When bankers talk music

The Future Symphony Institute recently republished an astoundingly stupid article by David P. Goldman called “Admit it, you really hate modern art.” Goldman is a vulgar businessman who fancies himself a man of taste, and deliciously unaware of the irony of criticizing the vulgar businessmen who support Damien Hirst. He disparages Wikipedia and then cites Wikipedia for an anecdote that may or may not have happened. He talks a lot about music, though he doesn’t appear to listen to very much of it or understand it. He is, in short, an idiot.

One of Goldman’s bugbears is Kandinsky, who “helped invent” abstract art and “understood that non-figurative art was one facet of an aesthetic movement that also included atonal music.” He likens Kandinsky to Schoenberg, who he calls “the grandfather of abstract music.” Therein lies his basic problem, as Schoenberg is not the grandfather of abstract music. Music has been abstract ever since instrumental music became a serious art form. If Goldman knew his elementary aesthetics, he’d know that it was the example of music, which strictly speaking cannot be realistic or representational, that paved the way for more abstract forms in other arts. There have been debates on the validity of instrumental music as an art form throughout history, but these were all well settled by Beethoven’s time, if not earlier. Goldman is a few centuries slow on the uptake.

The most common misconception about classical music is that it is all about tunes. In fact, quite a lot of classical music is all but tuneless, including most Baroque music and the majority of the symphonic tradition. When a tune does surface, it usually fades into more abstract material in short order and becomes fodder for musical process. Classically speaking, tunes are either presented and then critiqued, or else put together as the result of an extended critique. They come at beginnings and points of culmination and are only rarely the main purpose of an entire composition. The important thing is the process, the fluctuating between abstract and concrete material, and the logic that leads one to the other. We use the term “process music” as a label for the music of Steve Reich and Terry Riley, but it could appropriately be applied to the entire Western classical canon.

Following this line of thinking, it’s not hard to see that playing with the balance of concreteness (tunefulness and singability) versus abstraction (process and logic) is an obvious direction for aesthetic exploration. There is no fundamental conceptual break between the musical thinking of the late nineteenth century and that of Schoenberg; in fact Schoenberg did write in the extended tonality of that period during that period. Eventually his style evolved in the direction music generally was evolving. Some balance between concreteness and abstraction remained, as Schoenberg and his pupils Berg and Webern represent points on a continuum: Berg more concrete, Webern extremely abstract with only flashes of concreteness here and there, and Schoenberg somewhere in the middle depending on the period (the same man wrote all of these: 1, 2, 3, 4).

Goldman goes on to object to the lack of hierarchy in Schoenberg’s music and its visual equivalents:

The hierarchy of importance is the source of meaning. The tonic, or the starting point of the scale and chord of the home key, is the most important note in a musical composition, for all tonal music undertakes a journey towards the tonic.

This manages to be both inaccurate and simplistic. It is not true that all tonal music undertakes a journey toward the tonic. There is plenty of tonal music that does not begin and end in the same key: it journeys from one place to another place. There is also music that begins and ends in the same (enharmonic) key but moves diagonally by thirds and cannot be said to undertake a journey toward anything. Even if they’re the same keys on the keyboard, there is a world of difference between E Major and F-flat Major, tonally speaking.

And anyway, tonal hierarchy is just one of many overlapping structures in music including rhythm, form, text, programmatic associations, motivic structure, and the fluctuation between abstraction and concreteness. Some types of music emphasize some of these structures over others, even occasionally swinging to extremes. Playing around with the location and degree of emphasis is another obvious field of aesthetic exploration.

The supposed “fact”—and music cognition is not yet mature enough as a field that it can do without the scare quotes—that the brain naturally processes music in a certain way does not mean that music that is not easily processed in that way is somehow inferior. Aesthetic arguments are not susceptible to neurological solutions. Nor does the Hindemith-ish argument that tonality is rooted in the structure of acoustical science invalidate atonal music. Working against the grain of the materials can be a deliberate aesthetic choice—see, for example, Leonardo’s The Last Supper.

