Tuesday, August 31, 2010

On Flowers

Like many, I grew up with flowers. I enjoyed their beauty. And I timed Spring and Summer according to their growth.

As a child I waited for the blossoms. The forsythia were first, their small yellow blossoms appearing even before the leaves on trees. When those blossoms appeared, I knew that Spring was well under way. Irises followed. In middle or late Spring my mother would plant her flower gardens. Occasionally I would help, but mostly I watched for the flowers to bloom, and then for the bees and the butterflies to alight on them.

When I was old enough to explore the local woods I'd look for stands of tiger lilies, which I deemed to be exotic tropical intruders into the staid Northeastern woods. Perhaps, one day, my buddies and I would see actual tigers, or brightly plumed birds, or even a dinosaur somewhere out their beyond the Tiger Lilies.

In one version or another, that's how it went for a half-dozen years or more. Somewhere I that period I saw Disney's “Nutcracker Suite” on television. Though it was only in black and white, it enchanted me, inviting me into the world of plants at the same scale as leaves, blades of grass, milkweed pods, dandelion puffs, and flowers. That made a deep and lasting impression on me. The world of flowers is not only something one observes, or cultivates, but something one can inhabit.

All that is necessarily, reflexively, in play when I photograph flowers. Living brought them into my life and watching Disney’s “Nutcracker Suite” year after year taught me to put myself into their lives. And yet they are also visual forms, some more interesting than others. That too is necessarily in play when I take photographs and then when I examine them on the computer.

Consider this recent photo:

First of all, it’s orange. Second, its almost entirely out of focus. And yet I like the image – at least I think I do. I’m still conversing with it.

After all, just what, exactly is lost, in the lack of focus? One can see clearly that it is a flower and, if one knows the names of flowers (I don’t, mostly), the poor focus shouldn’t stand in the way of identification. The overall form remains, though one has to look a bit harder to follow the edges of the petals and thus to parse the 3D form. The overall composition of the image, simple as it is, remains unaffected by the focus.

Yet – and this is important too – the image is not entirely out of focus. Two petals – in the upper right – are in focus. Without them, I’d have no interest in the image. Why? Perhaps because those edges indicate that the guy behind the camera isn’t a complete idiot. Perhaps.

Speaking Truth to Power

Nina Paley is the creator of Mimi & Eunice and is unleashing them on the world under a copyleft license.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Bliss • Code Pink

The Malibu Diner

The Malibu Diner is of a piece with diners everywhere.

Really? Everywhere?

Well, not everywhere, but wherever there are diners, they are much of a piece. They aren’t so much alike as one McDonald’s is to another, or even as a McDonald’s is to a Burger King, but they are highly similar. Similar architectural details, inside and out, similar menu, similar philosophy.

Despite its name, this Malibu Diner is in New Jersey, not Southern California, though the palm tree design motif one sees here and there is a node to Southern California. This diner is in Hoboken, NJ, at the corner of Park and 14th. It’s only a few blocks from where I live. That’s one reason I like to eat there.

The other reason is that I can get Belgian waffles for breakfast; in fact, diners being what they are, I could probably get Belgian waffles any time of the day, any day of the week. But I have them for breakfast, once every week or two.

The “Belgian” in waffles is neither here nor there. That qualification started showing up, when? in the 1980s sometime. Whenever. These days Belgian seems to be what waffles are, which is OK—though I haven’t the foggiest idea whether or not there is any connection to Belgium (I’ve been told the English muffins aren’t English). But, truth be told, I’d be happy with plain old waffles, like my mother used to make.

That’s the point of the meal, it’s a tether to my childhood, an umbilicus to my origins. I don’t need to have waffles for breakfast two or three times a month, nor the bacon, and the (rather thick and bland) syrup. But it’s comforting.

Comfort is a minor virtue, and if I say it’s bourgeois, then it seems a bit déclassé, and a bit indulgent. Perhaps. But I don’t seek it as a permanent condition. Only as a temporary respite, and reference point.

One need not always go boldly where no man has gone before. And not for breakfast. Sometimes one needs to visit where one has always been. Otherwise, what’s the point of getting lost?

Animals have their daily circuit. And, depending on the animal, and the local ecology, circuits of greater compass, including yearly migration, nesting, or hibernation. The Malibu is part of my monthly circuit.

No more.

No less.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Things Change & the Walls Speak

One of the things about graffiti I've been documenting is how it changes. Well, the graffiti itself doesn't have the power to change, but writers go over one another's work so that what's on a wall changes. Here's a simple production the ADHD crew did on a stanchion supporting part of an abandoned freight line:

From left to right it reads FARO NAKED BLOKE. Notice that someone's added gone over NAKED. Now, look at the lower right corner; you'll see KH1 written several times on the base of the stanchion. KH1 = Kosher Howie 1. I took that photo on 30 Aug. 2008, almost two years ago. Here's the same wall as it appeared on 19 Dec. 2009, albeit from a rather more dramatic angle:

In the large, it's unchanged, but in the small, you can see that someone's gone over FARO and BLOKE in orange and there's some blue over FARO that wasn't there before.

Here's the same wall as it appeared last week in a photo I took on 21 August (which is pretty much the same as a photo I took on 3 July, but the lighting is better):

Major changes. You can see the remnants of BLOKE at the right, but FARO and NAKED are all but obliterated. There's a throw-up plus some other stuff over FARO at the RIGHT, but the major action is in the middle, over NAKED. FALSER has gotten up with something that's a bit more elaborate than a throw-up but perhaps a bit austere for a piece. Notice the year in the top stroke of the "F."

Here's what's there today, 29 Aug., eight days later:

FALSER is all but gone. I count at least two layers since last week. There's a green name over FALSER that I can't make out, and there's some writing in yellow, orange, and red over that. If you look to the left you'll see a yellow dreidel outlined in orange and signed KH1 at the lower right. To the right RUOK (I think) has a throwie in while letters outlined in purple. Below that he's written:

"This spot is dead!" Perhaps it is. If so, only for awhile. There's other fresh action only 100 yards away. And where there's fresh action, there's hope. Stay tuned.

