Saturday, May 22, 2010

Aesthetic Algorithims?

I continue to be inspired and awed by the syllabus at The New Inquiry. Thanks, ladies and gentlemen . . .

What are we to make of a study of the number of times words referring to "beauty" appear in literature? Or a study of the role of alleged "universals" in cross-cultural studies? Do we learn what a text has to tell us if we can develop equations concerning word use, placement, and so forth?

At The Common Review, Apurva Narechania describes the work of self-declared "Darwinian critic" Jonathan Gottschall. At the heart of the review is an article Gottschall published, co-authored by his entire class of students, that attempted to go after Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth by analyzing the use of words referring to "beauty" in the literary and folk writings across cultures and languages. While western literature does, indeed, have an overabundance of such references, there is a similar pattern across time and space.

Which, it seems to this reader, is neither as surprising nor interesting a result as Gottschall and the editor's of the journal that published his paper seem to think. After all, the issue with which Wolf was wrestling was the social construction of particular aspects of beauty and the ways these social constructs are used by institutions to the detriment of women. Discovering (!!) that other societies, when they tell stories, would tell stories about beautiful women no more discredits Wolf's thesis than it does provide information about the way human beings tell stories. This is the kind of generalized, reductive approach to "criticism" that offers nothing more than begged questions, a restated thesis, and does not address the point at issue at all.

Yet, Narechania is correct that literature departments are in a state of crisis. With the collapse of poststructuralist theory, are we now left with the only possibility being a kind of data mining, as evidenced by Gottschall's study? Are we on the brink, as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, of a science of literature? Will studies of Dickens and Hawthorne, Proust and Pynchon become indistinguishable from studies of molecules and proto-stars? Will we see lit-crit become "scientific", with Gottschall's paper understood as the paradigm shifter, the revolutionary tract that started it all?

Lord, I hope not. Words are not data points. They are historical artifacts. Each time we use a word, the sediment of meaning becomes thicker. Like Heraclitus' river, no word is ever used the same way twice. Stale notions of "quantitative" versus "qualitative" study do not even begin to capture the differences between both the subject matter and methods of physics and literary criticism. Indeed, as Ernst Mayr makes clear, there is a huge distinction within the sciences between physics and biology; attempting to make literary criticism akin to physics is as wrongheaded as trying to make biology like physics. It refuses to recognize the reality that we are dealing with distinct phenomena, that must be addressed with more than one eye on its integrity qua something distinct.

Which is not to say that there is not some use to be made of the notion that our theories, as high-minded as they may be, need to have some contact with reality in order to function. This is true of any theory, and is itself a somewhat banal observation. Gottschall's notion of turning loose graduate students upon texts like a group of geologists on a new planet, say, offers no indication that Gottschall actually wrestles with meaning. Indeed, there is no indication that his so-called "Darwinian theory" of literature has any grasp of that word, even as some kind of operational level.

I suppose my own response would be, in this historical moment when the world of literary theory actually lacks any cohesive understanding of the second part of the phrase, we might return to the text itself as a unit. Treat it with respect; treat it as part of the on-going project of human beings trying to figure their world out, figure their own place in this or that historical moment out. While literary theory is parodied easily enough (and Narechania's article is full of examples), at least it took the text seriously as something human beings used to come to some understanding of themselves. While it might seem blase to say it, criticism should be the place where we at least come to terms with "meaning" as a never-ending process. Counting words, seeing individual stories as evidence of Darwinian evolution does nothing more than beg the question - Why do human beings tell these stories? How does this particular story convey information to those who are (or were) its audience? How does it fit in to our contemporary attempts to understand our own particular historical moment?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Sexual Orientation And Sex

N.B.: For some reason, after dropping my link to Greenwald, he continues to pop up on my reading radar more often.