Next Goldman discusses the economic differences between new music and modern art. While the two arts do indeed differ in monetary terms, these differences occur because music cannot be sold the way a painting can be. A single work of Kandinsky’s might sell at a high price to an interested collector, but for a single work of Schoenberg’s to make an equivalent amount of money there would have to be hundreds of thousands of sales to hundreds of thousands of interested individuals. In any case, I’m not sure where Goldman got the idea that Schoenberg died in poverty and left his family penniless. He was a university professor with a comfortable living at the time of his death, and he left an estate worth millions. His family is not exactly living in Hollywood glamour, but they’re not boiling their shoes, either.

Goldman goes on to argue that “not a single one of the abstract composers can earn a living from his music.” That would be news to Karlheinz Stockhausen, who wrote hundreds of works on commission and taught at universities throughout the world, or Pierre Boulez, who can command a massive fee for a single performance. Goldman cites film composers, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Aaron Copland as examples of “non-abstract” composers who could “become quite wealthy.” This ignores several inconvenient facts. Film composers often use serialism and other modernist techniques in their music—in the context of a film, audiences are more open-minded about music for a number of complex reasons. Also, few film composers are only film composers; film is just one of the many ways for someone trained in modern methods of composition to make a living. So some film composers are the very “abstract” boogeymen that Goldman rails against.

Andrew Lloyd Webber is a freakish embarrassment and anyone who thinks music in general should be more like his forever forfeits their right to call anyone else a philistine. And Copland actually wrote serial and atonal music in addition to his sunny Americana (though those works are still non-tonal). The fact of his financial success could just as easily be used to show that composers need to put out potboilers if they want to work on their serious music, though in reality there’s a lot of continuity between Copland’s many different styles and it would be more accurate to say that Copland cultivated many different audiences at different times.

From there Goldman makes some dubious economic arguments (does anyone seriously think that the decline of symphony orchestras is in any way tied to the new music that they never widely performed in the first place?) and another dig at “pretentious” collectors of abstract art, Goldman sets out on a pathetic and long-winded theologico-aesthetic argument that is basically a debased version of the same arguments Roger Scruton has been making for years.

But enough of this bullshit. Where I come from, you cannot make up facts and define words to suit your purposes. When you make a claim, you have to give examples, and those examples have to actually be examples of the thing you’re talking about. Goldman simply has not done his homework. At no point in his essay does he cite a single modern composer other than Schoenberg and his pupil Berg—he appears not to have heard of any others.

He has a bizarre idea of what constitutes “making a living” (perhaps acquired during his time at Bear Stearns) and seems to want to simultaneously hold to a highbrow theological aesthetics and a populist aesthetics wherein great art is whatever makes a lot of money and pleases lots of people. With ideas this confused, it’s a wonder Goldman can tie his own shoes, let alone write a mind-bogglingly stupid essay and have it republished by a quasi-academic institute.

When we hear people like Roger Scruton, Leon Krier, or Alexander Stoddart making similar arguments to Goldman’s, it’s a very different story. These men are actual practitioners of the arts they write and speak about, so even when they talk twaddle it’s still informative twaddle. Scruton, for example, is one of the most important musical philosophers of all time and also the composer of several musical works. When he (partially) disagrees with Schoenberg’s music ideas, he is forced to respect Schoenberg the composer. He has the ability to separate what is good from what he likes. Game knows game, as they say.

But Goldman has none of this background. He evidently has no expertise in music or any other art, and he has nothing interesting and very little true to say on the subject as an amateur. He is merely regurgitating partially digested versions of what other, smarter people have said. Like a cargo cultist, he rehearses rituals he does not understand in the hopes they will have the complement of the effect they’ve had on Roger Scruton: converting his financial capital into some degree of intellectual respectability.

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The errors of popular criticism, part 3: Genre literature

We’ve talked about the aesthetics underlying popular criticism of popular culture and the shadowy adversaries on whose existence this aesthetics hinges. Now the question is: what does an effective piece of genre fiction look like? What is a way to evaluate genre literature that does justice to its status both as popular fiction and as literature?

