Saturday, January 08, 2011

Rethinking Christian Sexual Ethics: Human Agency Under Capitalism

Once again, it's the fault of The New Inquiry and their damn syllabus. Anwyn Crawford's essay on the intersection of capitalism, feminism, and sexuality has made me realize that this subject, a theme with which I've played on and off over the life of my time writing on the internet, has been far too abstract, far too naive, far too blind to the realities that shape our understanding of being human, being engendered, being sexual beings. Before we can be clear about how it might be possible to be Christian - that is, fully human, free for the sake of freedom in service to others - we should be clear about the intersecting systems that limit our ability even to make that choice.

Ms. Crawford's essay has made me realize I have much more to learn, much more to think through. The essay itself, covering everything from anorexia to porn to riot grrrl from a radical feminist perspective, is well worth the read in and for itself. It has also made me see that unpacking the ways the world seeks to define us, and to do so without our consent and prior to our ability to grasp that we are being defined and limited, is part and parcel of what it means to do Christian ethics. Unless the scales fall from our eyes, no matter how well-intentioned, no matter how thorough we may sound to ourselves, we are being unfaithful to the calling to work out what it means to be Christian, living in free community for the sake of the world.

Friday, January 07, 2011

"The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death"

The New Inquiry is to be thanked and praised for providing a link to this 2005 commencement address by the late author David Foster Wallace. I really don't have anything to say about this, beyond praising the beauty and profundity of the possibility Wallace presents his listeners (and now readers) available in even the most mundane, perhaps (as he describes them) even frustrating, situations. That right here, right now may just hold the possibility for some transcendent moment - each here and each now, provided we open ourselves to it - is indeed a cliche. As Wallace makes the point, however, it is the "capital-T truth".

Thursday, January 06, 2011

This Is Your Brain On Music By Daniel Levitin

Before reading further, turn on some music. Anything will do. I read the last hundred or so pages of this book with a Porcupine Tree concert playing. It seemed incongruous to me to be reading about how the brain processes music - as well as how music makes the brain work better - without having some music playing. So, whether it's Mahler or Molly Hatchet or Merle Haggard, turn it on. I'll wait.

OK, ready? From page 191, we have the following general description of what happens in the human brain when it hears music.
Listening to music caused a cascade of brain regions to become activated in a particular order: first, auditory cortex for initial processing of the components of the sound. Then the frontal regions, such as BA44 and BA47, that we had previously identified as being involved in processing musical structure and expectations. Finally, a network of regions - the mesolimbic system - involved in arousal, pleasure, and the transmission of opioids and the production of dopamine, culminating in activation in the nucleus accumbens. And the cerebellum and basal ganglia were active throughout, presumably supporting the processing of rhythm and meter. The rewarding and reinforcing aspects of listening to music seem, then, to be mediated by increasing dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens, and by the cerebellum's cotribution to regulating emotion through its connections to the frontal lobe and the limbic system. Current neuropsychological theories associate positive mood and affect with increased dopamine levels, one the reasons that many of the newer antidepressants act on the dopaminergic system. Music is clearly a means for improving people's moods. Now we think we know why.
Daniel Levitin started out as a musician. He moved on to become a sound engineer, then a record producer. Late in life, he returned to college, and now studies the interconnections between music and the human brain, at McGill University in Montreal.

This work, a popular distillation of the latest (as of 2006) cognitive neuropsychology that deals specifically with music, can be considered as a musical composition. Each chapter becomes a movement within the larger suite that is the book. Within each movement is a stated theme, that is elaborated through discussions of the unfolding of the scientific evidence, punctuated by examples from music that work out that theme. Each chapter, up to this point Levitin has explicated a particular theme; in this chapter, he begins by relating his meeting with Francis Crick, the impact of Crick's personal story upon his own life, and how this meeting encouraged a new direction in Levitin's research. All this seems to be a new theme, yet again, but as the chapter unfolds we realize that, like the best composers, Levitin is bringing together all the previous themes, weaving and recasting them as part of a much larger, more grand theme that culminates in the climactic release of the paragraph quoted above.

