In Praise of: Captain America

I’m a bit behind in what I want to write about lately. Evidence of this is the fact that Antisophie was discussing about the ‘fatigue’ of super-hero films after Thor 2: the Dark World which may lead to suggest that the emerging genre is tired and has little to offer except more of the same.

 

Then I saw Captain America: the Winter Soldier, twice. I saw it with two different groups of people. One with a nerd friend, who got all of the easter eggs and got all of my jokes about defeating Magneto with a wooden gun. The other group I saw it with were the last people to take any interest in super hero films that involved the supernatural, but oddly enough they don’t mind science fiction if it fitted in with their worldview (i.e. technologies that were conceivable). On both counts we found the film to be quite moving, despite all the explosions.

 

Mark Kermode had a review of the film which said something to the effect of: the plot had a thread which was very contemporary which could have been developed more, but was tempered with the inevitable action set pieces that are a requirement with a big budget film such as this. One of the reasons I am a big fan of the Marvel stories is that the stories can be genuinely engaging and are a reaction to much of the things going on today.

 

On a personal note, I think that Captain America’s real super power is his commitment to his sense of personal and political value. Steve Rogers has an uncompromising commitment towards a conception of the good and on many occasions he is challenged to not always uphold this ideal. I was recently reading the 2013 issues of Captain America, where the character is kept in a dimension created by Armin Zola. Rogers spends over a decade in this dimension and his aging is visible. One also notices that he develops a relationship with a child who is Zola’s son and is challenge on a great many fronts. In the recent 2010-2012 Avengers EMH animated series, Captain America’s character faces a public backlash after his Skrull doppelganger destroys the public reputation that Rogers had. The EMH Captain America carried on despite the public hatred about him and was unwavering.

 

The idea of a Captain America has to be different in a world where the idea of the United States has vastly changed due to geopolitical and economic factors. But I’m quite impressed at how Marvel still successfully makes him relevant.

The Badminton mind (, or the sui generis-ness of discourses)

I’ve often used the phrase, in my blogging and in my personal conversations, that one has to have a musical mind or must think musically in order to understand some piece or other, or as an instrumentalist to approach performance. I remember studying aesthetics at university and finding the topic different (but learnable). The thing that I found particularly difficult about aesthetics was thinking aesthetically. Often in theoretical philosophy we’d think of examples in physics or mathematics, thought experiments that would never happen and so forth, that would apply in thinking about metaphysics, philosophy of language or epistemology; but not so well at aesthetics. To think aesthetically (I would contend) can involve one’s inner aesthete having a contribution to one’s way of thinking. As far as branches of philosophy go, aesthetics seemed to involve an independent kind of form of querying (perhaps this is just a phenomenological thing to me).

 

Some discourses seem to have an autonomous way of thinking about them which do not merit cognates, analogues or comparisons very easily or if they do, they are clunky. In recent years I have taken up badminton and I have found that in spite of all the drills, techniques I have learned and court hours I’ve racked up, I’m starting to discover a voice of expression within badminton. I discovered this when I was playing with a new partner in a doubles match against two people I know pretty well. I knew that their playing standard was definitely above mine but this new partner was an unknown quantity to all of us.

 

I started to take winning seriously and I began to think things that never had any kind of cognate in the rest of my life. I thought about things such as what the best starting positions would be; where their weaknesses are; how to rally 2-3 shots ahead of the current shot and how to break the opposing team’s sense of resolve.

 

Perhaps it is because I’m unfamiliar with other racket games like say Tennis or Squash. One of my friends chooses not to play Tennis because in his view the technique and approach: gets in the way of his Badminton play. I suppose the point I am making is that it is a nonsense in the same way someone might say that the Organ is 3 piano keyboards on top of each other and therefore a good pianist must be a good organist (or could read organ music transferable); likewise, Badminton strategy has a sui generis quality about it, in the same way.

 

I came to learn the Clarinet after playing the Piano and one of the pitfalls that I had was acknowledging the uniqueness of the Clarinet. Reading the Treble Clef on its own for example didn’t seem to be an issue for me because I have experience of reading 2 clefs as standard (3 if I’m accompanying, 3-4 if playing 20th century music). However reading clarinet music requires thought about phrasing and breathing, especially if breath marks are not included! Thinking about the unity of a phrase in terms of the breath put into it, or the unity of a melody line as a unit of the piece. Then there are the aspects of my poor breath technique that I am constantly working on (that requires a lot of work). I’m pretty bad at badminton, and so too with the Clarinet!

