The Apathetic Russell Brand

Hello all!

It’s not something that we choose to do on this blog anymore to comment on current affairs issues. However one thing made me in particular change my mind about this, one is that Michael hasn’t put up a post for a while as he’s busy so he let me write a post. Another thing is that between us we have seen a lot of Facebook commentary on this specific issue.

Russell Brand has been a bit of a firebrand hot potato lately. The Observer recently put a piece about cultural ‘bad boys’ (where are the ‘bad girls’ or bad-choose-not-to-identify-by-gender-binary? – but whatever, newspapers). So, maybe we’ll give a bit of context as to what’s happened.

The 101 on Russell Brand

Brand was once known as being an MTV VJ, and presenter of Big Brother’s Big Mouth, then he got really really famous internationally and used that fame to discuss issues that were very personally relevant to him, such as the way his spirituality has come to help him and the issue of addiction, which he has done much work towards tackling in the UK. In recent weeks, Brand had created a furore at the GQ awards for pointing out something that was mentioned in a 2011 biography of Hugo Boss, namely that the company (who was sponsoring the GQ awards) made uniforms for the Nationalist Socialists. Brand did something that Goffman would probably love, he destroyed the definition of the situation and made everyone lose face by destroying the facade of an awards ceremony by bringing up the blasée attitude of an earlier speaker about the Syrian civil strife going on at the time. There was once an interview a while back where Brand completely baffled and shocked the conservative journalist Peter Hitchens, while discussing the issue of addiction, which reflected a clash of cultures as well as ideas.

Its none of these things which Brand has been talked about on my facebook feed ad nasueam lately. It’s the interview with Jeremy Paxman (of current affairs programme Newsnight), where he mixes amusing jibes, verbose lexicon (see what I did there?), and a range of very general and unsystematic points which very much related to a swathe of younger people in the UK.

What was said?

The interview addresses an accusation from Paxman: why should we listen to the political views of someone who considers it rational not to vote? The accusation unpacked is, if one is not taking part in the political process then one has an audacity to raise the profile of alternative political views, or something like that. Brand said a lot of things in that interview, and it’s kind of like throwing wet toast against the wall, one might throw lots of things, but eventually a couple might stick. That’s how many people I know feel.

Brand points out how voting in a 2-3 party system every 5 years is hardly being involved with a political process. I think I agree with that. I think having such controls on dissent in political parties, and having so much emphasis on the party line creates a homogeneous set of policies and ideologies, and shows the genuine disjunct between grassroots activism, community action against discussions in hallowed Westminster. Is it rational not to vote? That’s something a lot of people consider a dangerous idea, and the reason can be construed in a Kantian light, if people as a whole consider it rational not to vote, then the institutions we supposedly vote for have no legitimate representation of public interest.

Perhaps we need to rethink our idea of a democracy. There are alternatives to democracy, you know. Was it last year when a variant of Condorcet voting was ruled out? I was personally in favour of Condorcet systems of voting. I am quite interested in direct democracy as well. It’s one thing to like an idea, like say, socialism, or the redistribution of wealth, but enacting it and upholding an idea is tricky, and sometimes boring. Some critics of brand are right to be wary of a charismatic individual. I’m sure Brand isn’t intending to be some figurehead for change nor willing to take charge of that. However its great that someone that is recognisable in the popular culture is trying to facilitate thinking about these issues: of environmental catastrophe and economic and social inequalities. I say to that, bravo Russell, you’ve caught the consciousness of a lot of people – isn’t that after all, the ideal of political and avant-garde art? Isn’t that after all, the goal of what politicians aim for in garnering consent? It’s just a shame that there wasn’t really a message.

Perhaps more celebrities should follow Brand’s lead, especially the crazy haired ones.

Antisophie.

Coda: I saw this earlier on in the week and laughed – I thought to myself: that’s the other Brand!

“Exploring Beethoven’s Sonatas” – A MOOC from Jonathan Biss

This month I have been following quite a few MOOCs. One MOOC in particular, and the subject of this post, is “Exploring Beethoven’s Sonatas” delivered by the concert pianist Jonathan Biss. Watching this MOOC helped me with a few reflections about music appreciation in general, as well as my own aesthetic tendencies and preferences. I recommend the MOOC for anyone with an elementary or nonexistent familiarity with classical music.

Accessibility

One particular dimension of the course, which surprised me a lot, was that it was very non-technical. I was expecting commentaries from musicologists and extended discussions on cadences and fugal writing. However it was not the specialism of Biss, who as a concert pianist, to comment on those aspects of Beethovenian and 18th century composition. However it does serve as a good introduction for anyone who has a passion about music to understand more about the ways in which Beethoven has a distinct legacy and relevance to listeners today. You don’t need to know too much about music to understand this course.

Music appreciation is lifelong

One of the key themes to this MOOC was that music appreciation is lifelong. Coming to terms with great musical works is ongoing through our lives. I grew in my appreciation of Beethoven while going through the course. I used to be a massive fan of the Romantics, and as I got to learn more about musicians like Adorno and Gould, I became a little bit more formalistic and austere in my musical preferences. However I feel like I’ve gone to a middle-way with Beethoven. There are pieces of music which have special value, and their value can relate to a time of your life, or your way of seeing the world then.

