Thursday, March 31, 2011

Music, the Brain, and the Group – OOO

I thought I’d make another gesture in the direction of object-oriented ontology (OOO) and Tim Morton. It’s not something I know much about, nor do I have any immediate plans to go there myself. Yet, for whatever reason, I’m intrigued by what Tim has to say, and others as well.

One notion, as I understand it, is that humans have no more ‘being’ than, say, a fungus; fungi have no more being than, say, a rhino virus, which has no more being than a grain of sand, and that has no more being than a quark. Being is the same all over.

I’ve got no quarrel with that. Yet, at the same time, I do believe that humans are more complex than fungi. And I’m pretty sure Morton would object to that. Still, I’m intrigued.

So let’s take that as a ‘measure’ of the distance between us.

And go on.

Let me tell you about my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil. The whole argument depends on two conceptual decisions:
  1. Music is fundamentally and irreducibility a group phenomenon.
  2. That ‘groupiness’ is to be understood as a physical connection between brains, albeit mediated by sound waves.
It works through coupling, aka coupled oscillation. You know, you attached two pendulum clocks to the wall. Start them up so they swing independently of one another. In time, they become synchronized. It’s a purely physical interaction.

Siamese Eyes, Electricity, and a Contest

This is the fifth in a series of posts on the Walter Lantz cartoon, The Greatest Man in Siam. I've listed the other posts at the end of this one. YouTube has the cartoon.
I’ve mentioned eyes several times in our on-going examination of The Greatest Man in Siam. People have eyes and so any depiction of people must necessarily show us those eyes. But this cartoon deals calls our attention to eyes in specific ways, ways that lead to deep issues.

I See You

Eyes first come into prominence when the princess is presented to us for our viewing pleasure. We see an unidentified group of men, located who knows where against a green background, ogling her:

siam 3F howlone

The first contestant, The Smartest, turns out to be cross-eyed:

siam 6 smartest

If you follow the king’s reaction closely, you’ll see that he has trouble establishing visual contact with the contestant. His eyes blink fidget around.

There’s nothing wrong with the eyes of The Richest, the second contestant. But his jewels are so bright that the light glinting off them hurts the king’s eyes.

Siam S7

Siam S8

The situation’s the same with The Fastest, the third contestant. There’s nothing odd about his eyes – though most of the time he’s moving so fast we can’t see them – but the king uses binoculars to follow him in after he’s first entered the palace. And when he’s completed his archery shot, he tosses a bowl of applesauce that lands on the king’s head and flows over the his face, forcing him to wipe his eyes clear:

Social Contract

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Wild Pansies




The Phallus in the Palace

Spotting phallic symbols in art has long been a minor sport among college sophomores. At least, it once was – I don’t know what the wise kids are up to these days. Spotting phallic symbols is so easy that one must be suspicious of them. As The Master is said to have remarked, “There are times, gentlemen, when a cigar is just a cigar.”


The trouble is, it is not always the case that phallic symbology is merely the figment of sophomoric sophistication. It is often real. In any given situation, how do you tell whether you’ve got a token of sophomoric will or a real phallic symbol?

Beats me.

In a previous post on The Greatest Man in Siam, I’ve already suggested that the grandfather clock on King Size’s lap is a phallus:

siam 5 without delay big clock

I mean, one can’t ignore where the base of that thing is, its general shape, and angle of incidence – not to mention the swinging pendulum. To that we add that Size is the king, thus making that phallus a symbol of his kingly authority.

There’s more.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Woodpecker Works

Michael Sporn’s joined the Lantz-fest with a post that touches on the role of The Woody Woodpecker Show in stoking his desire to be an animator, meeting Lantz in NYC, and commentary on various Lantzers, with screen shots from Ace in the Hole.

I too have fond memories of The Woody Woodpecker Show. It was part of my routine. I watched it religiously, often with friends. I was particularly fond on the ‘behind the scenes segments,’ where Lantz would show how cartoons were made. Hot Stuff! I certainly tried out some of the drawing tips he gave out, though I never aspired to be an animator.

But – think about it – how often did a TV show take you behind the scenes? Not often. TV shows & movies were just out there. Like ‘em or leave ‘em, you had to take them at face value, ‘cause that’s all you got to see. But Walter Lantz showed you how cartoons were made (as did Walt Disney). Even as you laughed yourself silly over Woody Woodpecker and Andy Panda and the others, you also knew something about how the magic was done. Making it just a little bit more your magic.

What I’m wondering is if this early sense of the strings, levers and pulleys in the puppets and behind the curtain is the roots of my adult interest in how art works. Not what it means, no! not that! How it works.