 

Of course, noticing that thinking as a Badminton player, or say, a Judoka (as opposed to another form of fighter like say thai boxer) can have transferrable traits to some other discourse. Perhaps the most obvious one in badminton is deception. Deception is a beautiful tactic whereby you give a tell of what your next move is going to be (and where it will go), but that tell is entirely contrived to throw off the opponent. The beautiful thing about deception in my playing experience is choosing when to do it. Doing it all the time itself is a form of a tell to the other player. Deception in this way sounds like the kind of general skill that one might have in social life, or other game-playing such as Poker. The autonomy of a discourse should have as its defining conditions, continuities (such as deception can apply to other games or social interactions) and discontinuities (shuttlecock aerodynamics).

Crystalisation entails death

I have recently read an essay ‘Aesthetic Transcendence’ by Trine Paulsen and Kim Solve, part of Trine + Kim Design Studio. They are (among other things) involved a lot in the graphic design aspects of many Black Metal acts. In their discussion of black metal aesthetics, Solve points out how the iconography and messages have developed a distinct form of currency, but in the process it cannot be said that Black Metal exists as an underground movement or a form of rebellion.

 

Solve makes the point that Black Metal is a visible subculture with imagery in children’s programming, entries in Eurovision and talked about by academics. These are hallmarks of something that can hardly be addressed as revolutionary.

 

This gives me pause to think. I could try and resist this conclusion and address metal subcultures where there is a genuine underground such as Africa, depressive-suicidal black metal, non-European and non-North American metal or even specific genres like NSBM being inherently underground due to the political beliefs associated with it. In fact I would try to resist this conclusion and say there are many different concentric circles of BM in the world and the Nordic type may be the hegemony but it is not the only type.

 

What if we accepted the conclusion that BM had lost its revolutionary edge? Perhaps this is inevitable. Could we say that Schoenberg is still radical? It is true that Black Metal probably wouldn’t have a mainstream AOR radio station presence, but it could have enough of an audience to fill out say, a 300-capacity venue and work within the engine of the indie label toilet circuit tour, for instance.

 

If it were the case that BM can be part of the cultural industries, even to the extent of being talked about by academics and having mail-order t shirts. What does that say of the potential of the revolutionary fervour in general? Is everything reducible to a t-shirt slogan? Well I suppose my only answer to that is: sapere aude (have the courage to use your own understanding).

 

P.S. 7 years ago to this day the blog was born. Belated happy birthday.

 

Thinking about Lent

This week a lot of conversations from various circles of friends and in other places (such as at work and of all places my gym classes) have oriented around the start of Lent. Invariably I have been led to think about this issue. I looked to the origin of where the whole thing about temptation and the role of abstinence came from in Lent which led me to Matthew 4:1-11. What I found interesting about the story is how something about temptation is made to be a personal issue for various Christians and non-Christians around the world; yet for seemingly different reasons to why Jesus was tested. Lent seems to be meaningful to people insofar as they find some personal significance to denying some thing that they are giving up. Perhaps that is smoking or chocolate, alcohol or some other behaviour.

 

Without entering into the language of sin, temptation seems to be about agency. Our agency has dispositions. We have tendencies to like things or dislike things. All too often some of our tendencies are for things not necessarily good for us. I have been thinking about choosing to give something up as I was brought up in the traditions of lent and trying to find some meaning to resisting temptation.

 

I have some dispositions for things that I might consider beneficial. I like walking to places that are short distances and avoiding using other forms of transport. I also like walking to new places to have an experience of the local geography in a different way. There are other things in which I abstain from that I would normally be moderate with and I am rarely immoderate with. I am quite a fan of tea and coffee for example. I choose however to avoid tea and coffee most of the time for something simpler. I know that coffee can make it difficult to sleep but even if that were not the case I would still choose to avoid it. Sometimes the reason to do so is just because I can say no.

