Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Debate That Just Won't Stop: Reflections on Aesthetic Theory

As a social scientist and historian I am not really interested in engaging in aesthetic debates. Why? Because aesthetics are, in the final analysis intersubjective. Beauty is not transcendental. It is in the social and cultural eyes of its beholders. I thus prefer to leave debates over transcendental beauty to those whose stock and trade is that domain beyond the empirical, to philosophers, metaphysicians, and theologians. 

Nor do I see the point of arguing about whether a film, a literary work, a television programme, one brand of ice cream, or whatever is better than another or is good or bad anymore than I find it worthwhile debating the merits of Calvinism versus Free Will with the Westboro Baptist Church, whether one should baptise by dunking or sprinkling, or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. 

One thing that the social scientific and historical study of readings reveals, and I learned this long ago, is that aesthetic readings, readings which attach beauty or value to some object, are ideological. I remember being struck by this realisation, when I took an undergraduate seminar on the Book of Exodus at Indiana University in Bloomington. As I sat in class I remember having one of those moments of enlightenment. I realised how the religious and non-religious backgrounds--Orthodox Jewish, Reform Jewish, Evangelical, Anglican, atheist, etcetera--of those in the class were "overdetermining" how they read the Book of Exodus and what they valued in the Book of Exodus. Ideology was making particular readings of the Book of Exodus real. I remember thinking to myself at the time that perhaps the only way we could break the seeming prison house of hermeneutics was through a focus on the empirical. 

Since that moment of enlightenment I have grown to care less about what someone likes or dislikes (love that colloquialism). Unlike many of those of a fundamentalist and evangelical ilk, I am rather "libertarian" when it comes to likes and dislikes. I now find it absurd, not to mention rather authoritarian, to believe that everyone should like the same things I do and that if they don't my likes and dislikes should be imposed on the rest of the world. I suppose this makes me the odd person out in a world dominated by authoritarian godlike statements of absolute transcendental aesthetic truth.

It is, I think, important to move beyond the notion that aesthetics are transcendental because when we do move beyond the transcendental conception of aesthetics we can began to make sense of the social and cultural function of these authoritarian and transcendental aesthetics "practises".
Moving beyond the notion that aesthetic truth is transcendental allows us, on one level, to come to the conclusion that if we want to know empirically what people like and dislike we have to empirically analyse what people like and dislike via surveys, interviews, ethnographic analysis, or statistical analysis. Such an empirical approach to aesthetics, in turn, allows us to see that likes and dislikes vary. For instance, it is clear that some people like American television show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", some people don't, and most of don't really care one way or the other and may never have even seen "Buffy" and don't care to see "Buffy" for whatever reason.

The simple empirical truth that likes and dislikes vary across time and space invariably raises questions about why some people--intellectuals, nerds, geeks--believe and continue to believe that there are transcendental aesthetic "truths". I think the reason for all this aesthetic talk is very simple: One's identity invariably gets bound up with what one likes and what one dislikes. And since identity is usually bound up with community, aesthetic preferences are intimately entwined with human attempts to construct communities of the ideologically like minded. The simple if perhaps sad empirical truth is that most humans prefer to hang with those who think, by and large, like them. I call this the "I am OK, if you want to be OK you need to become like me" syndrome. By the way, this process invariably leads, in modern complex societies, to the construction of a "mainstream", the norms the mainstream majority are socialised into. Those outside the mainstream, of course, become "dissidents", those who, for whatever reason, do not imbibe the ideologies of the majority, .


Though I, over the course of my intellectual and academic life, have not had much time for psychoanalysis and Sigmund Freud, as I get older I occasionally wonder whether Freud has a point. Is all this I like and I don't like talk just a form, at least in part, of (mental) masturbation? Though I may think a bit in psychoanalytic terms sometimes I almost always return to that which is rarely ever repressed within me: my social scientific and historical "self". And when I do I generally return to the realisation that no Freud is wrong. The point of aesthetic talk, is social and cultural. All of this, by the way, doesn't mean, that I find all this like and dislike talk any less absurd. I do continue to find it all absurd and I don't "like" it (pun intended) even though I think I understand it. Bah humbug.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Situational Rhetoric of the Ford Motor Company

If the Royal Lifestyle commercial I discussed in an earlier blog (23 April 2012) is perhaps one of the most honest promos to come along in years, the famous or infamous Ford we didn't take any auto bailout money commercial is one of the most dishonest, disingenuous, and demagogic.