Andy's Rainbow

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Socratic Dialog in Diverse Contexts

Pleasure and Anxiety

Thursday, in a post on The Science of Orgasm, I mentioned that I’d developed an argument that pleasure is a function of all the activity in the nervous system. In this post I present a slightly revised version of my discussion in Beethoven’s Anvil (Basic Books, 2001), pp. 84-88. You can find the citations in that book, as well as the immediately preceding argument, on why it doesn’t make sense to talk about pleasure centers.

Go With the Flow

In The Sweet Spot in Time John Jerome was interested in the pleasures of athletic excellence and proposed an informal theory about what he calls the Sweet Spot Theory of Performance. By “sweet spot” he means that spot on a baseball bat, tennis racket, or golf club that affords the squarest contact with the ball, transfers energy to it most efficiently, and thus minimizes jarring transmitted back to the hands. That spot, he assures us, is not myth but a mechanical fact. Generalizing from that, he argues that the superior athlete “is the one who in effect reaches the sweet spot of the arc for each segment of his or her skeleton as he or she goes through the athletic motion.” The pleasure of sport—at any rate, the pleasure that derives from the activity itself, rather than from beating someone else in competition—is simply the feeling one gets when the body is working at its best.

The pleasure of music, I submit, is like that. Musicians certainly know the kind of physical pleasure that Jerome talks about, as do dancers. But so do people who only listen.

Jerome is focused on the smoothly functioning athletic body. But muscles cannot contract and flex in just the right way unless the nervous system controls them just so. The smooth motion is in the body, but the pleasure is in the nervous system. Even if a listener does not move his body, his nervous system does have to follow the sound. I am suggesting that a great deal of the pleasure we take from music lies in overall dynamic character of the activity itself—it is a property of the neural weather. Some weather feels better than other weather. This is not a matter of some brain center detecting some property in the neural weather and signaling good or bad. Rather, we are talking about the overall state of the brain. You don’t need to detect this state because this state is you; it is your mind.

We are now in familiar territory. The idea that music is linked to motion is an old one, one explored by Charles Keil in his essay “Motion and Feeling through Music” and validated by studies that show activity in motor areas of the brain when people are listening to music. Musical pleasure is an example of flow, a term coined by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is not special either to music or athletic performance, but is a capacity inherent in the nervous system and can happen during a wide range of activities. In Csikszentmihalyi’s model, flow is a function of the conditions of task performance. Where one’s skill exceeds the demands of a task by a considerable margin, the task is boring. Where task demands exceed one’s skill by a considerable margin, the task provokes anxiety—which we’ll examine in more detail in the next section. One feels flow only when the task demands are just a little beyond one’s current skill. In that situation one must be fully alert and attentive in order to perform the task and, if one is so, then it is possible to perform the task well. Thus flow represents a style of action, not some specific set of activities.

The idea of musical pleasure as flow does not preclude the possibility that music stimulates specific “pleasure centers,” especially if theose centers then emit neurotransmitters which further enable well-coordinated activity. Any such centers that are activated through music will contribute to that music’s pleasure. But musical pleasure does not depend on such centers. In general I would expect that music is pleasurable in proportion to its capacity for exercising the inherent properties of the brain, especially the rhythmic properties. Thus:
Pleasure as Coherence: Musical pleasure is the subjective awareness of overall neural flow where that flow is well-timed and coherent.
Further, this musical flow is not under the control of any particular brain system but reflects the joint interaction of all active neural systems, at all levels of interaction. The pleasure-center view would have us believe that musical flow is regulated by those specific pleasure centers. If musical pleasure is not localized in a few centers, it follows that musical flow is not regulated by those centers. We have mutual adjustment and interaction here and there, indeed everywhere, but no omniscient master dictating the terms of the neural dance. Music’s pleasures have no master.


Pleasure, of course, has its opposite in pain. So far as we can tell, the nervous system doesn’t have anything that can be called a pleasure system. By contrast, the nervous system certainly does have pain receptors, a pain system, and pain centers, though the exact workings of this system are mysterious. The basic purpose of the pain system is to warn the organism about (possible) physical damage, which is detected by receptors in the skin. The neurology of pain is thus quite different from that of pleasure, its nominal opposite.

I believe that, in fact, the functional opposite of pleasure is not pain but anxiety. Just as pleasure is the subjective experience of a coherent overall pattern of neural activity, so anxiety is the subjective experience of an incoherent pattern. In Csikszentmihalyi’s formulation of flow, anxiety is the overall pattern of neural activity that occurs when you try to perform a task that is far too difficult. You simply have not mastered the necessary mental or physical routines. You fumble and fidget, lose track of where you are, and can’t think of what to do next. This is all quite uncomfortable; you feel anxious.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Trumpeter’s Delight

This is related to yesterday’s impressions of The Science of Orgasm and to earlier posts on sexual metaphysics and mystical oblivion.
Bright Moments

I don’t know exactly when it first happened to me, but let’s say I was 12 or so. That seems about right.

I was in my room practicing my trumpet. All of a sudden I felt light-headed, warm & fuzzy, everything went white on me, and for perhaps a split second I fainted – it’s hard to tell about these things, especially when they happened so long ago. When it was over, I sat down on my bed – for I’d been standing while playing – and pondered. I was OK, it had felt good, but did I have some disease? Maybe a strange and awful disease? Maybe even cancer, whatever that was?

So I didn’t tell anyone. Who could I tell, after all? Who could I talk to about something like that?

And it happened again. Just how long after that first time, I don’t know. I wasn’t keeping a diary. But soon enough that I remembered the first time. Maybe within a week, a month, probably not much more. Was I sick? And then again. Felt good, but still the worries?

And it’s been happening to me ever since. For fifty years or so there’ve been these delightful moments during trumpet playing. At its most intense I feel dizzy and very light, warm, and bathed in bright white light. Then, a few seconds later, I come down. Still feeling good, feeling strong and rested.