Greenwald's confusion on the topic is familiar. I used to feel the same way until I read that sexual minorities differ from straight people in that their sole orientation is sexual. Apparently, it is impossible for gay folk to have friendly relations with straight people because, like Harry Burns in When Harry Met Sally says of unattractive women, "You pretty much want to nail them, too." Among the weird quirks of homophobes is the confusion over the term "sexual" in "homosexual" and "sexual orientation". Rather than "gender", for some reason I cannot fathom, they insist it refers to sexual acts. Thus, a gay man is gay not because he is romantically attracted to other men, but because he desires nothing but sex with men. In this understanding, sexual minorities are not just emotionally stunted, perpetual adolescents whose minds never leave their crotches, but are a direct threat to straight people because they cannot relate to them outside of a desire for sex.

Thus, asking a public figure his or her sexual orientation, quite apart from whether or not it is value neutral or not (and I happen to agree with Glenn that, on the merits, the Obama Administration flubbed this one; they should have told people to mind their own business), is precisely, asking what positions a person prefers, whether or not they have ever been in a threesome, etc. Indeed, for some people, obsessed with the issue of sexual orientation, the revelation this or that person is gay or lesbian reveals much about their sex lives precisely because these people are convinced that is the only thing sexual minorities are interested in.

Like tabloid reporters who focus on the private lives of public figures to the exclusion of any merits their professional lives may have, homophobes who think this way sincerely (and mistakenly) believe that coming out invites all sorts of speculation concerning private sexual practices that become not just fodder for odd fantasies, but relevant to their public lives because these folks really do not believe that sexual minorities have anything other than sex on their minds.

I realize this is an odd position, and I cannot, for the life of me, fathom how this makes anything like a connection with the real world. It is, sadly, true. Thus, questions regarding Solicitor General Kagan's sexual orientation, while certainly, in an ideal world, outside the bounds of propriety, is directly relevant precisely because there are people who believe that if she is, indeed a lesbian (a subject about which I neither know nor care in the slightest), she cannot,ipso facto, be an effective Supreme Court Justice. Her mind will wander between the thighs of female advocates before the court, she will lust after Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, and hate the six male justices.

Terrorism And The Constitution

Am I missing something? How hard is this to figure out?

Nine years ago, out of what was, quite literally, a clear blue sky on a gorgeous late summer day, two airplanes crashed in to the World Trade Center, while simultaneously a third passenger jet slammed in to the Pentagon. A fourth crashed in Pennsylvania in circumstances that will never be known. Among the reactions to this event was a serious erosion of certain constitutional liberties, and the curbing of some normal civil practices (remember Clear Channel editing certain songs on their radio stations?) in the name of national security. No longer limited to our foreign policy and the general goal of advancing our national interests abroad, national security, for better or worse, had returned to include domestic civil life, as it had done on and off through the years of the Cold War (and, yes, even before that . . .)

Civil libertarians, and even those generally concerned that the US should uphold its most cherished values in the face of direct threats to those values, have been fighting a very long battle against both powerful people in two Presidential Administrations as well as public opinion both on the merits and the principle involved. Part of the reason the fight has been both long and continues is simple enough if you stop and consider that our society is quite open. The legal and constitutional restrictions on police actions, while not as stringent as in some other countries or as they have been even in the recent past, do give even those with serious criminal intent a certain arena of personal freedom to conduct their private affairs free of the state intrusion. For those deemed, not "guilty" as Quiggin says in the linked piece, but certainly suspicious, this arena of personal freedom is viewed as part of the problem. To most people most of the time, who do not engage in any illegal activity and do not view the proposition of state intrusion in previously out-of-bounds areas of personal life as a threat, the notion that these expanded police powers actually constitute not a threat only to those who intend harm but to all persons is nonsensical on the face of it. Why would I, sitting in the privacy of my own home, going about the daily round of my life, fear the state's intrusion in my life? Indeed, even if they did so, what they found would be so banal they would quickly lose interest. What civil libertarians such as Greenwald and others fail to understand is the erosion of constitutional protection against state police powers is welcomed precisely because the threat - terrorist attacks - is so outrageous.

