In praise of the notebook

Since the start of the year (I still can’t believe it’s been 6 months), I have begun re-organising my normal inventory to include a notebook. It has changed my perspective on things. I am often of the view that paper is archaic, antiquated and will soon be obsolescent.

 

I was on a train last weekend reading a book on my tablet and the train passed through a tunnel. At that point there were no light sources anywhere in the train, but I barely noticed this as my tablet had a backlight and I continued to read Spiegelman’s Maus. I then noticed that people on the train reading magazines and books (P-books as I might call them) were noticing that I was not hindered by this tunnel and enviably observed how I was like the only person with an umbrella in a sudden spate of rain.

 

I am a keen user of Google Keep and I have found that it has really made an impact on my productivity and I use an account of Keep at work to keep track of multiple things going on. I also love the way in which Keep is like a post-it note and a back of an envelope all at once.

 

However for all this innovation and integration into a centralised cloud based centre, I have still fallen love with this old-fangled notebook. There are things that I love about my notebook which are irreducible. I love how my notebook has a little tab that keeps a pen, which has usages for other things besides that book. I love the physical size and weight of it. It is unimposing yet distinctly present. I have a 32gb microSD card that I often carry on my person which is a back up of a lot of files that I have had since 2006, but I barely remember its there and it is far to small to remind me of this fact.

 

I love the way that my notebook has visible signs of aging; it has discolourations, coffee stains, nicks here and there and other unaccounted for discolourations. I love how my notebook has a few torn out pages for when I’ve given my phone number or email to somebody. I also like using the lined pages for whatever I want. Unlike Google Keep, which presently allows pictures, checked lists and free text, my notebook is used for newspaper cuttings, scrawlings of logical proofs (Fitch, truth table and tableaux), I have some odd number chains and rough calculations, I write up my decision matrices there. I keep notes of meetings that I go to and I keep odd mementos there. I have for example a ticket stub from when I saw X Men: Days of Future Past alongside a picture of Schoenberg. I sometimes make a 5-line stave and write up some harmonic ideas in my head.

 

The novellist Lawrence Norfolk once described the notebook as being a junkyard of the mind. I love this conception, because I’d put things in my notebook that I’d never want to be on my blog, or twitter, or on Google Keep. I use Keep for strictly professional purposes at work and my home Keep account is strictly for productivity purposes. I have so much going on that I have to keep any kind of junkyard in a place that doesn’t affect that which is clean cut and polished.

 

Although I’ve always written this blog as a notebook form of sorts-  where I might state a view and possibly change my mind. I realise that this blog has become so established that I can’t always use it to post pictures of Pusheen. I am so besotted with my notebook that I should give it a name. Glenn Gould once described his chair as a boon companion and something that was quite close to him in more than a figurative way. Perhaps I might refer to my notebook as Gould. Although, I do have my worn-in-all-weather winter jackets that I refer to as my Glenn Gould jackets. There’s something to be said about the power of personal effects. My notebook has become almost talisman like, and as someone with a physical issue with handwriting, I am highly surprised to find this is the case.

 

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The “Dear” (or, On Email Salutations)

The fact of our social reality is that we are judged by such silly things. But when we think about how deliberate some of those things are, maybe they aren’t so silly. The decision to favour trousers over a skirt has a distinctly gendered set of connotations for women. I have heard ad nauseam many conversations from women stating to the effect that they hate wearing high heeled shoes but it is expected of them.

 

Thinking about the micro level of interactions. I’ve been thinking a lot about emails. As someone who has to do a lot of emailing for work, and job applications, and everything in between (such as say, organising family things with my sister), I’ve been thinking about email salutations.

 

The issue of email salutations has been on my mind because it has encroached on issues of interactions in terms of gender, age differences, cultural/social backgrounds and just protocol. The issue really boils down to this: can or should I still use “Dear …” as a greeting.

