the service itself, rather than the objects over which that service is exercised. If AT&T is now facing worker resistance, it is because they are trying to run their business without people; and that is the only “faith” they hold.

The bottom line is that inadequate regulation of the communications business has led to work situations as pathological as those in the financial sector. Unfortunately, those of us on the receiving end have no say in the matter. Just like its cousins on Wall Street, AT&T sees itself as accountable only to its shareholders. All others be damned.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Faking Authenticity

Reading Christopher Benfey’s latest NYRBlog post, “Posing for the Senate,” was more amusing than I anticipated it would be; but it was also more than a little disconcerting. He did a good job of warranting his conception of the Massachusetts Senate race between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown as a remake of Adam’s Rib. My guess, however, is that the analogy will be lost on a major portion of the Massachusetts electorate, on the grounds that they have never heard of the movie, let alone seen it.

That would sort of deflate the message Benfey was trying to deliver, which is his suggestion that the voters are looking for authenticity, rather than “posing.” I cannot conceive of any election that has ever been grounded in authenticity; and, of course, the whole point of Adam’s Rib is that our adversarial legal system is such that juries are more likely to respond to “poses” than to authenticated facts. The Massachusetts Senatorial election is not about which candidate is more likely to improve the quality of life for the state’s residents. It is about the goals of the respective political parties to establish a strong majority in the Senate. In other words it is about which party (if either) will have a firm lock on power, through which it can then command allegiance from its members. The voters simply do not figure into that equation, whether or not they recognize authenticity or care about doing so.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Commoditizing Dreams

One particular passage leapt out at me while I was reading Geoffrey O’Brien’s NYRBlog post about Beasts of the Southern Wild:
In movies the imaginary tends to be expensive, so independent live-action films generally work with what is already in place and steer clear of the realms of large-scale fantasy. Our dream worlds are elaborated for us by corporate entities with the necessary means. Beasts of the Southern Wild represents a kind of protest against this state of affairs, an assertion of the right to build one’s own make-believe world, with available tools however rudimentary, rather than submitting to the pre-imagined products of Disney, Marvel, Pixar, and the rest.
It struck me that there were more meanings to that “dream factory” epithet assigned to Hollywood than I had initially imagined. Presumably the epithet emerged from the ways in which Hollywood took a mass-production approach to entertainment, putting out entertainment the way Henry Ford’s assembly line put out cars. However, there is a corollary to this interpretation, which is that Hollywood tapped into a means of production through which our very dreams would become commoditized.

Through this corollary, we see one way in which Walter Benjamin’s claim that “the art of storytelling is coming to an end” may be achieving validity. Storytelling (note the italics) is not so much about the story as it is about the subjective and social elements that a storyteller brings to that story. A “dream factory,” on the other hand, dispenses with such complications from the subjective and social worlds and is concerned only with efficient manufacture (and resulting return on investment) of the dream-as-product. Through commoditization, we have lost what O’Brien calls “the right to build one’s own make-believe world.” Indeed, we have become so addicted to the commodity that most of us probably do not even recognize that loss for what it is.

If we then return to my earlier discussion of Tim Parks’ NYRBlog post, “Do We Need Stories?,” we see that Parks put forth the proposition that “the self requires a story.” One may then view O’Brien’s statement as an assertion that, through commoditization, the self has lost the right to tell its own story. Max Weber may have only scratched the surface in warning that commodity-based capitalism could lead to the loss of both meaning and freedom. More serious than either of these losses is the very loss of self. Take away self and the question of whether or not freedom has been lost becomes irrelevant. Man is no longer a slave but simply an automaton that happens to have been constructed out of biological components.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Google Reader Editorializes

I know that Google Reader really had nothing to do with this. Nevertheless, the display of my RSS feeds just offered up a juxtaposition of stories that may as well have been editorial comment. The juxtaposition, of course, had only to do with when those stories were picked up by Google Reader (which is not necessarily when they were filed). Still, we have to get our insights where we can.

This involved the display of stories fed from the London Telegraph. The first was a headline reflecting on a story that has been getting a lot of buzz today:

Is Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Vertigo really the best film ever made?

This was followed immediately by a review of a Royal Shakespeare Company production in Stratford-upon-Avon. What Shakespeare play was being performed? It was Much Ado About Nothing. I would like to take Shakespeare’s title as a message to both the British Film Institute and those who put any stock in their taking the rank-ordering of films seriously!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Words of Wisdom from Gore Vidal

BBC News recognized the death of Gore Vidal with a Web page of some of his choicest quotes. The last of these was used to introduce the radio announcement of his death:
There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.
What was missing from the page, however, was the quote most relevant in the current election year:
We don't have political parties: we have one political party with two right wings called the Democratic and the Republican.
I seem to recall that he also pursued the corollary to this proposition: While the Republican Party has traditionally been “the party of wealth,” Vidal’s assertion implies that wealth now “owns” both parties; and, on the basis of the Citizens United ruling, it would appear that wealth also owns the judiciary branch of our government, the one that was supposed to be the least politicized.