Now, anyone who has read this site for more than a few days should know that I do not support the erosion of constitutional protections. Indeed, the specific issue of Mirandizing terror suspects addressed by Greenwald, seems silly on the face of it. Recent suspects in failed terror attacks have been read their Miranda rights and cooperated with authorities. Quite apart from whether or not this or that person says we should stop reading persons arrested on suspicion of terrorism their rights, any policy expert should know it has not been a barrier to investigation or successful prosecution.

The larger question, for me at least, is the wonder expressed by both Greenwald and the folks at Crooked Timber. After 9/11, the PATRIOT Act was passed in order to assure domestic security in the face of the presence of potential and actual threats to our national security here at home. Yet, threats persisted and there were a series of successful and failed terror attacks (does no one remember the anthrax attacks?). In the wake of each failed attempt, the "ratchet" is turned another notch or two (to borrow the metaphor from Quiggin) because supporters of previous measures realize that the previous measures have failed to protect us. So, we need to "do" more.

The reason it's done? Because they can and they have general public support, without any specific instances of these eroded protections impacting the general public in a negative way. Civil libertarians are correct on the merits, legal and civil. The problem is these aren't just legal and civil matters, but political matters, and the politics, it seems are against those who prefer a broader array of protections against state intrusiveness (people like me).

I should note, also, that the Obama Administration follows the letter and spirit of Bush-era laws regarding state police action because they are the law. As individuals, Barack Obama and Eric Holder may not like the Patriot Act, but as public officials charged to preserve and defend the Constitution, and to follow the law, there is no reason in the world why they shouldn't follow those laws. Repealing them is the provenance of Congress, which hasn't acted.

I have to ask again why this seems to mysterious.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Comfortably Dumb

Jonah Goldberg set the stage. Newt Gingrich struts out for his soliloquy.

Quite apart from the whole Godwin's Law stuff, this is just farcical.

At least the news media, who think Gingrich some kind of "figure" in our national discourse, are allowing him to staple himself to the Republican Party as we move to an election cycle.

More On Yesterday's Primaries

I heard this Congressional Republican ad masking as a story on NPR this morning, and couldn't help but wonder if Andrea Seabrook is really stupid, or thinks her listeners are.

Just to be clear, far more telling than the "insurgent" candidates winning their primaries in Kentucky and Pennsylvania (in KY it was for an open seat; in PA it was a challenge against an 80-year-old incumbent who switched parties to try and keep his seat), the special election to fill John Murtha's seat in PA-12 (?) was far more telling. This is the kind of "swing district" (and what the hell do those two words denote, anyway? Seabrook doesn't tell us other than they're white) that should have been an easy pick-up for Republicans. Murtha held it for decades, but the constituency there trends socially conservative and the Republican candidate was one such. Stories leading up to the special election pretty much wrote the seat off for the Democrats.

One of Seabrook's points, reiterated several times, what the whole business of the "electorate" being in an "anti-establishment" or "anti-incumbent" mood. I think Matt Yglesias, however, is far more correct.

Furthermore, almost every national election cycle we hear about voters being in an anti-incumbent mood. Yet, rarely do they actually vote that way. Indeed, big switches in party control - 1994 and 2006 being recent examples - involve relatively small rejections of incumbents. For the most part, the incumbents voters are against are those in other districts and states.

One more point on the Seabrook piece. The "story" featured snippets from Republican ads against various Democratic members and candidates, most of which featured attacks on the Speaker of the House, and the charge that this or that person supported "Obamacare". Not a single word as to whether these ads were substantively correct. Indeed, not a word of criticisms on the comments of a Republican spokesperson's claim that Obama's Administration poses some kind of radical danger to the Republic. I know NPR can do better than this kind of crap.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Yesterday's Primaries (UPDATE)

So Arlen Specter is out of the Senate after 30 years, Blanche Lincoln faces a run-off, and the Tea Party candidate in Kentucky gets the Republican nod. Oh, and the Republicans lost the special election to fill John Murtha's seat, even though they insisted they had it in the bag.