The final chapters are far from being mere addenda, or to use musical terminology a coda. Rather, they describe certain practical considerations of how the picture drawn in this paragraph work themselves out, first in the lives of musicians (the issue of expertise and technical mastery) and the larger question of the evolutionary basis of the development of musical ability in the human species. These are variations on the now-revealed central theme, working through a whole series of questions that revolve around the the nature/nurture debate and the place of art in the life of the human species.

Levitin's books is nothing short of masterful. Whether one is a musician, a musical aficionado, or one interested in cognitive neuropsychology, the book has much to offer, with a minimum of technical vocabulary - either musical or scientific - to interfere with the flow of explication. As one reads through the paragraph quoted above, taking the time to work through it slowly, it is nothing short of remarkable what is occurring within our brains as we sit and listen to music. Even more amazing is the reality that we human beings have the ability to do all that, and do other things while listening to music. I do hope you are still listening to whatever music you put on. Your brain is doing all that stuff and I hope continuing to process the words on the computer screen in front of you. Perhaps other physical stimuli is being processed, too, whether it's the amount of light or darkness around you, the background sounds in the room or house. In short, what makes the book amazing is what it reveals about the ability of the human brain, engaged in what some consider such a trivial activity, sitting and listening to music. Everything from memory to the pleasure center to the emotive portions of the brain are not just firing but exchanging information, the neurological activity constantly moving among the various areas of the brain working as a piece of music plays.

Whether one likes hip-hop or hoedown, reggae or Rachmaninov, your brain is involved in a complex operation, a series of evolutionary adaptations related to other characteristics but resulting, as biologist Ernst Mayr describes them, in an emergent phenomenon that also is rooted in human evolution, in what Darwin referred to as sexual selection. Music is part and parcel of what it means to be human for no less a reason than musical ability is one of the forces in mate selection. Levitin offers the simple example of rock stars and the sheer volume of sexual conquests they have; I had a similar discussion at work with a colleague just a few days ago about Vince Neil, lead singer of the 80's hard rock band Motley Crue. While hardly begrudging rock musicians one of the perks of the trade, it is a bit frustrating that even Vince Neil manages to win this particular evolutionary battle. Reading Levitin, it makes sense why this is so.

Musical Templates

I've been reading This Is Your Brain On Music by cognitive neuropsychologist and former rock engineer and producer Daniel Levitin. It is a marvelous, eye- and ear-opening book that, among other things, gets you thinking about what, exactly, shaped your appreciation for music. In one review, author Fahrad Manjoo writes of the impact of Weezer's debut back in the mid-1990's. Levitin speaks of lying on the floor while his mother played the piano. The late rock critic Lester Bangs wore his musical heart on his sleeve about his introduction to the anarchic possibilities in rock in the mid-1960's.

I, too, once wrote - not on the internet, but for myself - a long piece that attempted to understand the birth, growth, and development of my own musical obsessions and preferences. I started out with hearing "Star Cycle" by Jeff Beck on the radio, and kind of moved on from there. To this day, having listened to that song for 30 years, I still get chills during parts of it, and am discovering little nuances and subtleties both of production and arrangement that surprise me. All the same, I was being dishonest with myself. While "Star Cycle" was, and remains, a pivotal point in my (I hope) never-ending search for moments of transcendent bliss in the midst of music, both performing it and listening to it, were I honest, I would have to admit a far less cool beginning for my understanding of what is exciting in music.

It is the English single-version of this:

It was probably a 45-rpm single one of my older sisters bought. The performer, Miguel Rios, was one among many who, even today, take basic melodic themes from the classical repertoire, and adapt it for pop songs. In this case, Rios took not just the musical theme from Beethoven's 9th Symphony, Fourth movement, he also took the poetic theme, which was a poem by the German Friedrich Schiller. Interesting enough, I found several videos for this song on YouTube and, not having heard this song in what may be almost 40 years, I remembered the twists and turns, not the least of which is a break around 2:10 in to the song, after a passage from a string section, where some horns play a descending decrescendo motif as a Spanish guitar enters to take the next verse. The final section weds both classical and contemporary, as Rios syncopates in front of a fully-orchestrated backdrop, complete with choir.