I long ago stopped worrying about whether or not I was sick. I wasn’t. In fact, such ‘bright moments’ are fairly common among trumpet players. It’s something that just seems to happen every now and then. In fact, one can even find more or less standard physiological explanations of it. It has to do, in one version, with constricting the veins in the neck, making it difficult for old blood to leave the head and thus for new oxygenated blood to get to the brain. I’ve also read that it happens when blowing pressure converges on the diastolic blood pressure in the neck arteries; presumably this restricts blood flow to the brain and induces momentary oxygen debt.



Let’s set that issue aside for a moment and compare my description of the subjective experience with yesterday’s descriptions of orgasm, you find similar phrases (underlined):
A sudden feeling of lightheadedness followed by an intense feeling of relief and elation. A rush. Intense muscular spasms of the whole body. Sense of euphoria followed by deep peace and relaxation.

The period when the orgasm takes place—a loss of a real feeling for the surroundings except for the other person. The movements are spontaneous and intense.

Basically it’s an enormous buildup of tension, anxiety, strain followed by a period of total oblivion to sensation then a tremendous expulsion of the buildup with a feeling of wonderfulness and relief.
I find that overlap must interesting, most suggestive. But there are obvious differences. Those descriptions of orgasm also talk about “intense muscular spasms of the whole body” and “an enormous buildup of tension, anxiety, strain.” My description didn’t have anything like that.

But then I didn’t describe everything. While playing the trumpet is not the same as having sex, it can be fairly strenuous. Simply getting a sound out of a trumpet is difficult. It takes a great deal of muscular control. Consider the facial muscles, the ones that control tension in the lips. Those muscles are relatively small, they work hard, and one practices long hours to train them to the flexible rigors of trumpeting.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

First Impressions: The Science of Orgasm

Barry R. Komisaruk, Carlos Beyer-Flores, and Beverly Whipple. The Science of Orgasm. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
Sometime early in my graduate studies I gave a • r a t h e r  •  l o n g talk in which I argued that orgasm was a cultural creation, or something to that effect. That was three decades ago and, consequently, I don’t remember just what I argued. But I was certainly arguing that, whatever orgasm is, it doesn’t seem to be so biologically-given as we seem to think.

Why would I argue such a thing? After all, isn’t orgasm central to sex, and sex central to reproduction? No sex, no fertilization. No fertilization, no kids. No kids, no more people. No?

Well, no, not quite. Yes: no ejaculation, no fertilization. But is ejaculation always orgasmic? That depends on how you define orgasm. Consider these gender-disguised descriptions (from The Science of Orgasm, p. 5):
A sudden feeling of lightheadedness followed by an intense feeling of relief and elation. A rush. Intense muscular spasms of the whole body. Sense of euphoria followed by deep peace and relaxation.

The period when the orgasm takes place—a loss of a real feeling for the surroundings except for the other person. The movements are spontaneous and intense.

Basically it’s an enormous buildup of tension, anxiety, strain followed by a period of total oblivion to sensation then a tremendous expulsion of the buildup with a feeling of wonderfulness and relief.
If that’s what you have in mind when you think of orgasm, then, I gotta’ tell you, ejaculation is not necessarily like that. It can be, but by no means always. So do we count ejaculation as orgasm, or not? Well, it depends on how you want to define orgasm, no?

Yes. And there’s the rub. But let’s side-step that issue and consider only one issue that’s at stake. If ejaculation is not synonymous with male orgasm, then is it in fact the case, as commonsense seems to have it, that men achieve orgasm more readily than women? Maybe not, maybe not. And if that’s the case, then the commonsense sexual score card is all shot to hell, isn’t it?

That’s one of the things I had on my mind when I gave that talk three decades ago. That’s not the only thing, but it’s enough to give you a sense of what I was thinking about.

The question before me now is whether or not I could make a similar argument today. Three decades is a long time in today’s research environment. And, while a generally conservative political climate has put a damper on some lines of research, still, much has been learned in the last three decades.

And so I ordered The Science of Orgasm a week ago. Tt arrived two days ago, with a dust jacket tastefully designed to mimic a brown-paper wrapper. I’ve not had a chance to read the book, but I have leafed through it to get an impression of what the book’s like. My initial impression is favorable. There’s lots of stuff here, and the book seems readable enough.

* * * * *

The first thing I did was check the index and the bibliography for Wilhelm Reich. Not there. Hmmm. If Reich had been mentioned, then I would have looked to see what the authors had to say about him; that would give me a quick ‘read’ on the book’s overall posture.

Why Reich? Yes I know that he wasted a lot of time worrying about some mythical orgone energy. But before he got lost in the pseudo-science he did realize that there was a distinction to be made between orgasm considered as a full-body ‘discharge’ and ejaculation, a ‘sneeze’ in the male genitals that results in the expulsion of semen. That distinction is problematic in umpteen different ways, but there is an issue there—one having to do with mind and body and, when you get down to it, being human (sexual metaphysics again)—and Reich’s insistence on it rippled through subsequent work on male sexuality through Kinsey in the 1950s and at least into the early 1970s if not beyond. In that it marches alongside the psychoanalytic distinction between clitoral and vaginal orgasms in women. As such it is one of the primary provocations in a long and inconclusive discussion about just what the hell do we mean by orgasm anyhow? [Note: see addendum added after posting.]

So that’s why I looked for signs of Reich. Not finding any, I browsed here and there and eventually caught this clause in Chapter 22, “Imaging the Brain during Sexual Arousal and Orgasm” (p. 256): “While there is no evidence of orgasm in female rats . . . “ That’s enough for now, the diagnostic phase of my reading.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Nina Paley: Talking About Art is Creepy

On Thursday afternoon, July 1st of this year, I visited Nina Paley in her apartment in the West Village in Manhattan to interview her about Sita Sings the Blues. We spent a little over an hour talking about the Agni Pariksha episode and looking at screen shots. When that discussion had died down Paley indicated that she had something more that she wanted to say. So I cranked up the digital recorder again and we chatted, this time about the tricky business of talking about art.

* * * * *

BB: What’s your thought?