What does this mean. There are always competing narratives as to what this or that election means, and attempting to draw conclusions that have implications for a general election from a handful of spring primaries is always a dangerous thing. Yet, this merely confirms for me what I've been saying all along. With the Tea Party approved candidates set to be their party's standard-bearer in November, and the Democrats supporting insurgent candidates over establishment ones, it seems to me that both parties are (a) responding to grass-roots groups; and (b) poised to return large Democratic majorities to both houses of Congress. Particularly in the case of Republicans, while the Tea Party certainly makes a lot of noise and gets a lot of press, they have little support beyond their core constituency. I cannot imagine Kentucky electing the Republican candidate; with Pennsylvania having moved pretty firmly to become a Democratic-majority state, I think it's easy enough to predict Joe Sestak will be the next Senator from the Keystone State.

Unlike the Republicans, the Democratic insurgency is similar in many respects to the grass-roots movement that delivered the 2006 and 2008 victories. With candidates that are in touch with the broad mass of the electorate, far more willing to be confrontational that establishment Democrats and the President with their Republican colleagues, I think this bodes well for not just for the party this fall, but for the country and the next Congress.

UPDATE: Atrios nails it.
For those who are counting, that's 7 straight special elections won by Democrats. I'm sure the Republican wave will start building any minute now.

Like Broder's bit about Bush's comeback, I think we can all sit and have a drink as we wait for it.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Glenn Greenwald is at it again.

There are few things in this world more tiresome than someone who stops discussion on an issue by declaring that his position, and his alone, is the only correct one; even worse, the declarations Greenwald typically makes - "I'm just quoting here" - in the face of Yglesias' insistence that Greenwald attributes to Matt views Matt does not hold is evidence enough for me that this particular schtick of his is no better than the kind of nonsense one can find here. When a commentator insists they know better what one thinks than that individual, we have left the realm of reality for the outer fringes of Cuckooville.

Whether I agree or disagree with Matt on the merits is not the issue. It is Greenwald's multiple presumptuousness that is the issue here. He can't take Matt at his word because he, Glenn Greenwald, among all commentators, knows better how to interpret what Matt said.

A small dose of STFU might actually do Greenwald some good.

Drafting Roughly

This is a VERY rough draft of what I would like to say, or maybe where I am right now with what is in my mind. Scary thought, that . . .

Ever get a song stuck in your head? About five years ago, I woke up one morning and as Lisa and I puttered around the kitchen, I couldn't take it anymore. I started to tell her that I had this song going through my head, and she told me she had the same thing going on - "Yellow Submarine" by the Beatles. I stopped, because I had the same song going through my head. We laughed because, after all, what are the chances that two people would just wake up and have the same song, which we hadn't heard in years, running on a loop through their heads?

Of course, being me, I couldn't leave it at that. After Lisa left for the office, I called Linda [her secretary] and explained the situation to her, and asked her to have a little fun with Lisa by humming the tune when Lisa walked in, and before Lisa could say anything, just ask, "You ever get a song stuck in your head?"

I think of this event whenever I try to figure out "what it is" about music, of all the arts. How many of us have a painting stuck in our heads, or a sculpture? Some people may think of a poem, say, but how many get a passage from a novel stuck in their heads? There is a book out on the neurophysiology of music that I have yet to read, but skimming it at Borders once, this particular phenomenon has to do with pattern recognition, and the repetition is something the brain does to occupy itself.

Which is less an explanation than it is a description.

Of course, we in the Church also get songs stuck in our heads, don't we? How many hymn-sings do we have without anyone asking for "Amazing Grace" or "How Great Thou Art"? I remember very well 20 years ago when the current [UM] hymnal was released to much controversy. Complaints ran the gamut from the folks who missed this, that, or the other hymn that had been dropped to the inclusion of hymns from, and sometimes in the language of, Mexico, Japan, various Indian nations, Ghana, South Africa, and even Vietnam. While it may be that a hymn in Japanese isn't going to be sung too often in Newark Valley, NY or Poplar Grove, IL, it might be sung in a Japanese congregation in an urban area. As a document of the changes in the denomination between 1964 and 1988, our current hymnal is a marvelous historical document.