The joy of having a lifelong musical appreciation is that you can revisit pieces of music and simultaneously revisit yourself in a dual form of internal critique. To appreciate music is to appreciate culture, and to have an engagement with culture often involves an engagement with our own sense of individuality. It is fair to say for example, that my appreciation of motets and choral forms comes as a default from having a Catholic upbringing, but something like Beethoven’s later period is not something I was introduced to, yet learning more about Beethoven’s work in the post 1810 era makes me feel like I’m discovering a new part of myself, and a different kind of appreciation as a musician and amateur performer. I’m starting to appreciate what some may call ‘mature’ works of piano, which require emotional maturity as well as technical competence.

Socio-historical reflections

There are sociological and borderline philosophical insights that Biss had about Beethoven which will at a later point inform my commentary pieces on Adorno and philosophy of music, however for now I won’t focus too much on that. What I will say is that Biss’s discussion about the ‘independent’ musician feeds very much into discourses of today. Heck, even technical discussions about sonata form relate to songwriting today (which is a sign of poor technical ability for pop musicians today). Beethoven, unlike Bach, was able to write music that he wanted to write. Biss establishes a two tier scale of the independence of a musician against their creativity. The scale goes something like this:

Bach

Prolifically creative, Patronaged musician

Haydn

Highly creative

Patronaged, then independent musician

Mixed ability during independent period

Mozart

Highly creative during Patronage

Poor ability during independent period

Beethoven

Poor creativity during Patronage

Highly creative during independent period

The idea of the creative individual, self supporting has implications from the Transcendentalists of the American philosophers to Romantic ideas of the Bohemian, and relates to the discussion of the Adornian cultural industry. Beethoven was the cultural archetype of the independent genius, which has been mimicked endlessly since. There is a very interesting discussion to be had about the nature of dependency for artistic types to perform their work, relative to the financial support that they have. This discussion I’m sure will prompt my thinking on Adorno’s capitalistic view of culture.

The cult of Beethoven worship

Beethoven, for many the name has establishment and bourgeoisie linked to it. Like say, Bach or Aristotle. There is a reason why there is such hero worship about Beethoven, and that is due to the depth of his genius. Often however we have dilettantes who may for instance reference Descartes without actually understanding it as a way of passing off cultural capital or intelligence, and this is sad and facile. Saying this may merit an accusation of calling me a musical or cultural conservative: there is a good reason why Beethoven deserves a high place as a landmark European figure, akin to say Aristotle or Newton. Beethoven’s Sonatas express a multitude of temperaments, technically speaking they are wonderful works of pianism, the ‘New Testament’ to Bach’s ‘Old Testament’ (i.e. the Well Tempered Clavier).

A course such as this helps to unpack some of the reasons of Beethoven’s greatness. It even addresses a comparative to Mozart, in which the latter does not fare as favourably in terms of creativity. I have recently been annoyed at someone who has been trying to start a philosophy salon without having a clue about how to conduct philosophical argumentation or even appreciate the depth of the philosophical ideas he’s trying to appropriate, to borrow Adorno’s word, it is dilletanteish . A course such as Biss’s on Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas makes accessible the numerous and profound ways in which Beethoven’s sonatas are truly powerful even as listeners in the 21st century.

Changing my own attitude to music appreciation

I’ll try my best not to sound snobby about music. Glenn Gould’s low opinion on Mozart’s later work is upheld by Biss himself. I remember a conversation that I had with someone completely unrelated to music, where the topic of piano appreciation came up. I talked about how I liked the showy Rachmaninov and Chopin pieces at the time, and he said how he enjoyed Beethoven Sonatas. I said to him that the Romantics were better than the Viennese classicals, and to me their appeal was much more obvious to me. The showiness and fanciful fingerings and exploitation of dissonances had a much more visceral and sensory appeal. The gentleman said to me that an appreciation of Beethoven comes from a more mature place and mature sensibility. I’m starting to be won over by that point of view. Not to say that I do not appreciate the Romantics anymore, but I am growing to enjoy the formalism and structures imbued in the more 18th century works. Biss emphasises the lifelong power of music appreciation. Music is a bonding thing between people and introspectively, music and its wonder is ongoing. Our relationship with the same piece of music can change, perhaps diminish or grow, and Beethoven’s Sonatas are a great example of a set of works that show development relative to Beethoven’s own life cycle, but also in response to our own introspection.

Michael

Congratulations Doctor Bateman

One reader of the blog (probably the only reader), Chris Bateman has managed to pass through his viva for his doctorate by publication. Bravo for the amazing accomplishment.

Bateman often mentions about being a philosopher/intellectual outside of the conventional establishment. I think that historically most of the more interesting philosophers had been out of the establishment, which owed much to the uniqueness of their thoughts. Schopenhauer for example, who was massively influential to Romantic and 20th century composers, was a Kantian of sorts, but also outside of the university establishment during his more creative periods. Nietzsche was never strictly a philosopher by the terms of his own time, but he was more in his profession and educational background, more akin to a classicist. Then of course there are the cliche examples of Descartes’ opposing his Jesuit educated Aristotelianism, the establishment mentality of his day; and of course Spinoza, who was exiled from various communities yet kept a community of correspondents which was extremely varied – from Boyle to Leibniz!

Sometimes we find interesting thoughts and profound in unusual places. I’ve recently read a couple of philosophical profiles of two distinctly non-establishment philosophers, Tommaso Campanella, and Bernardino Telesio. Both were empiricists in a time when Aristotelian and overly rationalist thinking was so ubiquitous that we might not have even thought such empiricism could exist as a movement when there are so few. There is a certain amount of boldness to have interesting thoughts outside of the establishment.

Michael