NP: My thought is that it makes me uncomfortable to talk about art this way. And it reminds me of talking about religion. I think that’s one of the problems with religion is that there’s a spiritual experience that’s then mediated by words. And that people latch onto the words and the words don’t actually help them with the spiritual experience which kind of has a mind of its own.

And, talking about art, art is a media. So it’s an artist that has an experience, and then . . . When you witness art, you’re witnessing an artist’s experience that’s been mediate by the artist. And then when you describe, you’re now mediating that. So now someone’s reading descriptions of something and it becomes, with each iteration, further and further removed from what it’s actually about.

BB: Uh huh.

NP: That’s all. [Unintelligible] I’m just so aware of inability of words, of the inadequacy of words, to really describe any of this. Or not describe – I mean you can describe it, but you can’t convey it.

And I also wonder because of what I’ve seen in art schools, where people are really into describing this stuff. And its like they become worse and worse artists. So I have a kind of fear of analyzing it, because I don’t want to become attached to the words.

I don’t want my experience of what’s going on with me being mediated that way. Because I have a direct line. The less I talk about it, the more direct the line is.

BB: So, well, OK, I mean . . .

NP: Does that happen to you though? I mean you analyze the hell out of music, but you still connect with music.

BB: Yeah. I mean, for me, making the music is one thing. Analyzing it is a different world. They just don’t interfere. I mean when I’m playing music, I’m playing music. I’m certainly not thinking about it. And when I’m analyzing it, that’s just something entirely different. And the same with literature or anything else.

When I’m stepping through these films, frame by frame or whatever. I don’t for a second think that this is the same thing as sitting there and watching it. It’s a different thing; it’s a different activity.

This is an issue that’s sorta’ at the heart of trying to figure out what the hell literary criticism is supposed to be.

NP: Well at least literary criticism is words talking about other words. This is art criticism. This is visual art criticism, music criticism.

BB: But you know, in the end it’s really the same. You use words in literature very differently than you use them in talking about literature. But some critics talk as though what they’re trying to do is recover the experience by writing criticism.

NP: That’s funny. Like of all the art criticism that I’ve read, I’ve gotten the most out of literary criticism. I’ve gotten a lot out of literary criticism. I’ve gotten very little, except may be a few laughs, out of visual art criticism. But I have gotten a lot out of literary criticism.

What would happen if you criticized a book by writing a song about it? Or like, maybe books should be reviewed as pictures, and maybe that would –

BB: But that means that only artists could review books.

NP: Well only literary critics can review books. So how is that any less fair? Right? Only art critics can review art.

BB: On the internet anyone can review whatever they damn well please.

NP: I actually think . . . I’m gonna’ defend what I said about, even though the words are being used differently, it’s still words commenting on words. And there’s actually pretty great pictures commenting on pictures. Even though the pictures are not the same, or using the same techniques, or saying the same thing. One is commenting on another one. But that can actually be . . . I certainly hear music commenting on music even though the notes aren’t being used they same way. The music is saying something about music. Actually I think there is something about the compatibility of . . .

Anyway, I want to eat food.

* * * * *

A couple of recent posts seem germane. It Shook Me, the Light is about a spiritual experience I had while playing music; it affected me deeply, but I can say how, or why, and I certainly cannot convey what transpired in those few moments. Q. Where’s Reality? A. Which One? is about living in multiple, but ultimately incommensurate, worlds, like art and art criticism. And you might as well look at Sex and Metaphysics and Language about Language.

Beyond that, I’ve written a bunch of posts about literary criticism over at The Valve. You can find an annotated list here. You could start with the oldest one, from 2005: From Frye to the Buffistas, with a glance at hermeneutics along the way.

Nina Paley is the creator of Mimi & Eunice and is unleashing them on the world under a copyleft license.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Trees and Sky

And then the Funk Arrived

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post on plainsong and the creation of Europe. It is adapted from Beethoven’s Anvil, pp. 247-249.
During the 19th century Europe’s formal, learned artistic tradition embraced the idea of the “noble savage,” a descendant of the earlier notion of the Wild Man living in a state of natural purity untainted by civilization. It is through that lens that European high culture saw the hybrid vernacular music that had arisen in American through the misogynating rhythms of West Africa and European peasant culture. We can see noble savagery at work in the famous remarks that the conductor Ernst Ansermet made when we first heard Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra on tour in Europe in 1919:
The blues occurs when the Negro is sad, when he is far from home, his mammy, or his sweetheart. Then, he thinks of a motif or a preferred rhythm, and takes his trombone, or his violin, or his banjo, or his clarinet, or his drum, or else he sings, or simply dances. And on the chosen motif, he plumbs the depths of his imagination. This makes his sadness pass away,—it is the Blues.
Ansermet goes on to single out one musician for special praise:
There is in the Southern Syncopated Orchestra an extraordinary clarinet virtuoso who is, so it seems, the first of his race to have composed perfectly formed blues on the clarinet. I’ve heard two of them which he had elaborated at great length ... they gave the idea of a style, and their form was gripping, harsh, with a brusque and pitiless ending like that of Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto. I wish to set down the name of this artist of genius; as for myself, I shall never forget it—it is Sidney Bechet. When one has tried so often to rediscover in the past one of those figures to whom we owe the advance of our art ... what a moving thing it is to meet this very black, fat boy with white teeth and narrow forehead ... but who can say nothing of his art, save that he follows his “own way,” and when one thinks that his “own way” is perhaps the highway the whole world will swing along tomorrow.
Taken together, these passages reveal an astounding blend of admiration and condescension. Ansermet recognizes the power of the music he heard and the extraordinary skill of one musician, whom he compared to one of the canonical figures of his own tradition. Yet it is quite clear that Ansermet considers himself superior to both the music and the musician. 

Such was the attitude of the cultivated European at the end of the 19th century. Europe’s colonies and ex-colonies spanned the globe; its museums displayed artifacts from an extraordinary range of cultures. Its scholars were writing ethnographic studies of primitives the world over while Freud was theorizing about the primitive impulses in the minds of proper Viennese gentlefolk. The triumph of reason over emotion was seen as the hallmark of the civilized.