I admit it sounds dated, it really kind of cheesy, and is a bit too literal in its adaptation (just consider how Eric Carmen treated Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto, Second movement in his song "All By Myself"; better yet, don't). All the same, having heard the song for the first time in decades, I recognize how much it has influenced my obsession with music, with what I find exciting and beautiful and interesting.

First, it is a wedding of classical and pop music. Hello Yes, Genesis, ELP, the end is listless. Yet, there is more. The arrangement, while faithful harmonically and melodically, takes liberties with instrumentation, rhythm, even mixing and matching classical and contemporary instrumentation and approaches simultaneously. Further, being a bit longer than the standard pop song (at just over four minutes, it must have seemed an eternity in a world where two minutes and thirty seconds was the norm), there is room to accentuate breaks in arrangement and verses, such as the one described above, to build tension and release it until the song comes to a resounding finish.

It isn't the song itself whose sound I continue to emulate. Rather, it is the emotional response I was surprised to learn I still had. The variation within the arrangement actually allowed for multiple tension/release moments, for rhythmic and timbral variation on the basic melodic theme, elements that are as surprising now as they were when I was four years old. In a sense, that continues to drive what I look for in songs. Some songs are simple enough in their emotional impact - consider any punk or heavy metal song, and you have that relentless sense of a release of energy. One advantage seventies classic rock has over much heavy metal is the build-up of tension (consider "Stairway to Heaven" as the archetype, too often badly copied; another approach was Boston's debut LP, where the songs use that tension/release formula, multiple times in the same song, in textbook fashion). On the other hand music I continue to listen to - classical and jazz, rock and pop - returning time and again follows those simple rules I first learned in Miguel Rios' "Hymn to Joy".

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Necessity Of History

We are a month away from the centennial of Ronald Reagan's birth. Accordingly, the state of Indiana is celebrating by, among other things, offering students the opportunity to write an essay on the importance of Ronald Reagan for American history. Here are some thoughts on that particular subject.

Whether we like it or not, Reagan is a historical figure of much import. During the 2008 Presidential campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama praised Reagan's rhetorical approach, his sunny optimism, his oft-stated belief in the power and promise of America and the American people. He received quite a bit of heat, in particular from his rival at the time, Sen. Hillary Clinton, for his comments. I defended the things he said at the time, and I still believe he was right, as far as it goes, that Reagan's contribution to our national psyche included praising America and Americans for our better natures. There's nothing wrong with that, in a general way. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama seemed to understand this in ways other Democratic candidates for President have not, part of the reason they won.

All the same, Ronald Reagan's time in office, his impact upon our polity, our politics, our national discourse, and so much else, has been, once one gets passed encomiums such as this, quite pernicious. As the Republican Party drifts further and further to the rights, they cling Reagan ever more closely to their collective bosom, it is important to keep in mind that the fault lines within the Party lie squarely at the feet of the 40th President.

One can survey the totality of his Presidency for all sorts of evidence that make clear how bad it really was. He began his run for the Republican nomination in Stone Mountain, GA, the birthplace of the KKK, a definite signal he was not only continuing but expanding Nixon's Southern Strategy. It has worked so well, the southern states, formerly iron-clad Democratic in their politics, are now Republican, for very bad reasons. In a famous moment in an early debate in New Hampshire, Reagan insisted on being given time to respond to a question by saying, "I've paid for this microphone." Except, of course, he hadn't paid for the microphone. It had been provided for him. The celebration of his sense of rugged individualism was belied by the reality of the case. No one, even at the time, pointed out to him that he was either misinformed or lying through his teeth. Of course, this was the case throughout his public career, from his time as governor of California to the end of his Presidency.

Reagan's courting of the religious right, hugely successful, is an object lesson in the contradictions of American conservatism. For reasons that I still cannot fathom, fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals rejected one of their own, Jimmy Carter (who spent his Presidency teaching a Sunday School class at a Baptist Church; his invocations of the Deity were real, heart-felt, and deeply-rooted) for Reagan. Quite apart from the obvious personal issues involved - divorced; forced to marry his second wife because she was pregnant; he was not a church-goer at any time in his adult life - his vocal support for many of the policies embraced by the religious right came late in the pre-1980 election cycle. Up to the primary season, the then-nascent religious right was going to throw their support behind former Texas governor and former Democrat John Connally. Connally not only sang their tune. He also was deeply committed to their vision, and had a record of support that Reagan lacked. The switch came not least because Reagan's people convinced people like Richard Viguerie that Reagan, not Connally, was the only Republican capable of beating Carter.