Potential Value

Monday, March 28, 2011

Why Siam?

The Greatest Man in Siam is nominally set in a place called “Siam.” “Siam” is an older name for Thailand, which is in Southeast Asia, of course, not the Middle East. But this cartoon is not about Thailand, or anyplace in the Middle East for that matter, in any substantial sense.

We can, and I suppose we should, critique the cartoon for its standard-issue cultural misappropriation and Orientalism. At the moment, that acknowledgment is all I’m going to do. But, as these tropes aren’t being used to comment about some other culture, just why are they being used? Why the exoticism?

siam 50 wedding

Most likely because it provides a plausible ‘cover’ for the central motif of the cartoon, the contest for the bride. That’s not the sort of thing that’s done in America, is it? So we’ve got to locate the story is some place where this sort of thing is the norm. A mythical Siam is as good a locus as any.

What we really need to know, of course, is what this bride contest is doing in the cartoon. It’s a device, for what purpose? But let’s set that aside for a minute and ask another question: Where’d this device come from?

Conversation Calls

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Greatest Social Contract in Siam

Now that we’ve had a chance to examine the critical dance sequence in the Walter Lantz cartoon, The Greatest Man in Siam, let’s take a look at the whole thing. As I remarked earlier, the cartoon seems to be a simple one in which everything is obvious. Nothing to puzzle over.

But it’s simple and obvious only because the moves and memes are familiar, because it’s built on tropes that have been circulating for a long time. As I explained previously, the story is simple: King Size is giving away his daughter’s hand in marriage. Four men compete. One wins. End with a party. It’s that simple.

* * * * *

When I set out to analyze the cartoon I was curious about one thing: Why’d the trumpet player win? What is it that he did right that the others did wrong?

Let’s not go there just yet. Let’s start at the beginning. Roughly the first two minutes or so are devoted to establishing this exotic world, one based on standard clichés about the Middle East. The opening shot tells us where we are – notice the domes, the minarets, and the color scheme:

siam 1 cityscape

Now we move around and see some gags, such as:

siam 2 marketplace

The Deep Surface, Description, and the Emptiness of Theory

This is an edited version of an email I sent to Tim Morton. I’ve been thinking of working it up into a formal post, just a quick one. But I know what happens when I think those thoughts. The quick post takes longer and longer to write and sometimes never even gets done. So I decided not to do that this time. Here it is, with a few omissions and additions. But it’s still pretty raw.
The attached post (about The Greatest Man in Siam) is an example of what I consider to be as important a kind of work a critic can do. NOT the MOST important work, but AS IMPORTTANT as anything else.

It's more or less straight-up descriptive work on a minute-long sequence in a cartoon (with most of the work on the last 20 seconds of that sequence). That I'm describing a pop-culture cartoon is secondary to the fact that I'm describing the work. We need more descriptive work. Detailed, painstaking, and accurate description.

I've concluded that, at this point in the unfolding of our disciplines, getting better descriptive control over the artifacts we study is critical. If we don't do that, then the theories don't much matter: psychoanalytic, phenomenological, neuro, cognitive, evo, deconstructive, eco, object-oriented ontology, even good old New Critical. If we don't learn to pay more attention to the sensuous surface of these works, the theorizing will simply collapse as so many grand words, glass shards, burnt twigs, shattered bones, empty exoskeletons. We know how to theorize. But we don't know how to touch and see and hear and describe what we sense.

If we're to remake our disciplines at whatever professional level we want, the remaking's got to encompass richer description. And if we want to address ourselves to a general public, well, then we've got to share our appreciation of the sensuous surface of art. Why? Because that's where the depths are, in the sensuous surface. No top, no bottom, just the sensuous thing itself. Nowhere to hide.

Alack and alas! this modest little post offers no deep insight into the problems of Humankind in the Universe, and that tells against it in a theory-infested intellectual climate where everyone goes for the Big Insight every time out. But that’s the way it is. It’s my belief that the patient accumulation of 100s and 1000s of such descriptive efforts will, in time, afford insights that never could have been had without the descriptions. If Darwin hadn’t had the benefit of 300 years of descriptive natural history he’d never have been able to spot and theorize evolution.

Now, getting back to your current hobbyhorse, I'd figure that object-oriented ontology might have a way to mount an argument on this issue, no?

Hot Pansies



Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Hottest Man in Siam

Michael Barrier’s recent post about life at the Walter Lantz studio prompted me to review what is (currently) my favorite Lantz cartoon, one of the Swing Symphonies: The Greatest Man in Siam. It’s got slammin’ music on the soundtrack, composed and directed by Darrell Calker, and featuring some ferocious playing by an uncredited trumpet player. It was directed by James Culhane and animated by Pat Matthews and Emery Hawkins.