None of this answers the question, "What is it about music?", but it does offer some hints and clues, I think.

Since St. Paul enjoined the Christian congregation in Corinth to sing a hymn during their weekly gatherings, music has been a part of Christian worship. Indeed, St. Paul quotes a hymn, in his letter to the Philippians, which shows the urge to write hymns is as old as the Christian Church.

Our Jewish and Hebrew ancestors in the faith were enjoined to sing, and writes songs of prayer and praise to God. The Psalms are nothing more than a collection of songs sung in various worship settings, prayers, complaints, and even prophetic witness to the congregation. One gets a sense of how pervasive this communal practice is in reading the exilic Psalm, "By the shores of Babylon we hung our harps". The captors of the people of Judah demanded song, and the Psalmist laments, "How can we sing our song in a foreign land?"

We read today that, when David had the Ark of the Covenant brought to the new capital of Jerusalem, he marched at the front of the procession, dancing so wildly he was criticized for it. Music, and dance which seems to go with it, is at the heart of the Israelite experience of worship. Quite apart from some kind of modern understanding of what it might be about music that compels us, moves us, we need to acknowledge that its presence is taken for granted in the Bible.

Listening to music, unlike, say, looking at a painting or sculpture, or reading a novel or poem, is a participatory thing, a sensual thing, and most of all a social thing. We aren't called to "Paint a new painting unto the LORD" in the Psalms. One Psalm in particular has always spoken to me, though. When the congregation is called to "sing a new song to the LORD", I think of the desire to play something never heard before, sing something never heard before. Jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw, interviewed as part of Ken Burns' Jazz documentary, spoke to this when he was talking about the Glenn Miller Orchestra. While noting that it contained excellent musicians, his complaint was they never played a wrong note. He went on to say that, if you aren't playing a wrong note, you aren't pushing yourself, you aren't trying to play something new. The best musicians and composers strive to figure out ways to play something new and different.

Sometimes these sounds are soft and flowing; sometimes they are very loud, dissonant even, jarring. Hearing something that is really new shakes us out of our complacency.

I think this phenomenon - listening for something new, something different, some combination of sounds that has never been put together in this particular way - goes along with the saying in the prophet Isaiah, "Behold I am doing something new." The new, the possibility of anything new is exciting. All of us here, congregation and parsonage family, are on this journey in different ways right now. All of you are about to experience the arrival of a new pastor, a new way of doing worship, of being the people called Methodist in Poplar Grove and Boone County, IL. Lisa and I and our family are about to enter in to a whole set of new relationships, learning about one another, worshiping together, praying together, laughing together, living together, in Plato Center.

And I have no doubt that when Paul and his wife arrive, they will be moved by this congregation's dedication to musical excellence. I remember vividly our very first Sunday, almost six years ago. Sitting up front, in what I have since learned is the Kniep bench, worship opened with the choir, piano, organ, and bells. I was so moved by how beautiful that musical tribute was, I teared up. Among the many blessings this church offers to God, and to the people in worship, the gift of music is certainly among the best. The sheer variety of opportunities to make music here is pretty astounding. Then, of course, there is the talent - the vocal talent, the instrumental talent, the stylistic talent. Whether it's our marvelous accompanists, the bell choirs, the chancel choir, the praise bands, or even individuals like Stephanie House and John Babcock writing and performing their original songs for us or Matt Nordman playing his trumpet or Lisa playing her flute - we here have the opportunity to participate in new songs each and every worship experience. Something new.

With the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are faced with all the possibilities and hope of all sorts of new things. New life. New creation. No longer stuck in the cycle of life and death, rooted in a past full of sin and death, we are offered the promise that something new is coming, something never witnessed, something never heard. In Revelation, after the tribulation and final battle between the forces of God and the anti-Christ, with the coming of the new heaven and new earth, we hear the song sung before the throne of God, always sung, never ending, "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD and the Lamb who was slain." For me, all music is a participation in this. Whether it's some old guy sitting on a porch strumming an out-of-tune guitar, or a Bach chorale, or a jam session in some club with three musicians trying to rearrange the notes and harmonies, rhythms and melodies in a new way, if we listen close enough, we might just hear that heavenly chorus.