Throughout most of the 19th century romanticism thrived in music, and with it the notion of the romantic genius—an idea clearly conflated with that of the noble savage in Ansermet’s account of Bechet. Romanticism, in turn, produced nationalistic music, in which composers sought out and incorporated folk tunes and dances into their works. With composers such as Borodin, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov, the Russian school was one of the most prominent among the nationalists. Igor Stravinsky was Rimsky-Korsakov’s most famous student and his early ballets, Firebird, Petruska, and Le sacre du printemps, were in the nationalist tradition, making extensive use of folk songs and dances. Of these, Le sacre, with a scene in which an adolescent girl dances herself to death in a pagan celebration of spring, represents the strongest break from previous tradition. The insistent rhythms shattered the Gregorian aesthetic contract in which music was inscribed in a world were the mind and heart were divorced from the body.

That contract had been eroding from some time. For example, the rolling rhythms of Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Op. 111, seem to presage boogie-woogie piano figures, Chopin’s dance-inflected polyrhythms threaten the conventions of Western meter, and the waltz was raising temperatures in ballrooms across Europe. Yet these and other works only challenged the Gregorian contract. Stravinsky shattered it.

The 1913 premier of Le sacre was a scandal, one of the most notorious in the history of Western music. The scandal was relatively short-lived, and Stravinsky’s place in 20th century Western classical music was readily secured. But the place of that body of music in Western concert halls has never been secure. Classical concerts would continue to be dominated by works that adhered to the Gregorian contract. Those who sought music outside the bounds of that contract looked to a different musical tradition, the one Ansermet observed in the playing of Sidney Bechet.

As Ansermet foresaw, that is indeed the highway—though railway would be a better metaphor—along which the world was to swing. Across the Atlantic, in North America, new music was brewing, not romantic, even in the sense of Nietzsche’s Dionysian tragedians. Rather, Africa and Europe had been coupling and that coupling bore fruit in various musics: spirituals, the blues, ragtime, jazz, rock, rhythm and blues, and hiphop.

Those various musics have circled the globe and created new hybrids wherever they’ve taken root, including in Africa. All the world dances to the grooves that have come from this interaction. Whether or not this will prove to be the foundation of a new transnational culture, or family of cultures, that’s an interesting question. I have no way of speculating about that, nor even any sense of whether or not that would a good thing.

Only time will tell.

But then that’s what music does, gives a voice to time.

A rather more tangible question is this: Just what cultural function does this funky music serve? Why is it so very attractive that every culture that encounters it, creates a version it’s own?

Monday, August 23, 2010

How Plainsong was Midwife to Europe

This is revised from pages 245-247 of Beethoven’s Anvil, Basic Books, 2001.
Medieval Europe was inhabited by a collection of tribes and states, shot through with tendrils of Christianity following the remains of the Roman Empire and with the Islamic world pushing up in Spain. European culture, considered as a specific constellation of ideas, modes of expression, and forms of organization, hardly existed, nor did any of those people think of themselves are European. Europe, as such, originated in Christendom, and the core institution of Christendom, the Christian Church, was held together, not only by religious doctrine, but by religious ritual and practice.

Plainsong was at the center of that ritual, and much religious practice as well. During the medieval period most plainsong was used within religious communities as a daily aspect of their religious life, rather than being performed with a congregation on Sundays. While this body of music has its roots in pre-Christian music of the Jewish service, it is generally known as Gregorian chant, after Pope Gregory I, who played a major role in organizing and codifying the chants late in the 6th Century CE. These chants are generally regarded as the fountainhead of Western classical music, all of whose forms have some link to this Gregorian lineage, though many other musics will eventually be put to classical use. For this reason we can think of the classical music as developing under a Gregorian Contract.

Plainsong is pure melody, sung in unison, utterly without pulse and meter. It is, in effect, spirit without body. That is the core conception that over the course of centuries becomes stretched and modified, both by extending its own devices (e.g. the development of parallel vocal lines and then polyphony) and by assimilating other types of music, including various dance styles, whether the courtly minuet of the Baroque and Classical periods or the mazurkas beloved by Chopin.

Plainsong is also the source of Western musical notation. The earliest notation appears in manuscripts from the ninth century and makes no use of the staff that became typical of later notation. The symbols representing the notes are called neumes and appear to be derived from hand gestures used to indicate the direction of melodic flow. Neumes indicate only relative pitch, rather than the absolute pitch of contemporary notation, and note durations are not clearly represented. We must regard this notation as a mnemonic aid, signs to help one remember melodies one has heard and sung. Without that prior experience, the neumes are deeply ambiguous. It would take several centuries for neumes to evolve into modern notation.

* * * * *

The various tribes, cities, and states of Medieval Europe were all, in some measure, under the sway of the Roman Catholic church, and thus of its plainsong-based ritual. Europe was dotted with communities of chanting religious, and congregations would hear chanting at church services. Plainsong thus has geopolitical implications. While Europe’s various cultures each had their own local musics, they all had plainsong as a common musical practice.

European tribes first began to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world as Christians. As such they deemed themselves superior to all infidels—such as the Arabs, who showed their inferiority by studying mathematics and drinking coffee rather than alcohol. It wasn’t until the 17th century, after the Western Church had been split by the Reformation, that the secular concept of Europe replaced the sacred concept of Christendom as a touchstone of identity.

Just as humankind originated through music-making somewhere in Africa, so Europe begins to unify through the sacred music-making of the chanting religious. As that body of music begins to differentiate and develop, it moves into secular contexts and mingles with vernacular musics. From this process, over a course of centuries, emerges the high art known as classical music—at least within the Western nations. Some of that music was written to sacred ends—for instance, the cantatas and masses of Johann Sebastian Bach. Some was written for the opera in its various forms. And some was written for aristocratic patrons, a state of affairs that continued well into the 19th century.

* * * * *

Without plainsong, no church. Without the church, no Europe. Without Europe, no Western culture. Without Western culture . . . What?