I should say, first of all, that I’m using the term “genre” loosely. This follows the ordinary usage in these debates: writers like Doyle and Poe are genre when it’s convenient and mainstream when it’s not. Sometimes mysteries and thrillers are genre, sometimes not. Sometimes the term specifically refers to SFF and perhaps horror, and sometimes it refers to anything outside the academy that’s not marketed as mainstream highbrow fiction. That’s part of the reason why these debates are futile: what actually is genre depends on what kind of mood you’re in. Continue reading

The errors of popular criticism, part 2: The nature of the pretentious

Movements work better if they have enemies, and these enemies are often esoteric inventions designed to suit the movements’ needs. Tropish criticism is an aesthetic movement, and I’ve already mentioned that its enemy is a shadowy confabulation that resists being tied down to specific examples. Specific examples often belie the stereotypes of tropish criticism. This means that, in the interest of self-preservation, tropish criticism must isolate itself from the intellectual world, appropriating only useful bits of it without fully understanding them.

Here is a table:

Literary fiction:

  • Boring and academic
  • Overly concerned with symbolism
  • Only succeeds due to government and academic welfare
  • Exists to show off how intelligent the author is
  • Associated with hard-left politics
Genre fiction:

  • Fun and commercial
  • Means nothing but itself
  • Commercially viable because people actually enjoy it
  • Exists solely to entertain
  • Apolitical

(I apologize for the fact that the table is hard to read; unfortunately my WordPress theme removes borders from tables and it’s too much trouble to put them back with inline CSS.)

This table is a brain-dump of my eighteen-year-old self. I was bookish but stupid, interested in the arts but almost completely ignorant of theory and criticism. I had only just started seriously engaging with music older than my parents. Aside from high school Shakespeare, the most literary thing I had read was Ordinary People by Judith Guest, which shocked me with its present tense and italicized inner monologues.

I had read about (but not read) Roland Barthes’s “Death of the Author,” and like all good tropers I thought it was both ridiculous and central to all literary criticism. In fact, I had read about but not read rather a lot, including canonical philosophy, science textbooks, religious texts, and classical literature. This made me feel like an expert despite knowing practically nothing.

When I arrived at the University of Manitoba, I had a chip on my shoulder about the “pretentious.” This was a catch-all term for literary fiction, avant garde art, criticism that was more concerned with finding obscure symbolism in novels to prove the critic’s intelligence than with its proper business: rating things as better or worse.

Because of my inexperience, if you asked me to name specific examples of pretentious things or people I couldn’t have. I would probably mention Roland Barthes (who I had not read), the Social Text hoax (which concerned people I had not read and would not have understood), and perhaps John Cage and 4’33”. My beliefs lasted as long as they did because no one asked; people who are mainly interested in debunking postmodernists in a belligerent and ill-informed manner seldom get the opportunity to talk about their interests with friends.

I drew too many conclusions from second-hand information, and I was not experienced enough to know that my beliefs did not stand up to scrutiny. Of course I know now, which is why I’m making an example of myself in this quasi-confessional series. So to ease my own embarrassment, let’s pick apart these beliefs about the nature of the “pretentious” in detail.

Much of the belief structure contained in the term “pretentious” depends on the character of the pretentious academic or pretentious artist. This character does not exist. Yet I can easily picture an example: clad in black and perhaps a beret, sitting in a cafe, smoking a cigarette and expounding on Nietzsche, Foucault, and other foreigners. I believed in this stereotype because I read about it almost daily, but that was at sites like Less Wrong where pretentious academics and artists are bugaboos meant to scare you away from traditional centres of knowledge, where you might be led to question the Singularity or the bizarro brand of utilitarianism.

When I came to the U of M, I expected to see pretentious academics everywhere. I didn’t, because they don’t exist, but my expectations led to some encounters I now regret. My professors were never pretentious so much as single-minded. To the extent that they were ignorant of or indifferent to popular culture or genre fiction, it was because they had dedicated their lives to the study of eighteenth century opera or enharmonicism and had no time to think about anything else, not because they thought they were better than me.

I registered a few pretentious false-positives among students: one guy wore a different beret to school every day. He now plays bass in a space-rock band. Another wore black, smoked, and occasionally made reference to Nietzsche. He ended up being one of the few people I could talk to about anything serious without tearing my hair out. But my fellow university students were much like my fellow high school students in that the vast majority of them weren’t interested in anything at all. The few who did register as actual human beings were such a welcome relief from the monotony of bovine ignorance that any number of foibles could be forgiven. For the most part university students are not burdened by an excessive interest in intellectual matters.