The Republicans have failed, in the generation since Reagan's election in 1980, to deliver on any of the religious right's pet policies. There is no official prayer in public schools. Abortion remains legal. Our culture continues to drift toward openness, rather than embrace some arbitrary set of values labeled Christian, yet bearing little resemblance to the Christian ethic. Yet, the religious right continues to support the Republican Party, always a bridesmaid and never a bride, it seems.

One could continue in this manner ad nauseum, but the central point, I hope, is clear. For all that Ronald Reagan is and will continue to play a pivotal role in our understanding of the second half of the 20th century in America, any such understanding needs to be done with at least one eye on the contradictions and flaws within the Republican Party he helped shape, and the pernicious effects it has had on our country.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Moving Forward - New Year's Resolutions?

The Daily Howler is one of my daily "must-reads". Despite several issues I have with Somerby's approach, in general it is a site that keeps me thinking about the ways our public discourse is distorted by our elite press corps. His column today, for example, focuses on a really bad page 1 story in the New Year's Day New York Times. For him, this is just a question of elite stupidity spreading a cancer of Dumb through the body politic by metastasizing their core neuroses to the rest of us through the bloodstream of the press.

I take this same article, and while I agree it is cliche-ridden and nonsensical, I see it less of a symptom of elite stupidity, than elite distraction. Like the columns of Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins, or even David Brooks and E. J. Dionne, two often held up as more thoughtful commentators from a conservative and liberal bent, respectively, the sum-total of mainstream discourse is really awful for a reason. Elites tend to believe that those not of the same social or cultural milieu are ignorant. Dangerous, even. Consider how often we hear characters in television shows talk about the dangers of making some bit of information public because it might cause panic. Yet, in actual emergency situations - the New Orleans flood, say, or a tornado ravaging a small town - most people act both sensibly and even communally. Far from the specter of the mad, mindless mob, human beings in fact do quite well. Yet, the myth refuses to die, and is part of the operant conditioning of our political elites. Thus, we get page one stories in our most important national newspaper that are mindless rehashings of cliches that have absolutely no validity whatsoever (there are cliches that have some ring of truth about them; these, however, do not).

I have already written, and completely deleted, who whole posts this afternoon. Not because either one was bad. Rather, they really weren't focused on the aim of this site, or my current interests. So, in the future, expect less knee-jerk reaction to whatever insanity happens each day and more thoughtful (I hope) exploration of underlying structures and assumptions. Raging against the mindlessness of so much of our politics makes little difference because the mindless happen to be in charge.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Captured By Britney Spears' Abyss

The syllabus of The New Inquiry now has a link to a 2008 Esquire magazine piece - it was supposed to be an interview, but morphed in to ruminations far beyond anything captured in the interview itself - to accompany a now-famous photo-shoot, Britney Spears in as little as possible, yet again tantalizing and teasing an America so wrapped-up in a whore-madonna complex it may never find its way out again. The article, by well-known pop-culture critic Chuck Klosterman, hits all the right points in discussing Ms. Spears, yet it seems to me that he misses something that would have been more obvious had he not been present for the photo shoot before doing the interview. I'm not blaming him; Lord knows, had I been there, even with that translucent screen keeping the rest of the world away, my guess is my thoughts would be addled. All I'm saying is that, when trying to "figure out" Ms. Spears and her place in pop culture, her history as a constantly manipulated cluster of social and cultural symbols is really what is important about her.

Since her emergence in the late-1990's as that most dangerous female creature for most men - the not-quite-of-legal-age yet nevertheless undeniably sexy young woman, either unaware of her sexual appeal, or using it to achieve her own ends - she has rarely moved forward in either her private life or career without those movement being scripted, covered by the ubiquitous tabloid press and paparazzi, with attendants including personal assistants and publicity directors carefully feeding stories, even contradictory ones, to those same tabloids. In other words, even in the very-public emotional and personal meltdown that followed not long after this interview was published, we should remember that Ms. Spears is far less an individual than she is a brand, perhaps even an industry unto herself.

