Thursday, July 28, 2011


Music is the only art form that has not been philosophized about in any meaningful sense. Adorno wrote a few things, Rilke wrote an amazing poem, but essentially it's just weirder, more amazing, and harder to speak about than other forms.

I remember being in the worst class ever, well the worst until last semester in my PhD program - but that's a whole nothing post. The class was called something like Aesthetics I: Philosophy of Art. And man I was stoked. I had moved over from the music department to the philosophy department. Now I could think, but I didn't know shit about philosophy. In fact I didn't really know that "philosophy" meant the history of the thoughts of 20 or so people. Nonetheless I was excited. And in this class I realized quickly, because I had met my intellectual hero Orus Barker, that this was what was called Analytical philosophy. In this class we read a bunch of people trying to define art. Somebody would say something like "Art is art if it has significant form." And I would raise my hand, rather shittily, and say "What about music? It has no lines and no spaces?" And then I was brushed off.

Then someone would say art is art is and only if it has (I really just can't remember the dumb definitions) shapes and colors?" And I would say "Music has no shapes and colors."

Eventually in a class I raised my hand - again I was a bit of a shit in these days - and I said "I don't get why we haven't looked at a single piece of art in here? Wouldn't it make sense in a philosophy of art class to start with art?" And the teacher goes, I do remember this, "Are you saying you don't like the way I'm teaching the class?" And I said - "It's your class, you can teach it anyway you want."

Anyhow, I got a B+ in that class. And that was probably what I deserved. But I realized somewhere along those lines that music was this weird thing - it never tried to represent. Music was always/already about affect. Music always was the voice of God.

So when I now think about music, years after I have seriously played classical music - I was a solo classical guitarist for an orchestra in 2006 and that was the last time I had a high-pressure classical gig - I think about dirt, the earth. Real music comes out of the ground. Blues, jazz, bluegrass, hip-hop. These are folk musics. Folk music comes from a people. Pop music, which I also love, and this becomes tricky for me, exists everywhere, usually. There are exceptions. Billie Joel feels distinctly like New York to me and Randy Newman always feels like, hell, now that I'm trying to finish that sentence I don't know. But it always feels authentic. Springsteen feels like workers and Waits feels like Vagabonds.

Woodie Guthrie wrote a song that I used to think was beyond hokey: This Land is My Land. Then I learned about him and watched that biopic with David Carradine. All of a sudden that song felt real, for the first time. The same way that Pete Seeger's song Waist Deep in the Big Muddy made me realize the beauty and profoundness of folk music, even more so than most of Bob Dylan's music.

So hell, what's the point? I don't know. This is all off the cuff. But I think the point is that music is the art that we need the most. Music is like smell - it instantly transports us, seemingly in a way that bypasses everything else. We never hear a piece of music and ask if it really looks like or sounds like a piece of music.

Where music messed up is when it tried to become atonal. Music become intimidated by these other art movements - those wonderful people like Cezanne - and said, well maybe we should get weird too. The problem, the mistake, was that music was always/already weird. It didn't need to catch up - the other forms were catching up.

And if anyone needs evidence let's just mention the name Charlie Parker.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Why I Love Pawn Stars

So when I was trying to name my blog I did it quickly - a bit too quickly. There's puns that I get but that aren't obvious, mostly concerning the word "matter." I am the opposite of a Romantic in many ways - they believed reality exists first and foremost in the mind. I believe the world moves from the outside in. Well, it's not that simple. There's certainly a negotiation between the outside and the inside. One side doesn't necessary have precedence; rather, one has been forgotten and I wish to help that.

Pawn Stars is all about objects. People bring in these wonderfully cool, weird, obscure objects and these objects immediately conjure an entire world. Somebody brings in a straight jacket used by Houdini and all of a sudden the entire audience is transported, moved through a time machine. Often people bring in old war relics. These relics move the audience to a period that I honestly usually don't care much about. I just am not that in to Civil War stuff - just a personal taste thing. But when I see these guys firing a gun that was used in the Civil War I am enthused. I did grow up shooting guns, so I can enjoy things going boom.