If the word “pretentious” in its special sense has any real content, the pretentious academic or artist cannot be part of that content as he does not exist. Perhaps the pretentious could refer to the academy’s attitude of superiority toward popular culture?

A lot of people seem to have experienced a formative moment in school where they were forbidden from reading the genre fiction they liked or derided for doing so. I never had any experience like this, and yet I was convinced that the English literature establishment was strongly opposed to science fiction and fantasy. In my first year at university I was required to take a course to fill my written English requirement. The default course for direct entry students (music, engineering, nursing, agriculture) was Topics in English Literature, Topic TBA. The section I signed up for turned out to be “Horror in Literature.” We read Dracula, Frankenstein, several short stories, and a book by the thrice-accursed Kelley Armstrong.

But I was more interested in sticking it to the pretentious literary critics than I was in answering the questions on the essay tests, so after doing poorly on the first one I dropped the course (getting less than an A in anything would have jeopardized my scholarships). The course did everything I wanted university courses to do, but my beliefs were so entrenched that I couldn’t accept what was happening before my eyes.

The fact is that the canon is now thoroughly busted. The trendy academic position is that genre fiction and pop culture are unfairly marginalized and need to be studied in the name of equality. On my bookshelf I have decades-old critical works on Clarke, Tiptree, Tolkien, Asimov, Silverberg, and several others. You can take a creative writing MFA that focuses on genre fiction. In reading critical works of recent (or even not-so-recent) provenance, it’s striking how often they take a cosmopolitan view of literature. The author will usually concede that science fiction (for example) is of critical interest, even if not to him.

There are quarters of the academy where genre fiction and popular culture are still not accepted, but there are quarters of the academy where people believe just about every ridiculous thing. And anyway, the hard truth is that if you consider yourself primarily a reader of science fiction or fantasy or some other genre, exposure to the classics or anything outside your normal reading habits can only be good for you.

So much for pretentiousness being about the exclusion of genre fiction. What is usually seen as an effort to prevent students from reading vulgar crap is better described as an effort to get them to read something outside their ordinary frame of reference. Could pretentiousness then reside in the area of literary criticism, where bearded chain-smokers with comedy accents read subtext where it just doesn’t belong?

I hope it’s obvious that it’s silly to expect academic literary scholars to spend most of their time deciding which books are better than which other ones. What distressed my teenaged self was the frequent suggestion that nothing is better than anything else, a suggestion that seemed to me to come equally from pretentious academics and know-nothings on message boards.

Luckily, you’ll find that most people who can be taken seriously admit that some works are superior to others—they just regard it as a trivial truth not worth belabouring. And they are able to discuss and examine something they dislike without mentioning their dislike of it, which I now regard as one of the most important skills a writer—or anyone—can have. Even many of the people who say things like “it’s all subjective” don’t really mean it—what they actually mean is that even shit has redeeming features, you may find that you were wrong about something you used to hate, and wouldn’t it be nice if we were all a little kinder to each other.

As for obscure symbolism, one of the things I was surprised to learn upon actually reading some literary criticism is that most of it is not concerned with straightforwardly assigning an allegorical role to each character in the story and arguing that this secret allegory is what the novel is really about. The idea now seems bizarre, though it didn’t at the time; I blame the fact that high school English is usually taught by cretins who have never read a book uncoerced.

Another mental block I used to have vis a vis literary criticism was religion: as a die-hard atheist, the mere suggestion of religious overtones was enough to turn me off something, and it upset me when someone had the temerity to suggest that religious imagery was relevant to some book I liked. I suspect that many are in the opposite situation: any reading that involves elements contrary to or incompatible with their religious beliefs is unacceptable.

Those who reject literary criticism, whether for failing to rank works of literature in a pseudoscientific way or for inserting symbolism into works of literature that won’t accept it, are all too often simply ignorant of the field. Like my eighteen-year-old self, they discount it for the way it makes them feel, not as a result of any serious evaluation of the facts. So the complaint of pretension will not stick to literary criticism either.