In 2008 Ford had "real Ford drivers", who they presumably paid, say, at mock news conferences, that they bought a Ford because Ford the Good didn't take a government handout. Ford may not have taken automobile bailout money from the governments of the US and Canada in 2008 but it and its dealers did take advantage of the CARS, Car Allowance Rebate System or "Cash for Clunkers" programme initiated by the US government and a similar programme in Canada in 2009.

Ford's we didn't take government monies advert, of course, was clearly aimed at the we hate the bailout crowd. A year later, however, and much more quietly Ford was putting its hands out in the direction of the federal government for rebate monies the feds were giving out in their "Cash for Clunkers" programme (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qhkx73RojBU).

Ford's anti-federalist handout rhetoric and behaviour then was situational (situational ethics). Ford, or perhaps more accurately Ford dealers, dealers Ford could have advised not to accept a federal handout, accepted a federal handout in 2009, it didn't, or so it claims, in 2008. It is this inconsistency in Ford's rhetoric, in its behaviour, and in its continuing crowing about being the only US automobile company not to accept government welfare or wealthfare that is the reason why Ford must be numbered among the many dishonest and disingenuous demagogues in contemporary American society.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Oh the Joys of Shopping at Amazon...

I have almost had it with Amazon. Recently I ordered a copy of the Bernstein/Kostelantz/Previn Gershwin collection. I ordered it because the photo of the back cover of this CD indicates that it was made in Europe. I try to avoid buying American product given how this nation has been taken over by ubercapitalist gamblers who don't care about this country and don't care about the citizens of this country. I have stopped buying Naxos classical product entirely given that they now assemble and print some of their product in the dixiefornicated anti-union state of Tennessee. Germany, Austria, and Holland, on the other hand, where most classical CD's are produced in the EU, have placed breaks on speculative casino capitalism and still have strong unions. As a consumer I prefer to "vote" for the latter and not the former.

Now back to Amazon and its practises: The question has to be asked how this muckup, if it was an accident, occurred. One could, I suppose, read this use of a photo of a European edition of Gershwin/Bernstein/Previn instead of the American edition (the one I was sent), by Amazon as yet another example of Amazon laziness. Presumably they can't be bothered to get the photos right particularly when they can borrow one from their cousins European at Amazon.uk, Amazon.fr, and Amazon.de.

There is some merit, I suppose, to the laziness argument. Why? Because there are other examples of Amazon sins that appear to be the product of just plain laziness and sloppiness. Amazon, for instance, has a tendency to carry over the reviews of a previous DVD transfer of a film and television programme to a new DVD transfer. Take a look at the various DVD releases of the BBC 1984 where the reviews from the various releases of this TV broadcast version have been rolled into one making it virtually impossible to judge the quality of the various releases on the basis of the various reviews. Apparently Amazon simply can't be bothered to weed out reviews for DVD's when a new transfer of a film has come out. They seem to assume that once you have seen one transfer you have seen them all. This assumption, of course, is not true. Any Criterion release, as a general rule, is far superior to any Echo Bridge release.

Of course, not everyone is willing to give Amazon a laziness, sloppiness, or stupidity pass here. Recent Amazon behaviours--its membership in the nefarious ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), its offering of those who enter information about the price of a book in a brick and mortar bookstore into their smart phone a discount, their attempt to do a Standard Oil and gain a monopoly on electronic books by underpricing competitors--raises questions about whether Amazon's mistakes are sins of slopiness and stupidity or intentional acts of commission. Clearly such behaviours are deliberate attempts by Amazon to gain market share and as such they are not sins of laziness and sloppiness. Amazon instead appears to operate by the standard operating practises of corporations, practises that are inherent within modern capitalism, practices that seek to monopolise the marketplace. As a result Amazon is rather like John D. Rockefeller's Gilded Age Standard Oil who pioneered in running their competitors out of business by underpricing them and gaining a monopoly as a result. Speaking of economic bureaucracies and their monopolistic and cartellistic practises, isn't it curious that your standard anti-government libertarian and tea partier don't seem to see these practises as a threat to human freedom when they clearly are?

As to the Bernstein/Previn Gershwin CD, it is not bad. As commentators have noted, however, Bernstein makes cuts in the score (boo) and these performances seem more Bernstein than Gershwin (boo).