Getting caught up in what Britney Spears thinks or says about her public image misses the fundamental reality that it this image has been carefully cultivated, kept before a public eager to finally pierce the veil (as it were). When Klosterman asks her about her sexuality, and Ms. Spears insists she doesn't think about it, in all likelihood she is correct. Since she was a child appearing on The New Mickey Mouse Club, Britney Spears has been a commodity. The entertainment industry in all its facets - music recording, television, photography, the music video - has attuned itself to her. My guess is Britney Spears has no idea how to live any other way than what others would see as exploited, dehumanized, hyper-sexualized, and finally foisted on the public with its various sexual and interpersonal neuroses. What "Britney Spears" has to offer by way of reflection on any subject matter is irrelevant not because she as an individual is irrelevant.

As an individual, sad to say, "Britney Spears" does not exist. No matter how many pictures we have of her, we are looking at an empty space, the contours of which are filled in by masters of manipulation. Stripping away the facade, we come face to face with the best example of Nietzsche's abyss that stares back at us, dragging us down.

New Year's Resolution With An Example

John believes it necessary for me to provide links to every factual claim I make, because facts can be disputed. In order to accommodate his wishes, in the future, my posts will look like this. Full of links that allow John the ability to check and make sure that I haven't made something up.

In fact, I'm going to provide a service in this post. A test case, as it were, of how this would work. It is common currency among right-wing pundits, bloggers, and politicians to insist that tax cuts increase revenue. This has been shown to be factually inaccurate - not controversial, not disputed, but an actual inaccurate description of the fact of the matter - over and over and over again. How do I know this latter case is, indeed, true? Why, I just made it up.

As with my already long-standing policy that I do not debate the reality of the Holocaust, of biological evolution, or global warming, the established fact that tax cuts do not increase revenue will not be a matter for dispute, debate, or controversy. I do not treat facts as disputable, as John does.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Enron And The Financial Collapse - A Dry Run?

I have been thinking quite a bit about the collapse of Enron and whether or not it presaged the bursting of the housing bubble and the collapse of financial markets. While I realize there are some that don't trust Wikipedia, its well-documented entries are easy enough to double-check, and it is a nice clearing house for all sorts of information, one-stop shopping as it were. So, from Wikipedia, a key point:
In Enron's natural gas business, the accounting had been fairly straightforward: in each time period, the company listed actual costs of supplying the gas and actual revenues received from selling it. However, when Skilling joined the company, he demanded that the trading business adopt mark-to-market accounting, citing that it would reflect "... true economic value."[20] Enron became the first non-financial company to use the method to account for its complex long-term contracts.[21] Mark-to-market accounting requires that once a long-term contract was signed, income was estimated as the present value of net future cash flows. Often, the viability of these contracts and their related costs were difficult to judge.[22] Due to the large discrepancies of attempting to match profits and cash, investors were typically given false or misleading reports. While using the method, income from projects could be recorded, which increased financial earnings. However, in future years, the profits could not be included, so new and additional income had to be included from more projects to develop additional growth to appease investors.[20] As one Enron competitor pointed out, "If you accelerate your income, then you have to keep doing more and more deals to show the same or rising income."[21] Despite potential pitfalls, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) approved the accounting method for Enron in its trading of natural gas futures contracts on January 30, 1992.[20] However, Enron later expanded its use to other areas in the company to help it meet Wall Street projections.[23]
So, Enron signs a contract with the Widget Corporation, a 10-year deal that will bring in $10 billion. Instead of reporting $1 billion on its balance sheets for each of the ten years - the actual net gain it received that and each subsequent year - it reported the full $10 billion. In order to make up the lost reported revenue in subsequent years, however, it had to keep looking for new contracts, and kept reporting the income in this same fashion. Not only were reported net earnings erroneous. The actual cash-on-hand, the capitalization of the company, was wrong. Instead of receiving a check for $10 billion from Widget, they received and could only use $1 billion.