There is still a widespread belief that goes something like this: genre fiction is popular and entertaining, while literary fiction is deliberately obscure so that pseudointellectuals can pretend to understand it in order to seem smart. This issue could probably be a whole essay in itself, so I will content myself with stating that (1) people do actually enjoy literary fiction, (2) there is a bigger audience for certain kinds of lit fic than you’d think, (3) certain segments of genre are more boring and marginal than their proponents would have you believe, and (4) fiction can still be valuable without being entertaining.

I hope that relating some of my personal experiences helps to dissolve the notion of the “pretentious.” When used in the nonstandard but common way I’ve been using it, it’s quite simply a contentless word. Since the new meaning has almost supplanted the original meaning, it’s probably best that we all stop using the word entirely. We’ve already established that many key tenets of tropish aesthetics evaporate when the “pretentious” enemy is taken away. Now that the enemy has indeed been taken away, we’re left with a void. What can we fill it with?

In part three I will give an example of a story I believe to be an effective, if not great, short story, and contrast it with a series of novels by a popular author widely considered to be unpretentious and on the side of tropishness.

The errors of popular criticism, part 1: Tropish Aesthetics

Despite my highbrow pretensions and classical music degree, I’m actually quite steeped in science fiction. This means that I’ve paid close attention to the uproar surrounding the Hugo awards and the Sad/Rabid Puppies campaign. I have little to say about the Rabid Puppies, who are clearly nothing more than shit disturbers. But the Sad Puppies campaign is an instance of an annoyingly prevalent conceptual error that stands in dire need of correction.

My intention here is to focus on the misguided aesthetic concepts in general rather than the specific situation because I don’t give a damn about the Hugos as an award: this story’s status as a Hugo-nominated novelette is sufficient to kill the award’s credibility for a decade, I think.

In many ways I have a background similar to the Sad Puppies campaigners: I’ve never been involved with SFF fandom proper. I started with an interest in video games, which brought me onto the Internet with greater enthusiasm than any of my friends at the time (I remember explaining the concept of a blog to an uncomprehending grade 7 classmate about ten years ago). About the same time I discovered TV Tropes, John Scalzi’s blog and novels, and the work of Richard Dawkins.

This last was particularly influential: I became an atheist and a huge fan of his, which meant I had to pretend to care about science and distrust “intellectuals.” I read Dawkins’s elaborate handjob to Alan Sokal (of the Social Text hoax) and from then on harboured an unhealthy skepticism of anything in the humanities, especially the study of literature. I also discovered the fascinating Singularity and transhumanist website Less Wrong, and while I never drank the Singularity Kool-Aid, I was heavily influenced by their attitude toward academia and traditional knowledge.

The three interests led me inexorably to science fiction: TV Tropes had an SFF-ish bent, Scalzi’s novels were easy to read, and liking science fiction was easier and more fun than learning about science. But like the puppies, science fiction for me was centred on movies and the books that aped them. Fantasy was a little more bookish, since there were never any good fantasy movies: I read the Harry Potter series as it came out, The Golden Compass at age 10, The Lord of the Rings at 13, and went from there into Terry Pratchett and Jim Butcher (I know, I know). But it was only much later that I discovered Arthur Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison, China Mieville, Nick Mamatas, Michael Moorcock, Ursula Le Guin, and all the other SFF-ish writers I know and love today.

Aside from Tolkien, Pullman, and Pratchett, SFF for me was not literary, defined as writing in which the story is created through the use of words which reward study for their own sake. I had gleaned what I now know to be a bizarre aesthetic and literary philosophy from TV Tropes, my atheistic reading, and my overexposure to Hollywood movies. This philosophy precluded any serious analysis of language in novels and militated against taking language seriously as a medium of storytelling.