Could all of those tribes have been unified under a different musical regime, one based, for example, on the musics of West Africa? In a way, of course, that’s what’s been happening since the early 20th century, when jazz and blues migrated out of America and make its way to the rest of the world, to be followed by rock and hip-hop. But that’s now, more or less. What about back then? Would it have been possible then? Or were the states of mind, the modes, engendered by plainsong necessary to the intellectual work that was central to the European enterprises of trade, commerce, technology, and science?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

From yesterday's catch in Jersey City

Danger Modes

Note: November 2015: Bloggingheads.tv has changed their backend software, so the clips I've embedded below no longer appear. But the links work.
Think of this as a pendant to my series of posts on mode and behavior. It involves no general discussion but, rather, is about one or two modes. And I’m not discussing them. The discussion is by Jessica Stern, author of Denial: A Memoir of Terror, and Garance Franke-Rota, who writes for The Washington Post. The discussion takes place on bloggingheads.tv and centers on Stern’s book, which centers on her own rape, at 15, and its aftermath.

My interest is narrower, in passages in this nine-minute section of the conversation. Consider this statement by Stern where she’s talking about war correspondents are writing to her.

Here’s a rough transcription:
War correspondents are saying, gosh, I really know exactly what you’re talking about, that I become calm when I’m endangered. And some have said I think I’ve become addicted to living in this kind of situation. Danger, addicted to living in a dangerous situation. I think what happens is one is very well equipped to deal with danger, and certainly happens in a war zone. [Where one] goes into a state that is life-preserving in a war zone, but is not life-affirming at home. I got a really moving email from a psychologist who said that she is very good at dealing with high-risk situations, and she tries to be a good mother and a good wife, but she thought she was much better at her work, which is kind of heart-breaking. One letter saying you know me, you know me. I am someone who can handle dangerous situations and cannot necessarily handle normal life.
Here’s another clip, first Franke-Rota:

But I also sometimes wonder [about] that stilling quality that you describe. I mean like where that comes from in human nature. What is that? It seems very primal; that is something that people experience. Is that what animals feel like when they get eaten. That quality of stillness in the middle of chaos. I wonder how deep it goes in our biology, the capacity for moving in a calculated way, in the midst of something very disastrous.

Stern: Yeah, I think it’s very hard to know, in advance, how we’ll react to abject terror and whether this fight-flight-freeze. Freezing is another reaction, it does feel quite animal, and so does the capacity to remain calm in chaos. You feel animal, I agree with you. You feel completely physical; it’s a chemical reaction. It doesn’t feel like something one can control. It might be nice to bring that on in certain situations. I don’t think it’s something you can will to happen, or maybe you can train yourself to.
It’s hard to know exactly what they’re talking about — fighting, fleeing, or freezing strike me as being different modes (especially freeing, which IS an animal survival technique) — but that apparent fact that one cannot WILL such a state suggests to me that it is a modal state. The whole tenor of the discussion suggests that it is very basic and deep in our behavioral biology.

Earlier posts in this series:
The second post is the one most directly relevant to this post.

ADDENDUM: Gordon Marino has an interesting column in The New York Times on the moral value of learning to box.
Boxing provides practice with fear and with the right, attentive supervision, in quite manageable increments. In their first sparring session, boxers usually erupt in “fight or flight” mode. When the bell rings, novices forget everything they have learned and simply flail away. If they stick with it for a few months, their fears diminish; they can begin to see things in the ring that their emotions blinded them to before. More importantly, they become more at home with feeling afraid. Fear is painful, but it can be faced, and in time a boxer learns not to panic about the blows that will be coming his way.

Friday, August 20, 2010


What’s Human? Why do we do what we do?

No sooner do I argue that even human sexuality has transcended the biological than a bunch of status-seeking EPers have to take a swipe at old Abe. By Abe I mean Abraham Maslow, in particular, his hierarchy of needs, an idea dating back to the 1940s. Maslow argued that our needs could be arranged in a hierarchy with physiological needs at the bottom, then safety, love, esteem and, at the top, self-actualization.

I can't say that I ever thought of Maslow's hierarchy as anything other than a useful metaphor. And the New Agers and the Oprah-squad have been been busy eliding the difference between self-actualization and narcisstic self-absorption. But surely THE most important use of the pyramid was to assert that something beyond biology is driving us humans.

This current revision is just standard-issue evpsych reductionism. Here, apparently, is the rationale:
The new pyramid is based on the premise that our strongest and most fundamental impulse, which shapes our day-to-day desires on an unconscious level, is to survive long enough to pass our genes to the next generation. According to this school of thought, backed by considerable — though not irrefutable — evidence, all our achievements are linked in one way or another to the urge to reproduce.

In other words, aside from our powerful brains, we’re pretty much like every other living creature. . . .

“There is such a thing as self-actualization, developing your inner potential, a self-need to become brilliant at whatever you’re doing,” says Kenrick, who studied classical guitar before devoting his professional life to academic research. “I just don’t think it’s divorced from biology.

“The reason our brains work this way — the reason we’re always so curious, we’re trying to solve problems, we’re trying to perfect the product of our creativity — it’s because when our ancestors used their big cerebral cortexes in those ways, the result was an increase in reproductive success.”
Um, err, well . . . sure. But, I’m afraid, but not terribly interesting. It doesn’t explain important facets of our behavior, such as the sexual metaphysics I described yesterday. The problem is that we humans engage in a lot of activities that are intrinsically rewarding. They are pleasurable in and of themselves. We may also be rewarded for these activities in one way or another – including money, prestige, and, yes, access to hot babes and hunky guys – but the fact is devote a great deal of energy these things that is not proportionate to those external rewards. Why? Because the activity itself pleases us.

In the large and over time, yes, groups tend to reproduce themselves. And one reason they do that is, yes, to ensure the survival of their ideas and ideals. And when those ideas and ideals clash with reality – perhaps the reality of more powerful folks over there, with better weapons, or the wells are running dry, all of them – some groups prefer their ideas and ideals over the life prospects of their grandchildren. Crazy, I know, but that’s how we are.