So to sum up three stars for the Bernstein/Previn Gershwin performances and 0 stars for Amazon.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Sexual and Aristocratic Dreaming

"I've had woman come up to me in the street asking me, "What's that delicious fragrance you have on?"
Jack Charles, President, The Royal Lifestyle
- "This will do it!" -
from the webpage of The Royal Lifestyle


I didn't know what to make of this Royal Lifestyle advertisment or promo the first time I saw it. Is it a wry postmodernist commentary on what underlies most promos on our media, using sex and the dream of the aristocratic life to sell product? Or is it meant to be taken seriously? In a way it doesn't matter whether this Royal Life promo is real or parodic because it foregrounds what most adverts are not honest enough to foreground, namely, that they try to manipulate us into buying product by playing on our fantasies of the good life and our sexual fantasies. In this respect this "commercial" is perhaps the most honest advert I have seen in years.



Sunday, April 22, 2012

We Hear You Have Been a Naughty Girl: Constructing Deviance

I recently ran across this little ditty online dateline Moscow (http://news.yahoo.com/russians-pray-correction-anti-putin-punks-062308383.html). According to this article the powers that be in the Russian Orthodox Church are calling for the "correction" of members of the anti-Putin punk band eollective Pussy Riot for their "defil[ing]" "of the holy shrines", presumably by this they mean the Church of Christ the Saviour in Moscow where Pussy Riot held a protest against Putin, and the "good name of the Church", by which they presumably mean Pussy Riot's contention that the Orthodox Church in Russia had long been a supporter of Vladimir Putin who Pussy Riot and others regard as someone who stole an election. I am not sure why the Church would regard this as defiling the good name of the Church since the Russian Orthodox Church has long been a supporter of Vladimir Putin as anyone familiar with contemporary Russia knows including, presumably, Russian Orthodox Church leaders. Some Russian Orthodox went beyond calls for "correction" urging that the members of Pussy Riot be burned alive or shot. The fate of the members of the band, as I write, lie with the Russians Criminal Courts where the members of the band are being tried for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. The 90% conviction rate of the Court doesn't bode well for Pussy Riot or for freedom of speech in increasingly theocratic and frightening Russia.

What is, of course, really going on here is yet another act in a very long play. It is the same old story about how societies and cultures construct conformist cultures. It is not only authoritarian or totalitarian societies that construct of "normal" and "deviant". Notions of what is "normal" and what is not are as characteristic of capitalist countries and democratic countries as they are of communist countries, dictatorial countries, authoritarian countries, and totalitarian cultures. The manufacture of "deviant" "others", in other words, has more to do with the construction of "mainstream" and "orthodox" and their antitheses "counterculture" and "heresy", culture, than with economics or politics. As history shows all societies, sad to say, construct what they think of as "normal" and what they think of as "deviant" and tend to push "deviants" toward conformity either through persuasion (the carrot) or coercion (the stick).

Bibliography
Natalia Antonova, Pussy Riot Are Scapegoats for Russia's Political Crisis, 7 June 2012, The Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/07/pussy-riot-russia-punk-prayer-service

Friday, April 20, 2012

I am Shocked, Shocked That Breivik Thinks He is At War...



So some are shocked, shocked by Anders Behring Breivik's words in a Norwegian courtroom recently (http://news.yahoo.com/court-shock-norway-gunman-describes-massacre-124453974--finance.html). Personally I find his tales not unlike those stories told by those many soldiers who have, at various times in their lives, been at war with some "enemy". And remember the Breivik thinks that he is at war.

Anyway, I suspect, though I don't have direct empirical evidence for this, that there is an inconsistency in how many on posting boards including Yahoo are reacting to the tales Breivik is telling about his "war" and their reactions to how some American soldiers are behaving in their war: American soldiers urinating on dead Afghan "enemies", American soldiers posing with the body parts of dead "insurgents". And that difference, one obviously impacted be socially and culturally manufactured nationalist ideologies, is, to me, endlessly fascinating. Nationalism is clearly a meaning system, a meaning system that creates realities, realities which, in some cases, allows individuals and groups to demonise the behaviours of some and either ignore, praise, or explain away similar if not the same behaviour of their own.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

More Snarky Ron...

In response to Romney's claim that he is the victim of a vast left wing conspiracy: "LOL. Romney is Hillary in reverse. Anyone else want to hear the Hollies King Midas in reverse?"