 

Let’s consider a variety of cases:

 

Case one: working in a formal place

 

I sometimes work at a place where protocol is very important. Observing people by title or their ceremonial roles are very important as some of them occupy ancient institutions and are key civic figures. In this context it is not only appropriate, it is a sign of good Britishness to uphold the ‘Dear’ and other related customary salutations. This is the case in which the Dear is absolute, and in this situation I cannot ever get rid of the Dear.

 

Case two: at work: emailing someone who is literally behind you

 

I also work in a context where I am often in a lot of different desks and departments (see hotdesking) and there are often a lot of first introductions with people, sometimes meeting them physically after I contact them by emails (so I don’t recognise them by face). I usually do an anonymous Dear as a form of protocol to email people, including when I am unfamiliar as to where they physically are. If in some instances I am near someone that I need to contact, but I would need to email them because they are working on a caseload or on the phone or I just can’t judge their availability to deal with something, I would email them. I would often agonise over whether Hello is too informal for someone I don’t know, or if Dear is too naff and over-formal. These tend be the main cases in which a salutation becomes an issue of social interaction.

 

Case three: Dear and Gender

 

Antisophie put it to me in this way: would you call someone Dear to their face in the same way I might in an email with the same frequency? The answer to that would be a resounding no. It is true that when working with senior figures; Rt. Hon., Lords or your everyday Sith Lord, you would accord the correct title and greeting to them. If I worked more in this environment I certainly would take formality to be more frequent. Going back to the question Antisophie posed: would I call someone Dear? No. It’s incredibly gendered, and context of the other party’s acceptance of the term needs to be established. For example, an acceptable instance of me using Dear would be as a joke or an informal or familiar context with someone, and usually its to men and women that I know very well, and the quaintness of the utterance forms much of its acceptability. Outside of that it seems distinctly patronising at best, misogynistic at worst and horridly outdated. Antisophie gives me a reason to think that I should purge Dear altogether! Although if I’m writing a job application I wouldn’t want to undermine any chances by getting a little thing like the protocol of a salutation wrong. If we were living in a philosopher’s world I’m sure something like ‘Dear’ would be eradicated as a default.

 

Case four: to and fro emails

 

The usual kind of emails I get, which go something like:

 

Me: Dear n here’s my update on the situation

n: Great thanks, can you also account for so and so?

Me: Sure thing here you go

n: great thanks

(a bit later)

n: (unrelated question/topic with previous thread included in body text for some reason)

 

In these instances, sometimes it is a really quick fire of emails in a short period of time. Or it might just be a long thread. In these instances I think that putting Dear at the top is not only artificially distant, but also not germane to the discussion’s material. To and fro’s typically requires just the facts and even a greeting after the 2nd or 3rd reply isn’t necessary.

 

Case five: making an impression

 

I sort of hinted at this with the job application point. There are points where the formality of a situation is not established because you don’t know the person and or they are new to you (note I made a distinction here). Having a clear greeting and honorary salutation is crucial here. Having the Dear is important to establish a new connection, as in this context it is not presumptuous as a more informal greeting might be. With someone new having an impersonal distance is the default. My Latin American friends think that this impersonal distance with new people is absolutely quaint and quintessentially English (or in their words: soo cute!). There are instances where Dear is used to communicate a lack of salutations. Hi is too informal, Hello is awkward sometimes, and Hey? Well lets go to that.

 

Lemma: On ‘Hey’

 

Like the 19th and 20th Century aestheticians who had a fundamental dislike for the sublime. I too am not a such a great fan of hey. Hey is an informality that needs to be earned, like people who call me Mike. I am not a fan of hey and instead of communicating disapproval openly to practitioners of the word, I simply avoid participation.

 

Our salutations reflect our definition of the situation. I am eternally reminded of Dr. Kieran Flanagan’s example of the definition of the situation, in which a younger version of him was in a hotel in Minnesota and the hotelier asks: how are you today? To which he replies: I’M FUCKING AWFUL! Despite the values we have on authenticity, we still aren’t allowed to be honest when we aren’t okay, or in Flanagan’s case, fucking awful. I suspect that salutations exist in this same baffling way.

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.