Reproduction is just the outer envelope of biological possibility. The range of things we can do within that envelope is so large and various, however, that the envelope itself tells us very little about the specific choices we make. If we want to explain how individuals make those choices we’re going to have to look elsewhere. Self-actualization has become rather shopworn. So let’s replace it with something else even as we also revise the rather static metaphor of the pyramid.

* * * * *

Meanwhile Elaine Howard Ecklund at Rice University has published a study showing that male scientists are more likely to regret not having more children than female scientists:
When asked about "denied parenthood" -- having fewer children than they would have wanted, many more women (45 percent) than men (24 percent) said they had fewer because they chose to pursue a scientific career. However, Ecklund said, "Men are harder hit by this than women. Not having as many children as they wanted has a more negative impact on their life satisfaction than it does for women."
I suppose the EPers might leap on this an exclaim: “Aha! See, we told you. Reproduction trumps self-actualization.”

Not so fast. The scientists did, after all, choose career over more kids. As for the regrets, we have to make trade-offs, all the time. We can’t have it all. Why? Because it is easy for us to want more than we can have, very easy. And so we have to make choices and deny ourselves things that would bring us satisfaction.

Whatever ‘self-actualization’ is, having it all isn’t in the picture.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sex and Metaphysics

It may be a bit of an exaggeration to say that we humans are obsessed with sex, but only a bit. The question is: Why? Yes, sex is necessary for reproduction and, in consequence, sexual feelings are very strong and insistent. Sex is often, though not always, pleasurable.

But that’s not enough. Oh, it may be enough for evolutionary psychologists, but they don’t demand much of their psychology. Even at that, the biological rules of sex are, still, a bit obscure. The cultural games we play with them, they are infinitely varied.

Take that Shakespeare sonnet I’ve been exploring, 129, The expense of spirit. That’s about sex. But it’s also about desire, pleasure, guilt, will and reason. All of those things intermingled. It’s about metaphysics.

There’s the rub: How’d sex become metaphysical? Just what is the knowledge in carnal knowledge?

Consider this Wikipedia passage about Tantric ritual; notice all the technical terms (in Sanscrit):
When enacted as enjoined by the Tantras, the ritual culminates in a sublime experience of infinite awareness for both participants. Tantric texts specify that sex has three distinct and separate purposes—procreation, pleasure, and liberation. Those seeking liberation eschew frictional orgasm for a higher form of ecstasy, as the couple participating in the ritual lock in a static embrace. Several sexual rituals are recommended and practiced. These involve elaborate and meticulous preparatory and purificatory rites. The sexual act itself balances energies coursing within the pranic ida and pingala channels in the subtle bodies of both participants. The sushumna nadi is awakened and kundalini rises upwards within it. This eventually culminates in samadhi, wherein the respective individual personalities and identities of each of the participants are completely dissolved in a unity of cosmic consciousness.
What are they talking about? Liberation — from what? Cosmic consciousness — what’s that? What’s this about dissolving? Whatever this is, it isn’t monkey glands on overdrive, it’s something else. Those Tantra adepts are using biology for something that transcends biology. But what?

‘Transcend’ — that’s a term that comes up often in such discussions, along with ecstasy, union, dissolution. All are common to the discourse of mysticism as well. Sex and mysticism, two peas in a pod — whoops! there’s a biological metaphor. Mystics use sexual metaphors, and sexuality drives even the prosaic among us to the edge of mysticism.

* * * * *

I’ve got two guesses. One: While ecstasy and transcendence are available anytime, anywhere, while doing anything — so sayeth the Zen masters ZAP! — they’re most likely to sneak up on us during sex. If so, then, one would like to know why.

My other guess is not unrelated to the first, but it’s more complicated.

The basic circuits for sexuality, like other biological drives, is located deep in the core of the brain in the limbic system. Except for sexuality, those drives are active from birth. But much of the brain is quite immature at birth, especially the neocortex, which is phylogenetically the newest part of the brain. And it’s where our ‘higher’ capacities are more or less localized. All the other emotional and motivational equipment becomes integrated into the ever more sophisticated patterns of thought, desire, and action that are realized in the maturing cortex.

Along comes adolescence and WHAM! the whole system becomes unglued. All of a sudden distinctly new feelings and motivations have to be integrated into one’s repertoire of thoughts and actions. Even if you grow up in a culture that more or less “makes room” for sexuality, it still comes as a shock. Knowing it's going to happen, play-acting at more adult behavior when you're a child, that doesn't really prepare you for having to deal with a whole new hormonal riot. What’s new and confusing is the riot itself.

Now, let’s put sexuality aside for a moment and look at cognitive development. Jean Piaget, the Swiss developmental psychologist, worked out the theory of stages on cognitive development starting with sensorimotor, then pre-operational, concrete operations, and then, at adolescence, formal operations. Formal operations allows for abstract thought, thoughts about god and country, but also mathematics and philosophy.

And that leads to my second guess. Sex becomes intertwined with metaphysics because our sexual impulses become active during the same period in development that abstract thought emerges. For reasons I've never really attempted to work out, I suspect that if the capacity for abstract thought becomes established before hormonal puberty, there's a chance that the new feelings and motives will be treated as foreigners, strangers that have taken refuge in one's own body.

And that's what's so freaky about sex. None of our feelings and emotions are under control of the will. But they’re all familiar to us as we move into adolescence. We’re used to them. They have their homes in our lives, their paths and hangouts. We know them even if we cannot control them.

Sexuality is a stranger.

In that strangeness it, more than any other behavioral system, links our most basic and primitive capacities with our most abstract. At once act and thought, deed and desire, it is metaphysics in life.
Note: These two posts aren't quite about sex. But they're in the same neighborhood: bundling, romantic love.

The Old Chocolate Factory 2: South Site

The abandoned Van Leer chocolate factory occupied two sites off Hoboken Avenue at the northern border of downtown Jersey City. Last week I posted flicks from the northern-most site. Now I'll post flicks from the other site, a long stone's throw south. 