 

I am reminded of a story from Melvyn Bragg who once said that there periods of time where he goes completely without alcohol just to prove that he can. Bragg also says that there have been times where he had had a lot of alcohol. There is a certain value to moderation. I make a point of not having alcohol very much and when I do it generally is barely more than around 2 pints. Following the Mitchell and Webb sketch that says ‘around 2 pints’ is the optimal amount of being drunk.

 

Asceticism is something I was brought up to value highly. Asceticism is something that prima facie, the current Pope Francis I values a great deal more than his predecessors. Asceticism can mean different things. In my view the enduring value of lent comes in the ways that people find value in abstinence. I have been thinking about what I might abstain from and instead of anything specific I thought about the issue of food waste and waste in general. I have this week made a decision to try and minimise food waste and non-recyclable waste.

 

One way I’ve been trying to do this is reducing what I am getting in food shopping in general and not only trying to be minimal, but also being less wasteful and using more of what is already at home. Thinking this way is forcing me to be a bit more inventive about how I cook things. Not doing a daily food shop as I usually do has led me to think more about using what I already have at home and not constantly looking for things to buy. Doing this has tempted me to buy a lot of unusual things, they are just minor temptations but they are temptations that I would normally succumb to. I have a thing about getting lots of tinned soups and frozen food and I seem to buy more frozen food and tins than I actually consume. What I am trying to do is less of consuming things that are immediately available, but thinking more about what I already have and avoiding a wasteful attitude about it.

 

P.S. On an unrelated note I‘d like to thank the readers from the Russian Federation who had given me a spike in this website’s visits yesterday (saturday 8th March). I’m not sure what that was about but I always like when more people glance at the blog. Thank you for reading.

Received Opinions

Received opinions are the enemy of any informed democracy, and are the enemy of good taste. Whether a received opinion is wrong or right is immaterial. What is material is having enough familiarity with an issue to merit an opinion, or having a reasoned response to some issue.

 

It may be that we know too little about an issue to have an opinion. It may be that we have no view about an issue and yet many around us advance theirs. Having a perspective is overrated. There is such a thing as withholding judgment or simply having no view on an issue.

 

I’ve been thinking about the idea of a received opinion as there are many things in modern European history (by this I mean from the Baroque period to roughly the 20th Century). From my recent Spotify subscription I have decided to make really big musical playlists of composers or musical acts that I would like to be more familiar with. I like things like the BBC Sound of 2014 as I have been following those critical lists for a couple of years. I also have a mini tradition (as of about 2009/2010) of going to a 2-3 day festival called the Camden Crawl where almost all of the acts I see are completely unfamiliar to me, and then I have found that a few months later or a year later, some of them end up being on the radio and I can say that hipster thing of ‘I saw them before they were famous’.

 

Since about 2010 I have made music listening playlists for large collections such as ‘the complete work of Mozart’ or ‘the complete recorded corpus of Glenn Gould’ (part of what inspires me going on ad nauseam about one of my favourite pianist-artists). I have decided to listen to ‘complete works’ lists of other people as well. Last year I listened to Kate Bush, which was interesting – I must admit of my own male biases coming into play in my musical preferences and that I rarely acknowledge the female experience in music both as performers and lyricists. I listened to the complete work of Frank Zappa which required a lot of effort but was very rewarding at points. There was also a significant amount of leitmotif in his work too which would make me chuckle in that pretentious Glenn Gould way (not to say that I think Gould was pretentious – but he parodied it self-consciously).

 

Two composers have struck me in attempting to listen to their ‘complete work’. One is the composer CPE Bach, who is quite difficult to find big lists for on Spotify. The other was a composer that most people seem to forget these days: Paul Hindemith. CPE Bach I read in an article described as ‘proto-Romantic’ (wikipedia’s ‘Sturm und Drang’ piece), which I find an entirely eccentric claim. I also find it odd how standard intro textbooks refer to Locke and Berkeley as empiricists unequivocally. The problems with overview or received opinions are that they oversimplify and simultaneously under-explain. A received opinion may be a good point of view, but when presented as a received opinion tends to be less rigorous and argued for the more times it is copied by other people.