So what is it about music? While I am sure there are all sorts of stuff brain scientists can tell us about the phenomenon, this isn't really an answer so much as restating the question in different words. I do know that, no matter what we prefer to hear, no matter whether we like country music, or hip-hop, or only listen to the songs we grew up with, or are more inclined to tell people to turn the noise off because it's loud and annoying, music binds us, creates images and feelings in us, calls us to pray and shout and clap and cry. This congregation is a wonderful place to experience this, to hear that "something new" played to the LORD, for all of us to hear, to sing along, to join together. We are the latest in a line stretching back in the faith to the time when King David insisted that worship include the music of the harp and lyre, and danced as the Ark was brought to Jerusalem. Just remember, as we sing later, our song reaches to that throne room scene in Revelation, and our words echo there along with those of the chorus before the throne.

Any other explanation, really, pales in comparison to this one - when music is played and heard and sung, we find ourselves joining that chorus. We aren't just going through the motions, but becoming part of the choir that stands and sings before God.

I don't like the ending at all. Comments and constructive criticism welcomed.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Sermon Thoughts II

This is more in the manner of deep background, as the journalists call it. I probably will not discuss any of this explicitly, but it certainly forms the core of my approach to my life in the faith.

I know I am in a minority of no more than myself in this, but I do not believe there is such a distinction as exists between those things that are "sacred" (dedicated to God) and "profane" (dedicated to our earthly life and having no bearing on our relationship with God). In the passion narrative in St. Matthew's Gospel, at the moment of Jesus' death, the veil in the Temple - the veil that separated the Ark of the Covenant, the throne of God, the Holy of Holies, from the people - is torn asunder. St. Paul calls the cross a stumbling block and a scandal precisely because it was understood to be reserved for that most horrid of crimes, treachery against the rulers. Making of the method used by the Romans to execute Jesus a symbol of God's love would be like enshrining the electric chair or hypodermic needle used in executions here in the US.

If we consider the reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the free and unmerited grace offered all creation in that event, the idea that there is any area of human life that is or even can be cordoned off and called "profane" is nonsensical. All of our life, as we await the final consummation of God's plan for a new creation, is a participation in God's Providential grace and love. Even the most terrible horrors also have a spark of God's grace in them. Whether it is mass murder, natural disasters, love and sex, sitting and eating a meal, or the arts, there exists the possibility of experiencing the grace of God at the heart of it that transcends our own attempts at moral definition.

For this reason, every space is a holy, sacred place, every song is a sacred song. The categories by which we order our lives crumble under the Divine power of God's gracious love; those who insist that there are words or deeds that are "inappropriate" for Church are not reckoning with the love of God, but their own sense of social propriety. Those who think there are songs that should not be sung are doing much the same thing. While it may be true that, in practice, we accept certain social proprieties - I, for one, as a practicing mobile disc jockey, would never play a song with foul language that had not been edited out if I knew there were children or others present who would be offended - on a theological level, at least, we also have to grant the artificiality, the contingency of these kinds of decisions. They have nothing of God's grace about them.

Political Tourette's

They just can't help the hate.
– Conservative radio host Debbie Schlussel blamed Fakih’s win on a supposed “politically correct, Islamo-pandering climate” in America and labeled her a “Lebanese Muslim Hezbollah supporter with relatives who are top terrorists.” [5/16/10]

– Right wing pundit and Fox contributor Michelle Malkin ranted that “Fakih’s cheerleaders are too busy tooting the identity politics horn to care what comes out of her mouth” and that “the Miss USA pageant didn’t want to risk the wrath of the open-borders mob.” [5/16/10]

– Conservative author Daniel Pipes, who was briefly appointed by former President George W. Bush to the U.S. Institute of Peace, opined that “this surprising frequency of Muslims winning beauty pageants makes me suspect an odd form of affirmative action.” [5/16/10]

– Fox News’s Gretchen Carlson complained that Woolard’s “informed opinion” may have cost her the crown, and said that Fakih may have won because we live in a “PC society.” [5/17/10]

Obviously, giving the title Miss USA to a Muslim is a sign that, soon, we shall all live under Sharia. Except, instead of burkhas, the women will wear evening gowns and bikinis.