In response to ABC's inability to title "The B in Apartment 23" "The Bitch in Apartment 23" and "GCB" "Good Christian Bitches": What is it with ABC and bitch, bitches? I mean they have two shows with bitch, bitches in the title but they can't bring themselves to publicly utter the words? One would think that we would have moved beyond the fear of uttering the b word by now. But apparently not. Has the b word and its variants become the new Y or J word for the guardians of public morality?"

In response to comments about the Breivik trial by commentators on Yahoo: "You have to feel a bit of sympathy for those humans who simply can't understand how culture, in Breivik's case the culture of right wing Islamophobia, White Supremacy, and Christianity, creates reality for him and others like him. I suspect that behind the attempt by many to turn Breivik and other right wing mass murderers like Hitler (who was the product of Christian and scientific racist culture) into psychopaths is that Breivik's ideology hits way too close to the bone. Clearly there are similarities between the ideology Breivik mouths and the ideology, rhetoric, and demagogeury of American Islamophobes and British hypernationalists and what comes out of the mouth of many a right wing dixiefied Republican.

Interestingly, while right wingers blame communism and socialism for every "evil" under the sun they fail to use the same methodological logic to explore the mote in their own ideological eyes of the past including the mass murder of leftists at the end of World War I, the mass imprisonment of leftists by Hitler, the deportation of leftists during the Wilson administration in the US, the mass murder of leftists in Indonesia, and Breivik's mass murder of leftists recently."

In response to a report on Yahoo that T-Mobile is sexing up the T-Mobile Woman: "If they were smart they'd have her talking on her phone while cooking in the buff. Sex, as we all know, sells, and it can apparently even sell drek like "The B in Apartment 23".

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Happy Anniversary Titanic...

15 April was yet another one of these hundred year anniversaries that so fascinates the public and the media who want to sell product to a fascinated public. 15 April 2012, of course, was the hundredth year anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in the Atlantic Ocean and the Western media have been full of stories about the ship, its tragic fate, and fictional representations of the ship, its crew, and its passengers and their fate as it sailed toward its tragic fate.

One of the fictional representations of the Titanic that debuted this April and which has gotten a lot of attention, is Julian Fellowes', yes the Julian Fellowes of "Gosford Park" and "Downton Abbey" fame, "Titanic" miniseries that ran on Global in Canada, ITV in the UK, and ABC in the US. Critical judgement of this "miniseries" has by and large been underwhelming, too many stories attempting to be told, too much focus on class, not as good in comparison to James Cameron's 1997 and recently re-released in 3D Titanic, have been the major complaints of media and internet critics.

I recently started watching Fellowes's "Titanic" on the ABC.com website. And apart from the annoyances of advertisements louder than the audio of the show itself, advertisements that are poorly timed, advertisements breaks that are poorly done, two of the plagues of watching films and TV shows online, Fellowes's "Titanic" actually grew on me. It took me awhile to get into the series but Fellowes's telling of the tale of the Titanic tragedy from the several different vantage points of passengers and members of the crew, all representing different classes, over four episodes proved really fascinating and, in the end, quite compelling to me.

As to Cameron's "Titanic", I never found his $200 million dollar plus play toy version of the Titanic tragedy particularly compelling. Rather I found it representative of everything that is wrong with Hollywood. Cameron's "Titanic" is film making by the demographic numbers. You have Leonardo and Kate for the tweens, the ship for the technonerds, Kathy Bates for the adults who like their Americans boisterous, wild westy, and dismissive of Old Europe's class system, the disaster for the dudes who love their films action adventurery, and lots of money spent (while poverty continues to bring suffering to those without access to big Hollywood budgets) for those who think that special effects are the only aspect of a movie that matters. Yech. Of course, this film making by the demographic numbers and drawing as many demographic groups as possible into the suburban movie less than palaces was presumably the only way Cameron and his big money men could recover and expand on their investments. Commodity aestheticism, the Hollywood way. Yech squared.

In the end I enjoyed Fellowes's "Titanic". I found only the historical and special effects aspects of Cameron's "Titanic" (the reconstruction of the ship and its sinking) interesting. Neither Fellowes's nor Cameron's Titanic dramas, melodramas, and tragedies, however, have made me change my mind that the greatest of the Titanic tales on film is the superb "Night to Remember" from 1958 (now available on DVD and Blue Ray from Criterion). Fellowes's version with its narrative ingenuity, a narrative ingenuity confusing, I think, to many viewers socialised to believe that the only real narrative is a linear narrative, was an honourable if overly romanticised effort. And that is much more than one can say for Cameron's linear manichean tween weepie in which what little characterisation there is, is lost amidst the orgiastic spectacle of special effects.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

In the land of the looney...