Also, I regularly see people bringing in signatures. Perhaps somebody has a Jimi Hendrix autographed poster or something such as this. And then I immediately have to think about the weirdness - seriously the utter strangeness of one's name. How can writing one's name produce wealth? What does the signature mean. It seems to imply a body and in doing so it becomes valuable and this is both weird and crazy and wonderful. So there's my first television plug. Maybe I should write more about The Wire.

Noam Chomsky

In my local bar where I am often found keeping a seat warm, often discussing everything from sports to beer to politics, I feel at home. I love the pub, the PUBLIC HOUSE - such a great idea; it's communal. It is the birthplace of discourse. That might not be true, but it should be and it sounds true enough to say it. Hell, truth is overrated.

So today, I was the dissenter in the political debate. This is typically the case. I am left of democrats in many ways, in most ways, but also a big fan of concepts that are considered libertarian, such as personal freedom. Now to be clear, I am not a fan of the American Libertarian movement. Mostly because they are boring, but also because I find them wrong and short-sighted.

Today like most days in these discussions I was reminded what I love so much about Noam Chomsky. He has always been principled. He doesn't care who's in office; he cares what's being done. Now this doesn't put him in some isolated class of people. But he has always been the guy I've gone to to understand global politics. While I prefer the beauty of the statements made by Continental philosophers like Derrida and Agamben, Chomsky is always clear. He's always concerned about human suffering. I don't know how to think about politics in any other way.

Recently I was watching one of my favorite shows: Curb Your Enthusiasm. And they totally misconstrued the Isreal/Palestinian problem. Sure it's a comedy show - Larry and his agent Jeff were eating at a Palestinian restaurant and since they were both Jews this provided moments for beautiful comedy. And it was hilarious. But the joke was that all Palestinians just irrationally hate the Jews because of who knows why. And that's bothersome. Now I'm not offended in the sense that i think they shouldn't be able to make jokes.

But it reminded me again of the beauty of Chomsky. Every time I watched them misrepresent the situation of the oppressed I realized that I wasn't upset because I was an ideologue - I was upset because I have basic, very simply principles about human suffering. I don't need to quote Heidegger or Nietzsche here.

And just to prove a simple point: I've emailed Noam Chomsky on more than one occasion and I've always received a reply in less than a day, even when I was totally wasting his time. I've emailed third rate professors from Buffalo and never gotten a reply.

So I will end by simply suggesting people watch the documentaries Manufacturing Consent and The Corporation, both made by the same people, and both have been documentaries that I have taught.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

On Thinking

While recently reading my favorite blog I was inspired to think about that most noble of subjects: thinking. What is a thought? Certainly it's not simply neurons firing. If you think that, you won't like anything I ever have to say. Well not everything. I like bourbon. There's some common ground for most of us.

But seriously, Heidegger says "The most thought-provoking thought in this thought-less age is that we are not yet thinking." This comes out of a wonderful set of lectures called "What is Called Thinking." The title is beautiful because of one simple word: "called." Heidegger admits that he might not know, and certainly the implication is that Western Philosophy doesn't know. In fact, Heidegger's romanticized argument is that we've forgotten how to think.

But what is great about his argument is that we can recover; we can become poetic again; we don't have to succumb to a mathematical way of thinking that is both cold and soul-deadening.

Last semester after teaching my favorite essay by Heidegger in my Technology and Society class I asked the class how many people bought a book last year. Maybe half the hands. How many of you read a book? A little less. How many of you read a book of poetry? Nobody.

Now, I don't read much poetry on my own, but luckily I do teach Lit courses. And when I read Whitman, or Rilke, or Phillip Larkin or Tom Waits I feel alive. Poetry breathes; it is alive. And for this reason it has become hard for my generation to deal with. We have become digital, analytic. Thoughts are like records - they are analog and they spin. But they spin while moving inwards. It's not a useless circle. It is a circle that produces, forces, real thinking. Thinking that is dangerous, always on the verge of failure. Real thoughts are not safe.