When I heard this morning on my drive home from work that an Arab American had won, I just knew folks on the right would start crap like this. They are all subjects in a Skinner experiment, it seems. . .

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sermon Thoughts I

Since I'm preaching next weekend, I have been mulling some ideas I want to include, and how much of them. These are more in the nature of thematic content, rather than the way I want my sermon structured. Help in the form of feedback would be gratefully appreciated.

My wife and I were talking about the subject, and wondered aloud, "What is it about music, anyway?"

Music is a way to order chaos. Before there were the rules of literature - theme, plot, character development, and so forth - there are the far more basic, elemental structural rules of music - rhythm, harmony, and melody. They impose a most basic structural rigidity upon how we wish to go about telling a story. The earliest stories, in any case, were sung before they were spoken, and the imposition of the structure of song creates a framework which forces the narrative to flow this way and not that, to move forward orderly, rather than flip, flop, and meander. Other elements of musical composition - dynamics and meter, for example - have to serve the far more basic demands of the rhythm, the harmony, and melody.

As such, music is primarily a social art form, more so than, say, painting or sculpture. While the products of the plastic arts are certainly meant to be shared with a wider audience, and to so to communicate, even to tell a story (consider the cave paintings in Lescaux, in France, as an example). Yet, we don't sit around and paint together in worship. Instead, we sit and sing together, expressing our faith and praise, praying and confessing within the ordered rules of song.

With those rare exceptions of Free Jazz and experiments in group improvisation in both jazz and rock music, music of necessity follows these strict rules. Even in other cultural settings, where musical development can be strikingly different. For example, the diatonic scale of the west is not the only musical scale. A friend of mine in Virginia, enjoying the sitar music of Ravi Shankar, tried to learn to play it, and discovered, much to his chagrin, there is actually a different note, say, between F# and G-flat! This is one of many reasons music from India sounds so discordant to our ears - it utilizes sounds that are not utilized in western music.

This idea - discord - is another that has fluctuated in meaning over the centuries, even in the west. For all the years music in the west was dominated by the monastery, there were certain harmonic structures - both well known such as the Dorian mode - and less well-known that have become commonplace in musical composition. The most famous is the use, by jazz musicians after the Second World War, of what was called "the devil's harmony" - the flatted fifth. This discord in particular, precisely because it sounds not so much "wrong" as sinister, was actually anathematized by the Roman Catholic Church.

Discord is often in the ear of the hearer, too. There are many people who quite simply cannot listen, say, to the composer Schoenberg, or avante-garde pianist Cecil Taylor, or post-bop jazz pianist Thelonius Monk because of their use of what sounds like discord. Stravinksy became enamored of non-western music and incorporated it in to his suite, "The Rite Of Spring"; at its debut in Paris, the audience quite literally rioted because the sounds were so strange. Because what often sounds discordant is not resolved by some composers and performers, but used as a platform for expanding our ideas of harmonic structure as well as melody, there seems to be less structure to such compositions. Whether it's "Pharoah's Dance" by Miles Davis, or the long, free-form group improvisations of King Crimson or Phish, by violating harmonic rules, we tend to think of them as not so much "making music" as playing, pure and simple. The accusation, in turn, is usually accompanied by that most feared of critical epithets - self-indulgence. Musical onanism certainly shares with its sexual cousin the reality that it doesn't create anything other than a mess. Yet, in the same way that sexual onanism serves as a way for us to learn about ourselves, so, too, musical self-indulgence allows the individual to push his or her limits, perhaps clear up questions and offer the opportunity to explore what might otherwise not be explored.

OK, I probably won't use the whole masturbation thing in my sermon . . .