Atheism and Hollywood movies served to protect the aesthetics by limiting my reading. But TV Tropes was the source of the philosophy’s substance. The TV Tropes model takes atomized bits of story-stuff known as “tropes” and endlessly categorizes them, listing examples and subtropes and variations and inversions. This elaborate taxonomy suggests an aesthetics in which stories are created through a sort of plot and character calculus, and the good stories are all and only the ones that make an interesting and novel pattern with the preexisting plots and characters. A key TV Tropes tenet is a suspicion of originality, construing storytelling as endless variations on a theme. This is what makes Buffy the Vampire Slayer popular, along with its lesser imitators (Butcher, Laurell K. Hamilton, Kelley Armstrong, Mike Carey, and God knows how many others): you can always tell what the prime form of the trope is and how it’s been transformed.

Tropish criticism places a story in story space at the intersection of all its tropes and looks at what falls nearby. The unspoken principle, then, is that stories that can be easily placed into story space are the best ones. This spatial concept can be extended to incorporate more unusual works, but it’s never really a good fit. A troper will always see Neil Gaiman as superior to James Joyce.

Certain regions of story space are more interesting than others. This means, if you follow the spatial metaphor, that the aesthetic quality of a work can be evaluated objectively in terms of which areas it explores. If you subscribe to certain key tenets, it’s not hard to prove that Guards! Guards! is better than Jingo but not as good as Men at Arms, and all without quoting a single line. The system probably also explains the Internet’s fascination with extravagantly negative reviews—Doug Walker, Yahtzee Croshaw, Linkara, and the rest are all entertaining performers, but the main reason they caught on is that they flatter the aesthetic beliefs of a large number of people.

This system is extremely comfortable, and many people never do leave it. But needless to say, it is also extremely limiting. It can’t handle any genre fiction that is even slightly unusual—for example, Mamatas’s fiction, which is self-evidently weird and wonderful does pretty badly by any tropish metric (I remember being perplexed by Bullettime, and part of me was strongly inclined to dislike it).

The popular fiction of past centuries—Shakespeare, Austen, Doyle, Wilkie Collins—does all right, but mainstream writers of the twentieth century, Faulkner, Hemingway, Updike, Irving, Pynchon, DeLillo, etc., are absolutely reviled. And the system is not really interested in anything beyond assigning a ranking and pointing out the ways in which the plot-character calculus of a work resembles and differs from that of other works. It is medium-agnostic. Most importantly: it almost entirely ignores language.

When people say that they are looking for good stories without anything “pretentious,” this is what they mean: stories with recognizable tropes put through a given set of transformations to yield a pattern that is new but not in any way challenging or surprising (challenge and surprise would be pretentious). The words are secondary, to the extent that they count at all: Jim Butcher is not a shitty writer, he’s an able practitioner of trope calculus. That excruciating kaiju story is not the literary equivalent of my balls, it’s a variation on the kaiju trope in the form of a short story (something that apparently hasn’t been tried before, perhaps because a giant monster destroying a city is such a visual thing).

Again, I know this from the personal experience of having held similar beliefs not too long ago. These errors of popular criticism depend on a dichotomy between the popular and the “pretentious” to such an extent that the beliefs evaporate once their adversary is taken away. This means the adversary must be a shadowy one that can never quite be pinned down to a specific person or work, aside from the occasional scattered reference here and there.

More on this shadowy adversary in part 2. Part 3 will actually look at some genre fiction in detail.

On classical music and listening culture

The other day I found myself in the electronics section at Wal-Mart, as we all do from time to time. In the holiday $5 CD bin there was a “classical favourites” disc. The formula for these CDs is familiar even if you’ve never listened to one: shoddy performances by God knows who. Single movements of symphonies, Brandenburg concertos, and pieces by obscure Baroque one-hit wonders. Famous opera arias, little piano pieces that have become cell phone ringtones. If they’re feeling really fancy there might be a complete overture.

These CDs mine the classical repertoire for pieces that are simple and tuneful in construction, or single movements of pieces that are neither simple nor tuneful but whose opening bars are sufficiently famous to hold the listener’s attention for a few minutes. It is impossible to get enough of this kind of material without taking things out of context, so we see extracts and unrepresentative miniatures.

My dad, incidentally a fan of this kind of music, hates most classical music written post-1900 and likes things that are “melodic”, a word he pronounces so that the middle syllable rhymes with “go”. “Melodic” music, pronounced this way, has become for me a catch-all term for the kind of music that appears on these classical favourites collections. Continue reading

Gaming, growing up, and time

Finishing the whole Demon’s Souls business (in however elliptical a form) this past summer was as relieving as exorcising an actual demon. Now I appear to have started the cycle again with a series on Splinter Cell, but I am less emotionally invested in it and I have no illusions that it may involve a wait of months between instalments.