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mode & Behavior 5: The Autobiographical Self

This is, I suppose, the last in my series of posts about behavioral mode (I’ve listed the others at the end of this post). In this post I take up the problem of autobiographical continuity: if our memories are neurochemically ‘keyed’ to emotions, desires, and moods, then how can we possibly construct a coherent account of our lives? Won’t any attempt to remember, to reconstruct, the past be biased by our current mood?

I argue that play-acting and story-telling are the keys to this problem. Through those imaginative activities we create a psycho-cultural space in which it is possible to assemble a coherent autobiography. I am thus arguing the art provides the prototypes through which we recollect our lives.
Note: This post is based on two earlier pieces, a post at The Valve, Emotion Recollected in Tranquility, and a long article originally published in PsyArt, First Person: Neuro-Cognitive Notes on the Self in Life and in Fiction (abstract and link to PDF). The PsyArt article contains documentation that I’ve omitted from this post.
Autobiography and Dissociated Identity Disorder

In two recent books Antonio Damasio (Descartes’ Error, The Feeling of What Happens) has articulated a theory of the neural self. Damasio distinguishes between a core facet that is an integrated representation of one's body states and an autobiographical facet. These selves—Damasio does refer to these systems as selves even as he refers to the neural self to mean both of these systems—are best conceived as processes, not things, and are subserved by extensive networks. Neither of these processes is the master process that runs the whole show—Damasio rejects the notion of such a process. As its name suggests, the autobiographical self organizes the historical events of one's life and imagines future events. The core self organizes sensations from the body's interior milieu and somesthetic and kinesthetic senses into an on-going evaluation of one's current body state.

But I’m not interested in the core self. I’m interested in the autobiographical self. In particular, in the problem of establishing a continuous and routinely accessible representation of the events of one’s life.

Let’s approach this indirectly by considering dissociative identity disorder (DID), an extreme pathology in which the neural self is fractured. In DID, also known as multiple personality disorder, one biological individual exhibits several different identities, each having different memories and personal style. In Thigpen and Cleckley's classic study (The 3 Faces of Eve) Eve had three personalities; Schreiber's (1973) Sybil had sixteen. Although there has been some controversy over whether or not DID is real or simply the effect of zealous therapeutic invention and intervention, there is no doubt that at least some cases are genuine (Schachter, Searching for Memory 1996, 236-242).

These different identities have different personal histories. The events in one personal history typically are unknown to the other histories. Each identity will have blank periods in its history, intervals, obviously, where another identity was being enacted. And the different "persons" are often unaware of one another. Further, the different identities seem to have different personal styles, different modes of speech, of movement, of dress, and so forth. Thus both the core and autobiographical selves seem to be riven.

We do not, so far as I know, understand why or how DID happens. It is not, however, the result of the sort of gross destruction of brain tissue that underlies anosognosia. Noting that different the identities seem to favor different moods and that "memories established in one mood state are often more readily recalled in that same mood state than in a different one," Daniel Schachter (p. 238) suggests that "different moods and roles come to be labeled with separate names. Different selves emerge to handle different desires and emotions. This suggests problems with brain neurochemistry.

And that, of course, brings us back to behavioral mode (as laid out in the second post). I thus note that Damasio himself has argued that the RF and closely associated structures play a critical role in "managing body states and representing current body states. Those activities are not incidental to the brain stem's well-established activation role: they may be the reason why such an activation role has been maintained evolutionarily and why it is primarily operated from that region" (Feeling, 274). That is consistent with Warren McCulloch’s model.

My suggestion about DID, then, is that the mechanism that switches between one identity and another is fundamentally neurochemical. Each identity favors a particular mode, or, more likely, a set of modes. An identity becomes regnant when brain neurochemistry favors it. The perceptions and memories relevant to the modes of that identity will become easily arousable while those relevant to other modes will be all but impossible to arouse. Among individuals unaffected by DID the neurochemical milieu will bias cortical tissue toward a particular set of perceptions and memories but will not necessarily make other perceptions and memories impossible to reconstruct. In the case of DID this neurochemical process is taken to an extreme where whole ranges of perceptions and memories become absolutely unavailable depending on what neurochemicals are currently active. The state space of the brain has become fractured along neurochemical lines, breaking the self into many selves.

Note that this explanation of DID not only tells us how the brain switches from one identity to another—RF control over cortical arousal—but also suggests that the various neural selves do not have to be in physically separate tissue. They can exist within the same volume of neural tissue. They are differentiated by chemical sensitivity, not by physical location.

Of course, one doesn't have to think about this model too long before suspecting that it gives us more than we've bargained for. After all, neurochemistry is known to be implicated in various neurological and psychiatric problems, and one can easily imagine it to be implicated in problems where we currently have no specific knowledge. But ALL THAT is not my immediate concern. For my purposes it is enough to note that neurochemistry thus seems to present a barrier to autobiographical continuity. One does not automatically have access to all the events the brain has registered. Autobiographical continuity is not given in the nature of the nervous system. The continuity and coherence of the neural self depends on complex matters of the neurochemistry of mood and emotion.

If our memories for life events are keyed to neurochemistry, then how can we possibly remember the events of our life at any time and place? The world of a person who is ravenously hungry is different from the world of that same person when he or she is consumed with sexual desire. Yet it is the same person in both cases. And the apple, which was so insignificant when sexually hungry—to the point where that apple wasn't part of the world at all—becomes a central object in the world once sexual desire has been satisfied and hunger asserts itself. Regardless of the person's biochemical state, it is still the same apple. If this is how the nervous system works, then how does one achieve a state of mind in which one can as easily remember an apple as a sexual object? That is to say, how does the brain achieve a biochemically “neutral” state of mind from which one can recall or imagine any kind of experience?

REVS in Jersey

"To me, once money changes hands for art, it becomes a fraudulent activity."
New York Times, 18 April 2005

[same as above, different POV]
"We think art should be dangerous. Everybody's into safe art, doing safe things in their studio. We're bringing danger back into it. It's got to be on the edge, where it's not allowed."

Hmmm . . . I wonder what REVS thinks about copyright?

[same as above, different POV]