Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Thinking Through The Noise

I haven't had much to say on here lately. Mostly because of the way I've curated this blog. I write about political stuff all the time, but I don't exactly right about day-to-day politics or politicians. I'm not a pundit and I have no desire to be one. The whole enterprise sounds soul-crushing.

However, like many others of my ilk, I can't stop watching the fucking news.  It has turned into the most entertaining reality television show I have ever seen. If I wrote these White House characters into a novel it would IMMEDIATELY be recognized as satire. Think about that.  Reality has become so absurd that if you copied it and wrote it down and published it, nobody would believe it.

So I have no desire to debate any of these topics - in fact I won't. And not because I'm stubborn - I'm actually less rigid now than I've ever been in my life.  The reason I don't debate is that we live in an age where one shops for reality the way one shops for anything else. Reality has become the ultimate consumer choice.  While this might feel liberating to the "You-can't-tell-me-nothing-Mr.-College- Degree" crowd, from my perspective it's not just frustrating, it's frightening. The only way to win is to not play.

So how does one stay thoughtful and sane in a world that talks about itself with lies and distortions, a culture that often doesn't want to take an honest assessment of itself.  It's a question that feels impossibly tough.

I know for myself I have to remember that consuming more "news" does not equate with being more informed. I know I have to realize that the process of watching a lot of the political nonsense unfold is actually seductively fun for me.  There's something about watching chaos that makes for interesting television.  However, if it's causing me stress and all that stress is doing is causing me to watch more and get more upset, well then that's not healthy.

Okay, but I'm not the kind of person that goes "Well okay, fuck it all.  I guess I'll just tune it out."  For one thing, my job does not allow me to be uninformed. For another, I take Socrates' maxim very seriously: the unexamined life is not worth living. So to not think is to be dead.

In no way am I suggesting to just stop caring about what's going on. Rather I am saying to selectively read and watch people who are ethical and good journalists - people who are not towing a party line - journalists who are, for lack of a better term at 7:20 in the morning, "Independent." For me that means people like Amy Goodman, Jeremy Scahill, Glenn Greenwald, Naomi Klein, Matt Taibbi, and Sy Hersh to name just a few.  But everyone has to figure that part out for themselves.

As usual my solutions are small and local and not exciting.  I've started cutting off the television more - having more periods of silence around me when I can. When I read, I have no background noise.  And if I want background noise, I pick up my guitar.  However, even though I've started thinking about this problem and trying to make small changes for the sake of my mental health, currently I'm still failing.  I still watch too much nightly news instead of just picking a few people I trust everyday, reading important stories and moving on.  Sometimes I watch the same stories talked about by 3 different people, all saying very, very similar things.  Hopefully recognizing failure is the first step. That sounds like the kind of thing people say.

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Detective Story in the Post-Something Age

I spend a lot of time - you can ask people who have to deal with me in physical form - trying to figure out what makes something "true." To the uninitiated this may seem like common sense, but to a person who has spent literally the last twenty years reading complicated philosophical texts, it's not nearly as clear as it seems.

Here's a simple example - we all learn that objects fall at 9.8 meters per second squared.  But where does this occur?  In a vacuum.  So the statement about falling objects is true in a world none of us inhabit.  Now in no way does this mean that fact is untrue.  Or that the scientific constant is not useful.  That statement about the speed objects fall is true and it's useful.  It's just that it's only true under certain conditions.  Most things are only true under certain conditions.  Here's another example - the thing I'm sitting on right now is a chair.  Until I need to change a light-bulb.  Then it's a step ladder.

Truth is both local and general.

The genre that has best represented the search for truth is the detective genre.  Now think about the way truth works in these books/movies/Matlock episodes.  We start not knowing much, usually being wrong about a guess or two.  But then as the plot moves to the conclusion we learn what really happened.  All the clues add up to a coherent picture and Matlock gets to leave the court house 100K richer and eat hotdogs off the street cart.  (Apologies if some of you did not have a grandmother with whom to compulsively watch Matlock, Murder She Wrote, and Perry Mason.)

This formula is hopeful as shit.  The more we learn, the more we understand the whole.

And now let's talk about JFK.  The Zapruder film has been seen by everyone.  Is the problem with the JFK assassination that we don't know enough information?  That we don't have enough theories?  Of course not.  We have too many damn theories.  And moreover here's an example where we all see what happened and yet, none of us is sure of what happened.  This is a different world.

Similarly - think about the way conspiracy theories proliferated about 9/11.  Films like Loose Change and In Plane Sight became shared on the internet and were treated as scholarly material by a lot of people who didn't know any better.  Again - the issue isn't that there wasn't enough information.

So it seems something is happening.  Now it seems we are in an age where things to not add up to a coherent narrative.  Truth is always-already fractured and fragmented and fractal - something like a Serpinksi triangle.  Clues aren't adding up to truth anymore.  Essentially Raymond Chandler has been replaced by Thomas Pynchon - long true for the academic world - but now true for the general world as well.  Maybe the fact that Inherent Vice got made into a film signals something?

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Music and Humor

Recently I was listening to John Scofield's amazing new album Country for Old Men.  In the album the jazz-fusion virtuoso does his take on classic country tunes.  And the results are remarkable.  I was listening to his version of the classic Hank Williams song "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and at one point I just started laughing because he was taking the tune so far out that at many points it was unrecognizable.  I think of this as being playful - sort of fucking with audience expectations.  I could imagine many classic country fans holding their hands over their ears while saying things like "Naw. Just hell naw.  That a'int right."  Jazz - by it's very nature - is always at odds with the purist.

Then I started thinking about humor in music - not in lyrics - but in music.  And well, I couldn't think of many examples.  Certain genres don't seem to lend themselves to humor at all.  I don't think I've ever heard a playful heavy metal riff.  This isn't a slight - that's just a genre that always - at least to me - appears very serious.  Some country guitar and bluegrass players add little pieces of rock or jazz into their solos and I think that counts.  But I can't think of players who have turned this into a style or an aesthetic.

Tom Waits - simply by his choice of instrumentation and by seeing his voice as not one but many instruments - has always produced music that is playful and surprising.  In fact, I think it is in the idea of the surprise that humor is so intriguing musically.  It signifies something at odds with expectations. However, it's clear to me - it feels unarguable - that Frank Zappa is the great rock humorist.  The music has a symphonic like precision.  And at the same time, it's zany.

Does any of this matter?  I think so. Perhaps there is a difference between "playing" and "performing." I've had the occasion to perform really serious music with orchestras on several occasions.  There is nothing "playful" about this experience. It's exacting and for that reason, nerve-wracking. However, music that can be played and played with - forms that embrace improvisation - have a natural desire to expand their boundaries.  One way to do this is to stretch the idea of genre. Usually this produces the kind of humor I'm discussing, which is a playfulness that allows music to challenge itself and move out of a rigidly defined space.

I think most people today see that genre music is so connected to marketing analytics that it feels as processed as cheese from Taco Bell, so in that sense the more people who can find moments to decontstruct the very idea of genre, especially from the inside, the better off the state of music is.