The SEC did approve this particular bit of legerdemain for one aspect of their business - energy trading. Enron, however, was a diverse company, and the practice spread to all areas. In essence, they were their own bubble - overvalues not the least because they claimed to have a certain amount of capital reserves they did not in fact possess. One $10 billion contract might have been easy enough to cover. Soon, however, all its business dealings were accounted for this way. When audited by Arthur Andersen, they insisted this accounting method was legitimate (it was, in one of its businesses) and that, in fact, their reported income was accurate. Andersen was duped, or perhaps went along with the charade.

How does this relate to the collapse of the mortgage-financing industry? I am still at a loss as to how smart investors would view a liability - and a mortgage, whatever else it might be, is just that, a debt owed - as an asset. Yet, they are routinely sold from the originator, bundled together, and sold on the open market as assets. In the 2000's this practiced was supported by no less than a statement from the President of the United States that home-ownership was a goal of federal policy. Mortgages, then, became not only a hot item with a certain safety net - mortgage default in the US has historically been relatively low - but with the backing of the federal government. It became a seller's market. The goal was increasing home-ownership. Banks, real estate firms, and other mediators were aggressively pursuing all sorts of potential customers. Once the pool of safe home-buyers dried up - those folks who would have qualified for a mortgage in any market - they started pursuing more and more marginal customers. No money down was offered. The variable-rate mortgage became commonplace, where the change in rate came in the future, at some time perhaps when the customer may be in a more secure financial situation. Interest-only mortgages seemed to promise low payments, but actually created much of the problem. Without any principal included, no equity could be accumulated; such mortgages were actually worthless in a financial sense.

In this seller's market - like the energy market that Enron controlled - the price of the commodity being sold went up, so the situation arose where more and more marginal customers were chasing after products, the price of which was climbing out of any realistic assessment of value, but also their ability to afford. The whole system teetered. As defaults began to increase, in 2007, the mortgage-backed securities held and traded by the large investment houses and banks (now indistinguishable thanks to Gramm-Leach) shrank in value, then disappeared.

The various stages differ. Enron was a single company, but did control enough of a particular market to have an impact, particularly on pricing. The end of Governor Gray Davis' term in office in California was in no small way due to Enron's price-manipulations of energy, and absent a regulatory regime, no effective controls. Absent a regulatory regime over the various financial products during the housing boom, investment houses and insurance companies that promised to cover potential losses (think American International Group, which died when Lehmann Brothers went south) had no floor beneath them. In both cases the free market worked to create not just volatility but instability, precisely because pricing control rested in the hands of either a single actor (Enron) or a few such actors (the investment banks, plus Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, a few others). While Enron died not least because of fraudulent accounting practices, claiming all sorts of profits and capital reserves it simply did not have, the housing bubble worked in much the same way, driving up the value of properties, creating a situation on paper where their value exceeded any reasonable estimate.

I'm not sure if these similarities offer any insight. They do, for me at any rate, point out that free markets, outside any regulatory framework or control, end up bringing about their own instability. In this sense, regulation of markets, setting all sorts of legal and administrative barriers, in effect keep capitalism afloat, a point most economists accepted during the Depression when it was noted that, far from overturning capitalism, Roosevelt's New Deal saved it from itself. Despite years of stagnant economic activity, except of course for the investment banks bailed out by the Bush Administration that are enjoying record profits, there is the general notion abroad that any attempt to regulate the financial markets will result in economic stagnation, while free markets are our only hope. How this can be, I do not know.

Enron died not least because, with the markets it controlled deregulated, there was no one looking over their shoulder. Arthur Andersen's audits, while legally required, were not themselves checked because going through the motion of an audit was enough to satisfy the requirements of the SEC. The investment houses, seeing an opportunity and operating in a favorable market condition - the so-called "ownership society" - also acted outside any effective regulatory control. Both created a situation of unsustainable market volatility that could only lead to a settling of accounts. In Enron's case, once the actual value of their capital reserves became clear, the value of the company crashed. Once increasingly marginal mortgages started to default in greater numbers, the value of mortgage-back securities, the investments made with them as collateral, and the insurance backing them all collapsed.

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More