In the ya gotta love "conservatives" category: Conservatives did away with the fairness doctrine instituted by the FCC during the "Reagan Revolution" claiming that it wasn't needed because the market would create diversities of opinion and representation. Despite this rhetoric, however, they continue to whinge and whine about the "liberal" media. I guess, in other words, they want to have their cake and eat it to. I guess what they really want is for every one and every thing to, in robot like fashion, spew out the same political and economic ideologies they hold to be holy and wholly true. And this is why for all their talk about the joys of market diversity and freedom they oppose diversity and they oppose freedom. Their conception of freedom is really one of conformity in a religious like fashion to ideologies and rhetoric they hold to be sacred. And this is why they are, by and large, in my opinion at least, utter hypocrites.

I suppose I shouldn't be so hard on such hypocrisies. Humans, after all, have never been and are not "rational" in that unitary sense held sacred by so many intellectuals and academics particularly those in departments of economics and economic think tanks across the Western world. How can you argue, even those of you devoted to freakonomics, that the belief of many in the US that they pay a 50% federal tax rate is rational in that transcendental sense when it is really around 15%? How can you argue that the blanket belief that everything the federal government touches, save for spending related to the military, is evil, particularly when the federal government has built interstate highways that have given Americans greater opportunity for travel, built dams across the nation that have brought water to millions with little, and contributed to the excellence of American higher education is rational in that unitary sense?

You can't. And though many intellectuals and academics still don't realise it the old notion that humans are "rational" in that universal sense is dead and has been so for at least a hundred years. RIP. The only way, of course, you can save a notion of rationality is by arguing that culture creates reality, that culture creates rationalities, and that there are many examples of rationality present in the world we all live in. In other words, we have to accept the fact that the reason Westboro Baptist Church members act the way that they do is because of the "reality" their culture has created. Westboro members believe that their Calvinist God is punishing the US for its decadent behaviours and that they have been called by their Calvinist God to witness to "fag enabling" Americans that it is their Calvinist God who is bringing death and decline to America as a result of their decadent behaviours. Needless to say, they are drawing this culture in large part from their reading of the prophets of the Taanakh.

When we understand that rationality is cultural and not universal we can, for instance, understand that those conservatives who oppose abortion but favour the death penalty are not, as some of their opponents sometimes claim, inconsistent, hypocritical, irrational. In fact, this ideological position is fully "rational" within the context of their manufactured mental worlds. Babies, in their ideological system, are "innocent". Those who commit murder no longer are. Ergo, their support of the death penalty.

Though I realise that rationality is cultural, ideological, and relative, I sometimes wonder how notions that dominate much contemporary economic theory is "rational" even in this cultural sense? How can one believe, for example, that human behaviour, even human economic behaviour is rational, when so much of the behaviour of those who operate within unregulated markets is purely speculative? I suppose one could argue that this free market rhetoric justifies and legitimises base manufactured human greed. But don't these speculators realise that manufactured bubbles, whether the speculative Tulip boom of the 17th century, the speculative real estate boom of the 18th, the speculative stock market boom of the 1920s, or the speculative real estate and derivative booms of the 1990s and 2000s always lead to busts? How then is such speculative behaviour rational in either the long term or short term? Isn't what is really going on, even amongst those who fancy that they engage in the ultimate in rational behaviour, here simply yet another example of orgiastic and bacchic social and cultural psychology? Can't one, in other words, understand this type of behaviour as driven by the cultural belief that the be all or end all of human existence is basically making lots of money, making lots of money regardless of who it hurts and the consequences of such behaviour? And doesn't such behaviour risk alienating those hurt by busts in the short and long term? I think so.

But haven't I forgotten something here? Haven't I forgotten that the economically powerful manipulate the masses through mass propaganda and the mass media? And hasn't such rhetorical manipulation, such demagoguery, allowed the powerful to manipulate most of the masses into believing that it is the government, and not the elites, Wall Street, the real people who really control the government to their their advantage, and the real villains of our tale, who are responsible for the economic inequalities and economic busts confronting us today, despite facts to the contrary? Again, I think so.