 

I have emphasised to people the importance of coming across primary source material on your own terms and reading it yourself. Instead of reading what other people think of them. It takes much more effort to read a Descartes commentary than it does to read Descartes’ meditations. That is more a testament to Descartes’ readability of the Meditations. When I hear opinions about Kant I can  sometimes guess where they are parrotting their opinions from. (pre-Manfried Kuehn or post-Kuehn’s biography). The beauty of the information age is that the resources for having an informed opinions are out there. With the exception of paid journals and unpublished papers, there’s a wealth of information from which we can contextualise and recontextualise our history.

 

Received opinions are subject to contestation. Some received views seem to linger no matter what, like a bad fart. Like the view that Nietzsche was a Proto-Nazi (which someone like Kaufmann in the 1950s’ successfully contested). Received opinions can obscure more interesting contexts. Listening to Paul Hindemith recently was reminiscent of Bernard Herrman film scores or les six composers such as Milhaud. I was reading a bit about Hindemith and he seems to have a strange set of contradictions: influential to the neo-classical movement of the 20th Century, yet in his post 1910s work shows influence from Schoenberg (as far away from neo-classical as you can get). The work of Hindemith seemed to have its own internal logic, its own sense of narrative and it didn’t quite fit with my received views of the 20th century. By one metric he is a musical conservative, and by another he was part of the avant-garde. I would be willing to consider Hindemith as both.

 

Another example of a received opinion that I’ve also mentioned countless times: when I read ‘Sorrows of Young Werther’ I had no sympathy for the character’s suicide. It was not Romantic and it was not noble. It was not tragic, it was stupid. The story boils down to constituent elements: ‘boy likes girl, girl says ‘we should stop hanging out’, boy has breakdown as a result’. I am not saying that this is uninteresting and it is a life predicament that many people live through. However it is my view that there is nothing didactic about his response except perhaps (and this may be a bit oversight on my part), we accept that his actions are rash and aim to orient our behaviour away from what he does as a form of literary moral instruction. I find it dangerous to place such a high aesthetic value on this work and the way in which it seems to be commonly received suggests that we are more willing to follow the views of others than take our own view. Kant’s motto of the enlightenment is as relevant to musical history as it would be to current political situations: Sapere Aude: have the courage to use your own understanding.

 

Thinking Musically

I’ve written in the past about the adjective ‘musical’. Lately I’ve been hosting and helping people with improvisation. The odd thing is that I am no expert in music and I am an amateur and dilettante. I love to watch youtube videos about improvisation and playing technique and reading things here and there. I feel that one of the things that really enhances my ability to play is just to listen. There is a skill in being an effective listener of music and for me that is more of an accomplishment than whatever I happen to perform.

 

I have often said something to the effect lately, that the emphasis in performing well is to think musically. I keep saying this so much I don’t even know what I mean sometimes. I thought I might clarify what this could possibly mean in this post.

 

Thinking musically is about a commitment to music itself, music as a human activity and tradition that goes back to – God knows when! As a human activity we have forbears and we are inevitably indebted to them. It is fair to say that I am a paternalist about music often. Many things go back to Bach. Even the things that are developed as a reaction against something else, show that something else as a form of influence (Neoclassicism vs. 20th century Avant-Garde for example).

 

To think musically is to have your own voice. To think musically is to have a sense of conviction. My old piano teacher always used to emphasise the conviction of a performance over technique. Sometimes your conviction can be so strong that you might go against the standard interpretations or customs already established. Thinking musically can therefore be a means of expressing individuality.

 

As well as a commitment to traditions, genres and so forth; there is often an internal logic. There is an internal logic to an individual piece of music, sometimes in the phrasing, the articulation. Sometimes the internal logic is to one’s own playing style. An internal logic may be towards the interpretation of a composer or period.

 

I like to apply thinking musically to when I write my blogs. One thing that is a cliche of mine, is that I go for extended digressions that don’t always have a comprehensible take home message. Another example of applied musical thinking to a non musical discourse, is Glenn Gould’s ‘The Idea of the North’. This documentary on the Northern wastes of Canada applies an idea from the musical genre of the Fugue. The subject of the documentary focuses on vox pops of various people who have an experience of living on the northern frontiers of Canada and the aural testimonies are layered on top of each other in the form of subject, counter subject, answer. Of course I presume that when Gould did this documentary, not many of the intended audience would understand this Bachian influence on the art of radio documentary making. In lieu of this obscurity, it causes me to laugh at Glenn Gould’s sincerity. That so few would understand him yet he still continued his commitment to thinking and living musically.