Identity & The Internet

There are a couple posts at Crooked Timber on the question of identity in the age of the Internet that tie in, in a strange way, with an odd discussion I've been having here. Since "Know Thyself" is perhaps the hardest philosophical dictum with which to come to terms, and in any case is something that is always in process, one that can never be accomplished fully, it is almost futile to consider the question as a serious one.

Along with this site, I am on Facebook (FB), along with 400,000,000 other people. The idea that FB creates a space on the internet transparent enough to reveal something about ourselves to others is kind of silly. For all anyone knows, even the most intimate details on FB can be fabricated. Whether its the family photos, the expression events in one's day, clicking "like" or "dislike" on this or that subject-matter, song, group, whatever - it can all be a construct. Shoot, I could be making up pretty much everything about me, including multiple identities so that it appears I have close friends and family who know me. To complain about a lack of privacy, of threats to our identity to the point where the personae we don in various settings in our lives - as parents, spouses, workers, siblings, what-have-you - become superfluous is nonsense on the face of it.

Everything we know about others, even those most closely related to us, who share the most intimate relations with us, rests upon a certain amount of trust. There are always gaps, always hidden, secret places in the lives of those even of those to whom we are closest. For example, last weekend, my wife and I celebrated our seventeenth wedding anniversary, and I can say, with all confidence and a great deal of joy, that I still do not know everything about her. The reason I can say this is simple - I recognize and grant her own particularity, her individuality, and allow her the space to be Lisa as pastor, ministerial colleague, church leader, youth leader, in ways that do not impact my own interactions with her. Which is not to say I do not consider her, along with being my wife, my own pastor also. It is just that the mixing of identities, at that point, creates a muddle at times. Also, since I look forward to a lifetime of discovery with her, I know there are all sorts of things coming up that we will share, but have not shared, and I have no idea how we will be in the midst of it all. Our children's adolescence, special moments such as proms, graduations, weddings, our retirement together - just to name a few. These are very real possibilities in our combined future, things we talk about, think about, plan for, to be sure, but things that we cannot, now, not having lived through them, have any notion of how we shall be in the midst of them.

I am always amused by the reactions some people have on the internet to people they have yet to meet. Quite apart from our knowledge of these others limited by two things - what they choose to reveal of their own lives, and how trustworthy those reports actually are - we could very possibly be having discussion and even budding friendships with people who are not at all who they claim to be.

The idea that FB, or anyplace else on the Internet, creates dangers to our identity in some deep sense - not our legal identity, as in stealing our name or some other part of our legal identity for nefarious purposes - is to grant far more power to the internet while simultaneously buying in to the idea that there is some kind of scrupulous honesty on the internet. I don't. While I trust that those with whom I've interacted over the years are, at the very least, who they say they are, I also would never think that I know who they are. In some cases I anticipate meeting them with joy; in other cases, maybe not so much, but at least these responses are based on my own sense that these people, by turns and respectively, would be fun to be around, or not.

Yet, far too often, people make noises that they may "know" something about me, or others may claim to "know" something about someone that transcends any revelations we may make about ourselves on the internet. In most cases, these "knowings" are quite wrong, almost laughably so. I used to feel the need to correct these intuitive leaps; anymore, I just laugh at folks who think they have any idea who I am apart from what I choose to make plain in our interactions.

So, I don't worry about threats to my identity in the age (or perhaps moment) of Facebook, because I would never presume that even those closest to me ever reveal anything close to their real identities there, or anywhere else.

Just Curious

I know this will not be the last time this question is asked, either by me or someone else.

Who cares what Newt Gingrich thinks about anything? So, he's published a book. Wow.

Here's a guy whose history of just making stuff up is so long that repeating it would be tiresome. He's intellectually dishonest, almost pathologically incapable of keeping his mouth closed, disliked by the American people, was booted from office by his own party for multiple failures of leadership. He is, quite simply, nobody. On his third wife (who, if she had any sense, would make sure all of her husband's staff was male, considering Newt's history . . .), talking about how wonderfully inviolable the institution is.

He doesn't even provide comic relief any more. I'm just tired of seeing and hearing him.

Virtual Tin Cup

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