Since I was quite young, video games and writing have been my constant companions. Until late in high school I had nothing resembling a social life. I played hockey but didn’t enjoy it. For a few years I had a web programming phase, but I eventually put away such foolishly practical skills and became a musician. All the while I continued to enjoy video games, and I wrote more as a way of exorcising demons than realistically preparing anything for publication.

Going to university changed that. It was the first time I really exerted myself in an academic setting. In my first year I would get home no sooner than 5 or 6 PM, which at the time seemed shockingly late. By third year I was routinely at school for twelve or more hours at a stretch, with a few hours of work to do once I got home. I’m in classes full time and working three jobs in the off-hours.

All this means that leisure activities are sidelined. I’m lucky if I can get fifteen minutes to read a book before bed, let alone time to play a video game. In the time I’ve been employed by the Manitoban (for which employment I am extremely grateful; don’t get me wrong) it has constituted almost the entirety of my writing output.

The sad fact is that when you’re a staff writer for a publication you sometimes have to write about things you’d rather not and you often can’t do what you’d like to. I can’t recall the last time I tried my hand at fiction, not to mention completing something and submitting it for publication. The kind of non-fiction I prefer to write goes here, but only when I have a large enough stretch of leisure time (articles need room to breathe, I’ve always felt).

A holiday used to mean an unfathomably long period of uninterrupted gaming (probably it was two hours at a time, but these things are perceived differently when you’re younger). Now it just means I get to choose in what order to do the million things I have to do. I play console games in short, infrequent spurts on some weekends. It occurred to me today when dealing with some computer problems that I cannot remember the last time I played a computer game (even my beloved Half-Life series).

Every so often I get nostalgic for those days—the games were better then, too. I hope against hope that when I finally finish school it will give me a little more leisure time, but I think what I miss most of all is a certain kind of innocent conception of time that is wholly lost to me no matter what I do.

I feel like there’s been an oddly shaped divot in my soul since I finished Dark Souls. I reach out to my readers, if they exist: what should I play next?

More on UMSU and GoSA

We love to jerk our knees, and the Internet has made it easier than ever. I myself did something of the kind in the last few weeks when I wrote a strongly worded public letter to the University of Manitoba Student’s Union over the supposed closure of the Gallery of Student Art. It came to light just a few hours later that there had been a miscommunication and a premature announcement, and the gallery was not actually closing. This is fortunate but of course it made me look like rather an asshole.

I look back on the letter, as I do on most writings of a similar kind, with a feeling of disgust and regret. Not because I do not believe the things I said—much of what I said is applicable even though the gallery is not closing. But it was ill-timed and poorly researched and I am not really in a position to speak authoritatively on the gallery, with which I have never been affiliated. In short, it was irresponsible, driven more by blind rage than any sober assessment of the facts, and designed more to loudly make my opinion known than to change anything. UMSU may be scum, but to some extent so am I.

Much as The Last Psychiatrist predicts, a fast news cycle has led to “intelligent” people reacting to meaningless stories with half-assed outrage that can easily be contained. I am not going to get involved in the GoSA, nor in UMSU. I wrote that letter in an hour before I brushed my teeth. The only thing that happened as a result of the letter was that a shitload of people visited the site, an UMSU rep sent me a noncommittal invitation to speak with him in person, and another UMSU person tried to add me on Facebook. I declined both (word to the wise: if you’ve never met me, don’t add me on Facebook and definitely don’t try to arrange a meeting) and for a short while disappeared off the Internet in embarrassment. That was the end of it.

I say this not so much to explain my actions as to provide a window on a certain pattern of behaviour in the Internet era. Something happens and is reported on by the regular media. Shortly thereafter thinkpiece sites like Slate and Salon get ahold of the story and their articles start to circulate on Facebook and Twitter. Then comics, memes, and image macros get made on bottom-feeding sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy and are circulated even farther because it takes less effort to read them. A certain type of person—you know who you are—posts their “thoughts” on the matter. Nothing happens. Then the cycle repeats with something totally unrelated and within a week the event that had absorbed all our capacity for thinking about political and social issues is totally forgotten. All the shouting and nothing ever changes—because it was never about change and always about shouting.