 

Perhaps thinking musically is not a thing-in-itself, but a media through which ideas come forth. I think of how Haydn’s music often contains humour, not within the musical form but by virtue of being funny.

 

Perhaps I have a specific view about thinking musically. Lately my idea of musical thinking is a commitment to form and using form as a tool of expression. I often feel that things such as genre and style can often be the product of our cultural education and upbringing and instead of contributing new music to add to a historical process of cultural idioms and styles, we simply replicate them. While this in itself is not aesthetically ‘wrong’ or bad (see my post on musical conservatism), it is the unconscious and indeliberate nature of these influences that is deleterious. Like Walden, we must live deliberately in our music. If our upbringing is blues and our heart is in blues, then make it so, but deliberately.

 

‘The Tree’: A play by Bernardo Stella

As part of my ever-continued quest to explore new places and ‘do more cultural things’, I ventured to visit the Pentameters theatre in Hampstead, North London. A brief statement of declaration: a personal friend of mine, Daniel Sawicki, was performing. I went to see a play called ‘The Tree’ by a Bernardo Stella. The story that was told before the play began was that Stella is a local restaurant business owner who sometimes writes plays and poetry, some of the former had been performed at said Pentameters venue.

 

‘The Tree’ was a romance story that was in impossible circumstances, as it was set between a Serb boy and a Muslim girl in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina. I often hear the comparison of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ attached to stories and it often sounds very naff, and often undermines what the actual Shakespeare play was about by its elements. Often the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ comparison is seen as a desirable kind of romance or a very lovely situation. Of course if you actually read the Shakespeare text it is about two teenagers who fall in love but are from two families who basically have been killing each other for centuries. As far as adult relationships go, Romeo and Juliet is not a good cultural model for ideal behaviour. While I am on this point, I also don’t get the fascination with Goethe’s Werther for that matter.This story however, is, with the unfortunate cliche, an accurate Romeo and Juliet ‘star cross’d lovers’ situation. The story is set in around 1990/1991 and seems to go on to about maybe 1994.

 

The twinkle of attraction between Esad and Nikola in some respects is like many intercultural relationships. While flourishing it is between communities with cultural contact but mutual suspicion. As the story goes on the wider political backdrop becomes more and more relevant to their relationship and ultimately defines how it ends. It made me think about how the circumstances of a given time may affect romances. In better economic and social times I would like to think that these big forces have a minimal impact on relationships. It is at the more extreme of times, such as poverty or civil unrest, that our personal lives can sometimes take a back seat.

 

‘The Tree’ refers to a backyard tree from Nikola’s family home. Esad’s neighbouring family find the tree to be an annoyance and later on the basis for antagonism between the two families. In more peaceful times the tree had flourished and the narrator (Brankovic) later mentions that the tree eventually became a burned out stump from a bombing.

 

This is an ugly and harsh play. It made the audience uncomfortable and anxious. This play communicated a very specific set of historical circumstances and did so in a way that an audience could understand. The ugliness of the play reflected the ugliness of the inhumanity and the world of what was the post-Yugoslavia Bosnia. I have spoken in the past about how the Kantian description of beauty has an inverse, and this would be the ultimate expression of what is aesthetic ugliness. There is one point in the play when the two main characters are dead and Brankovic’s narrator character walks to the audience and looks at us figuratively in the eye (he physically looked at me in the eye briefly) and said: “LOOK AT THEM!”. Their plight represents not just a personal tragedy, but the collective tragedies of so many who went through a period of civil unrest in a historically located situation.

 

The moral significance of ugliness is expressed through this “LOOK AT THEM!” utterance breaking the fourth wall. In our lives our culture is a selective mirror to ourselves: we look at the world we want to be in, or perhaps a world we might enjoy imagining, or a world reflecting some aspect of our values. This “LOOK AT THEM!” is a wake up call to say: do not forget.