The cartoon’s story is simple. King Size of Siam decides it’s time for his daughter to wed. So he has a competition for her hand. Four men compete in succession and the last one wins. The cartoons ends with lots of dancing.

I figured I’d take a dozen or twenty screen shots and write up a post. There’s nothing tricky or complicated about this cartoon, nothing like the brilliant oddities of Porky in Wackeyland. “It’ll be easy,” I told myself. “Snap the screenshots, say something about the brilliant trumpet playing and the dance animation, and you’re done.”

Wrong. It’s not that it turned out to be tricky in an unanticipated way. It’s just that once I started stepping through the dance sequence it got more and more interesting. I decided it just wouldn’t do to take two or three of four screen shots of it and let it go at that. No, that animation merits a closer look.

So that’s what I’m going to do in this post, take a close look at the dance sequence. Though not close enough, for you really need to step through it frame by frame to appreciate it and to watch it several times over. But at least I can point out some things to pay attention to. I’ll look at the rest of the cartoon in a later post.

Dance, Dance, Dance

The dance sequence starts a bit over five minutes into the cartoon. The smartest, richest, and fastest men in Siam have all failed in their quest for the king’s daughter. Just after the fastest failed, King Size turns to his daughter and remarks, with a chuckle, that “he burned himself out.”

siam 11 burned himself out

Then we hear a hot lick on unaccompanied trumpet. King Size and his daughter are startled, and look one another in the eye:

siam 12 the look

They look up and see a trumpeter on high:

siam 13 the trumpeter

He finishes blowing his lick and floats down to the floor where Size and daughter are located. As the trumpeter floats down he begins singing about how he’s the hottest man in Siam. When he lands he continues singing even as he does a sensuous dance directed at the daughter and observed by the king:

Monday, March 21, 2011

Nuclear Disaster: Amory Lovins and Ralph Nader

Writing at RMI Outlet, the blog for the Rocky Mountain Institute, Amory Lovins draws lessons from Fukishima, noting that the US has 6 plants identical to those and 17 very similar to them. And he notes that that pouring money money in the nuclear swamp will "reduce and retard climate protection." Thus:
Each dollar spent on a new reactor buys about 2-10 times less carbon savings, 20-40 times slower, than spending that dollar on the cheaper, faster, safer solutions that make nuclear power unnecessary and uneconomic: efficient use of electricity, making heat and power together in factories or buildings ("cogeneration"), and renewable energy. The last two made 18% of the world's 2009 electricity (while nuclear made 13%, reversing their 2000 shares)--and made over 90% of the 2007-08 increase in global electricity production.Those smarter choices are sweeping the global energy market. Half the world's new generating capacity in 2008 and 2009 was renewable. In 2010, renewables, excluding big hydro dams, won $151 billion of private investment and added over 50 billion watts (70% the total capacity of all 23 Fukushima-style U.S. reactors) while nuclear got zero private investment and kept losing capacity. Supposedly unreliable windpower made 43-52% of four German states' total 2010 electricity. Non-nuclear Denmark, 21% windpowered, plans to get entirely off fossil fuels. Hawai'i plans 70% renewables by 2025.
He further notes that:
Japan, for its size, is even richer than America in benign, ample, but long-neglected energy choices. Perhaps this tragedy will call Japan to global leadership into a post-nuclear world. And before America suffers its own Fukushima, it too should ask, not whether unfinanceably costly new reactors are safe, but why build any more, and why keep running unsafe ones. China has suspended reactor approvals. Germany just shut down the oldest 41% of its nuclear capacity for study. America's nuclear lobby says it can't happen here, so pile on lavish new subsidies.
* * * * *

In writing about Nuclear Nightmare in the USA, Ralph Nader recommends these steps:
1. Demand public hearings in your communities where there is a nuke, sponsored either by your member of Congress or the NRC, to put the facts, risks and evacuation plans on the table. Insist that the critics as well as the proponents testify and cross-examine each other in front of you and the media.

2. If you call yourself conservative, ask why nuclear power requires such huge amounts of your tax dollars and guarantees and can’t buy adequate private insurance. If you have a small business that can’t buy insurance because what you do is too risky, you don’t stay in business.

3. If you are an environmentalist, ask why nuclear power isn’t required to meet a cost-efficient market test against investments in energy conservation and renewables.

4. If you understand traffic congestion, ask for an actual real life evacuation drill for those living and working 10 miles around the plant (some scientists think it should be at least 25 miles) and watch the hemming and hawing from proponents of nuclear power.