Here's my favorite Phillip Larkin Poem:

This Be the Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad,
They may not mean to, but they do
They fill you with the thoughts they had
And add some extra, just for you

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one-another's throats

Man hands on misery to man
It deepens like a coastal shelf
Get out as early as you can
And don't have any kids yourself

That to me is thinking with a sledgehammer. It's brutal; it's beautiful.

On Friendship

There is truly no greater concept, if that's even the appropriate term, than friendship- the ever evolving negotiation between two people concerning how they shall take up space together.

I've said very little about Facebook or Google+ because I think most everything has been said by others. However, today I got a friend request from a local hospital. A goddamn building wants to be my friend. I just sat staring at the screen, confused. This has to be a sign of something, but I must admit, I have no idea of what.

I don't mind social media. I regularly read a couple blogs and I really enjoy the interaction. However, I also share Jaron Lanier's concern that a lot of our media asks for a tradeoff that is bordering on too heavy. We give up a lot in the way of privacy - if one is worried about that sort of thing. But what do we get in return? I never know what a good visit to Facebook would entail. I do, however, know what a good visit to a blog would entail.

This always comes back to the same question to me: how important is a body in social interaction. Obviously, I'm writing this on a forum hoping both people I do and don't know in the physical world will read it. I see no problem in responding to a person I've never met. However, there is perhaps some tipping point where a concept as valuable and special as friendship gets reduced to the point where now buildings have friends

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

On the Self

This is a quick rehashing of something I keep saying, saying in class, saying in life, hell I can't quit pointing it out: you are not alone.

I just read an amazing set of papers by my students on the question of Artificial Intelligence: Can Computer's Think. I must say, I'm not always used to getting a thoughtful set of papers on this particular issue, perhaps the problem is in the question I ask - hard to be sure.

However, there is one problem that always comes up. The argument is made that computers can't think because they are programmed, whereas HUMANS were plopped down by GOD with absolute FREEWILL. HORSESHIT.

I don't care about the god stuff, but I do care about the I-exist-in-a-vacuum-as-a-self-contained-vessel shit. We are always-already worked on. And we work back on the world. It is not us and then world; rather we are in-the-world beings, burdened by time and other crap, like airports and check-out lines.

Now to be clear, I actually agree with most of my students thoughts that what computers do is not what we do. But I think the ticket is Hubert Dreyfus' explanation of intuition and how intuition is a fundamental part of thinking. Namely, according to Dreyfus thinking isn't simply following rules. That's the crux - it's not simply that computers need other people and we don't or that computers can't learn - I'm pretty sure they can; it's that humans when they become adept at something start operating in this weird space, what athletes call "the zone." So if there's something special about us, and hopefully there is since we have all that crap like death and shopping lines to deal with, it's in the profound way we can perform in the world, but we always do this in the world, responding, not standing above the world, and certainly not outside it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Don Delillo

Recently, walking around a Barnes and Noble's I found myself staring, again, at several of Delillo's books. It occurred to me that I've probably read more novels by him than anyone. I've never been one to read someone's entire canon with a few exceptions - I've read most of Beckett, Camus, and David Foster Wallace. I've read more Heidegger than anything, but I'm thinking particularly about novels at the moment.

So I bought another Delillo book, Americana - his first work. So far, so good. I've previously read White Noise, Mao II, Libra, Cosmopolis, and Great Jones Street and started Underworld, but I have a serious problem finishing novels that are over 800 pages.

So what is it about Delillo? I remember him discussing in an interview that the JFK assassination was the defining moment for his generation because it was an example where we actually see something happen and still don't know what happened - the digital age, the age of the screen, whatever you want to call it, had been ushered in. And what we found out is that in a post-modern world the problem with knowledge isn't lack of information - certainly nobody thinks there aren't enough theories about JFK - the problem is there is too much damn information to make sense out of the world.

And then there is the most photographed barn in America from White Noise - a perfect example of the simulacra. Similarly, in Americana there is a scene where a boy is taking a photograph of a photograph. Delillo expresses the dangers, paranoias, and excesses of a hyper real world in a way that is wonderfully complex while still being readable - unlike some of his contemporaries, Pynchon for example, who I have always wanted to love, but have never been able to embrace.