The problem is that most of us don’t know a goddamn thing. We’re only interested in making our opinions known, in branding ourselves as a certain kind of person. Nothing is important per se, it’s only important insofar as my opinion on it brands me as caring or responsible or iconoclastic.

This is why I am so embarrassed about my letter: our knee-jerk branding responses do not help anything and frequently cause a lot of harm. I don’t know anything about the structure of UMSU, the budget of GoSA, or arts funding in general, though I have a vague notion that artists ought to have a public place on campus to display their work. But I have publicly held forth on the subject and forced two organizations to respond to my stupid and ill-informed comments.

An open letter to UMSU and the University of Manitoba student body, re: the closure of the Gallery of Student Art

Update, 5:40 PM: After some exchanges with a few people connected, it has come to light that the situation is more complicated than it appeared at first. The gallery is not closing, but operating on a reduced budget. The announcement that it was closing was a mistake on the part of GoSA staff (I will post their email as soon as I have their permission).

Budget cuts are an unfortunate part of life, so I cannot oppose them on principle the way I would oppose the closing of GoSA or any other thriving arts organization on campus. The cuts may or may not be fairly and intelligently made—it would take someone with more knowledge of the inner workings of UMSU and GoSA to say that. Therefore, assuming the gallery does stay open during the year, I retract the portions of the letter that relate to the gallery’s closure.

Hopefully this can be an object lesson to all of us on the hazards of making announcements (or writing open letters) in haste. Ideally, it will also serve as a warning to exercise extreme caution in making cuts to arts organizations.

Update, 8:40PM: The GoSA coordinator has declined to give permission to reproduce her communication here (which seems odd, given that it says essentially the same thing as the recent Facebook announcement). At present the gallery’s future is not clear beyond the fact that the plan is to keep it open.


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The evolution of the hashtag and new media rhetoric

Ah, the humble hashtag. It’s likely you’ve never thought about it in any great depth. It seems such a fixture of our culture that it is hard to imagine that only a few years ago it was an obscure bit of jargon and a few years before that it did not exist at all. Now you encounter it more or less daily and it doesn’t seem very interesting.

But it’s surprising how much you can learn by looking at the boring things we encounter in everyday life. A lot of our knowledge of antiquity comes from the study of coinage and pottery. The most fascinating sociological studies deconstruct everyday encounters to reveal the structure of human social relations. A history of the hashtag is a history of the Internet in miniature, and that has to have some value.

(I should note that I am writing for an educated but nontechnical audience, so I may gloss over some obscure details. I am not particularly concerned with the creation of a precise timeline of the development of certain concepts; my main consideration is making the concepts themselves and the way they stack on top of one another clear.) Continue reading

Inspired to vomit: Music, education, and Mr. Holland’s Opus

Mr Holland’s Opus is a bad film. It is a miserable, overlong, poorly structured specimen of the “inspirational teacher” genre of movies (mercilessly parodied in School of Rock and Here Comes The Boom) in which a charismatic teacher uses unconventional methods to inspire apathetic students to apply themselves. It is pornography for the worst kind of educators, and like all pornography it profoundly distorts the things it claims to illustrate.

Dead Poets Society, Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me, The Emperor’s Club. Starting high school in 2007, I was taught mostly by people born in the 1980s who had grown up on this glurge. I had many teachers who were “inspirational” in the cinematic sense, not a few of them so inspirational that they never got round to teaching us anything.

The genre, and Mr. Holland’s Opus in particular, is sentimental trash, but that’s not my main reason for criticizing it. It’s simply too easy to say that Mr Holland’s Opus is bad because it is cheesy bullshit, and if that was all I had to say it would be hardly worth writing about. This movie fails in a very special way, through its egregious abuse of a subject near and dear to my heart. Ultimately its flaws are spiritual, and they shed some light on why the inspirational teacher movie is such a malicious force in popular culture. Continue reading