Complaint Dept.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Adventures in Cartoons


A little over a week ago I had the notion that I should write a piece talking about what I’d learned about cartoons in the past few years. No sooner had the thought occurred to me than I realized that writing such a piece would be difficult. It’s not that I haven’t learned anything, but that what I’ve learned is difficult to summarize.

For the most part I’ve been concerned to analyze and describe cartoons. I’ve learned lots of specific things about specific cartoons, some of which I’ve written about, here and elsewhere, and some of which exists only in notes, or just ideas flitting about in my mind. But general conclusions? Well, cartoons are rich and complex.

AP 12 Sita + arm wavers


That’s hardly a conclusion. In fact, that’s why I started describing them in the first place. I already knew they were rich and complex, so much so that it’s hard to remember, accurately what happens, and how. But when you look, you see things, patterns. And they’re interesting.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Not All Flowers


Texts, Traces, and Hyperobjects

One of the strangest concepts to emerge out of the humanities in the last half century is that of the text. It started in the literary studies as, well, those marks on paper (or papyrus, or vellum, or, well, any surface that can be inscribed) that carry, say, a poem or a play or a story, you know, whatever literary texts convey. It became generalized to just about anything a critic wanted to interpret – paintings, movies, TV shows, songs and such most certainly, but also clothing and cars and packaged goods, and buildings and cities, current and not so current events (e.g. Fukishima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Alamogordo), and, well, history at whatever scale. All are texts, all can be interpreted, their meanings plumbed, and written into readings, become once again marks inscribed on surfaces.

detail, abstract principles one.jpg

I want to draw back from the grand scope of ‘the text’ and think just about those objects where this expansion began. Those things inscribed on paper in symbols representing language. Given those objects, what do we mean by the text? Certainly literary critics have meant the markings on the page, certainly them. But not only the marks. When critics have talked about ‘fidelity to the text’, they mean more than just those marks. For, without a reader, those marks are just marks, the trace of some physical process, but no more. But when apprehended by a reader, those marks set off something else. Whatever it is, that something else is also what critics aim at and reach for when they talk of ‘the text.’ Just what that something else is, well, that’s a muddle and a mystery.

Friday, March 18, 2011





“Our Friend the Atom” and He is Us

One idea that I’ve seen here and there in discussions of the nuclear emergency in Japan goes like this: “Why the coverage of the nukes? After all, thousands have already died from the earthquake and tsunami, 100s of thousands are homeless, and whole towns have been wiped away. All that damage far exceeds anything so far caused by those collapsed plants and any damage likely to be caused by them. Why not more coverage of the big story?”

The question, I believe, is a good one. And the answer, I suspect, goes like this: The earthquake and the tsunami were caused by Nature. We can take preventive measures, but we can’t predict or control them (though we’re working on prediction). Those atomic plants, however, they are Us. To say we can’t control them is to say that we can’t control ourselves. If we can’t control ourselves, are we any better than animals?

The issue of control is crucial. The difference between an atomic explosion and an atomic power plant is one of control: WE CONTROL what happens in the power plant. We can turn it on, turn it off, and make it go faster or slower. It does our bidding. Of course, it also creates dangerous radiation, which we must control. If we don’t, the radiation causes disease, cancer, mutations, strange unnatural beings, monsters (Gojira).

Back in the 1950s, when the USA and the USSR were one-upping each other, missile for missile and nuke for nuke, we were confident in our ability to control the atom for peaceful purposes. Why? Because Uncle Walt told us so. Early in 1957 Walt Disney televised a program, Our Friend the Atom, in which he made the case for peaceful uses of atomic energy. The atom, so Disney’s myth went, is like the genie in that old Arabian story:

atom genie1

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Spontaneous Combustion: Improv from the Inside

Here's a music story from bygone days. It's from my book, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture, pp. 93-94.
A number of years ago I was playing trumpet with a rhythm and blues band in a bar in downtown Albany, New York. It was two in the morning and we were exhausted at the end of a five-hour gig. My chops were shot.

We decided to play one more tune, “Stormy Monday.” Normally I didn’t solo on that tune; however, it is a slow blues, and I dearly love a slow blues. So despite my exhaustion, I decided to take a chorus—one cycle through the tune. I started playing simple figures in the lower-middle register and then elaborated on those figures and moved to the upper register. I hit my climax at the penultimate bar of the chorus, as anticipated, and was ready to stop playing. But, the rhythm section wasn’t playing concluding riffs; they clearly expected me to play another chorus. If I’d had any sense I'd have ignored them and stopped. My lips were crying out in pain; if I played much more my lip muscles would surely fail.

I didn’t like the idea of following a good chorus with a mediocre one. I couldn't remain in the trumpet’s difficult upper register, nor could I drop back to the middle register and then build back up—the two most obvious options for constructing another chorus. In a split-split second I decided “oh, what the hell” and did a Sonny Rollins, dropping to the middle register, growling and flutter tonguing to make the nastiest, bluesiest sound I could. Another power had entered my playing. Captain cat went on the prowl and the music went into overdrive. Solid.

As the band stood around after the gig, several people came up to me and chatted, touching me on the forearm on their way out. But it wasn’t me they wanted to touch. It was the power that emerged during that second chorus.

This “other power” did not possess me as fully as Leonard Bernstein seems to have been possessed by composers of music he conducted. I was at least residually aware of who, what and where I was. But I was focused on the music to an unusual degree, and my playing had an unaccustomed edge and force.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Disney Does Darwin


Another post examining Disney’s Fantasia. Here’s one about the entire film; one about Dance of the Hours; one about The Nutcracker Suite and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; and one about Ave Maria (dialog with Mike Barrier).]
Disney’s Program

Just how and why Darwin came to be on the program for Disney’s Fantasia, that I do not know, though perhaps the question could be answered though a trip to the Disney archives. There can be no doubt, however, that Darwin was on the program, even if he, and his theory of evolution, wasn’t mentioned by name. Here’s what Deems Taylor says in his on-screen introduction to Disney’s presentation of The Rite of Spring:
When Igor Stravinsky wrote his ballet The Rite of Spring, his purpose was, in his own words, “to express primitive life” So Walt Disney and his fellow artists have taken him at his word. Instead of presenting the ballet in its original form, as a simple series of tribal dances, they have visualized it as a pageant, as the story of the growth of life on Earth. It's a coldly accurate reproduction of what science thinks went on during the first few billion years of this planet's existence. So now, imagine yourselves out in space, billions and billions of years ago, looking down on this lonely, tormented little planet, spinning through an empty sea of nothingness.
He goes on to add that “Science, not art, wrote the scenario of this picture. . . . Finally, after about a billion years, certain fish, more ambitious than the rest, crawled up on land and became the first amphibians.” From there we see the age of dinosaurs, and their demise in a great heat wave. Disney had originally intended to present evolution from the beginning to the dawn of humankind, but pressure from Christian fundamentalists led him to abandon that idea.

Still, the basic idea is there on the screen. The damage, if that’s what it is, has been done.

To be sure, what we see could easily be interpreted as Lamarckian rather than Darwinian evolution. After all, the Darwinian idea is a subtle one, and presenting it on screen, without any explanatory narrative, would have been difficult. In any event, Lamarckian evolution is no more acceptable to fundamentalist Christian than Darwinian evolution. What is offensive is that one species derives from another. And that idea is on the screen.

And in the sound track. Or, just barely in the sound track. For Disney makes the point, not simply through what we see, but also through what we hear. The relationship between the two is critical to our understanding of this matter. Thus, before launching into the analysis, I want to think about the relationship between image and sound in cartoons in general and in Fantasia in particular.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

One Man on His Own in West Texas

The New York Times just ran a story about John Wells, who lives off the grid on 60 acres of West Texas desert. He calls his place the “Southwest Texas Alternative Energy And Sustainable Living Field Laboratory.” As Wells hit middle age got tired of a city-based life style and mounting debt. His father died and Wells began to rethink his life. As he says at his website:
Several years ago I began experimenting with alternative energy. I feel that the technology today has advanced enough and the costs have dropped to the point where just about anyone can make the move to off the grid living. This just happened to coincide with discovering accounts of pioneer life of some of my relatives from over 100 years ago. Their lives were difficult back then, but I sensed a feeling of great joy and accomplishment in overcoming hardship - where hard work payed off and living life was a fulfilling experience. I began to envision my life as a pioneer in the 21st century, and have chosen to follow that path.

In taking inventory of my life to this point in time, I believe that over the years I have picked up just the right skills and mentality to live my dream of how I would do it if I had it to do all over again. I suddenly found myself at the perfect point in my lifetime to go for that dream.
And so he sold his house for $600K, paid off his debts, and moved from upstate New York to Texas. He lives on rainwater, solar power, composts his wastes, and is grows vegetables. He’s got a blog going back to 2008, and a bunch of photos at his Flickr site.

Wells, of course, is in a long tradition of go it aloners. One suspects he’d be doing this regardless of the society-wide need for Transition. And that’s the point, our society needs to make such a radical decision. We don’t all have to make the decision together, but by ones and twos and tens and more, we’ve got to start moving and start changing our communities.