 

Reading ‘Queer Philosophy’: The Philosopher as public intellectual

I am currently reviewing ‘Queer Philosophy’ (eds. Halwani et. al). One of the issues in the anthology concerns the role of Philosophers as public intellectuals. The prima facie view of  public intellectuals is that they usually assume a platform where they address an audience much larger than the audience for which their professional and publication background would normally mandate. So you would have specialists on very specific and seemingly irrelevant issues speak broadly about some generalised topic. Or is that really the case?

 

There are cultural issues at hand, as Halwani points out how in the USA, intellectuals are not seen as esteemed as say, France. It almost seems as if people in public gain greater social and authenticity capital if they are non-specialists or outright ignorant about an issue. One really needs to look at Anglophone politicians to see this is the case.

 

Cynicism aside, ‘Queer Philosophy’ contains some discussion on the (philosopher-)public intellectual. Martha Nussbaum’s ‘Moral Expertise?’ is a superb essay (anything she writes is superb, really) that invokes a distinction between a legitimate and illegitimate case of using a philosopher in a court of law. Engaging with the public means playing the game of short pithy soundbites. In a secular society, intellectuals have no more moral authority than anyone else, and the force of what a public intellectual puts forward should be considered by the merits of its premises.

 

How ideal this might sound, or how obvious this might sound? However the reality of it is that in the public sphere we all-too-often play with stereotypes and shorthand assumptions that just comes from a person’s name or position. Say the name Dawkins for example and people automatically get some kind of reaction or bugbear. Likewise, statements of the form ‘I believe’ does not have a place in the sphere of public reason. Taking beliefs and convictions as primitives is no form of argumentation at all, even if people attempt to derive premises or corroloraries or scholia as additionals.

 

Nussbaum gives bad examples of using philosophy in public debate (specifically in a court of law), and gives good examples. Linda Martin Alcoff poses that being a philosopher and public intellectual can involve portraying scholarship closed off to the general world, such as say, journal articles and treatises and conference papers; alternatively, Alcoff gives an example of where being a philosopher and public intellectual can advance original research and original insights on an issue that doesn’t come from journals but through an awareness of a public issue. Perhaps an example of this is the way in which feminist philosophers (and it should be said academic philosophy to an increasing participation) are challenging the conditions that make being an academic difficult for historically underpriviledged groups, this includes women but also minorities of various kinds such as those with disabilities.

 

Alcoff addresses the pitfalls of being a public intellectual in terms of one’s professional career, citing the examples of Cornel West and Noam Chomsky. Another view was to be negative, now this is negative in the Adorno sense. Where our worry about affirmations and making positive claims which could be appropriated, diluted and modified by others. Alcoff gives the example of the symbolism of the Che Guevara T-Shirt being utterly and cynically drained of any revolutionary fervour. The fear of being appropriated and misrepresented is very real when it comes to public intellectuals, especially when they are dead. I have come across the revisionism and perverting of Kant scholarship and German Philosophy at large during the Nazi period where something like the influence of a Scottish David Hume on Kantian Metaphysics is unthinkably offensive to the nationalist Nazi mentality.

 

There are many benefits and pitfalls to the different models of being a public intellectual. One can be a negative philosopher like Adorno, but how much of an impact did Adorno really have in his own time? Not much compared to say Sartre or Bonhoffer when it came to social critique. Alcoff’s example of Foucault’s activism is very powerful, to me that seems to be public intellectual work at its best. Foucault’s public activism on imprisonment led to a research programme and a mass of influence in a wide variety of areas in the social sciences, humanities and philosophy at large. There is indeed a space for original as opposed to derivative work in engaging with the public.

 

These essays in the ‘Queer Philosophy’ anthology were particularly notable to me, because they were so general, and should ideally be read by anyone with an interest in the public intellectual, and that doesn’t just include philosophers, or academics at large. I am particularly drawn by the suggestion that original work can happen through public engagement as a forum, the reality of academic writing is that something like Baumgarten’s Metaphysica will be read by a lot less people than Kant’s essay on the enlightenment, and more public responses and work has come from the latter, even when so much effort went into the former.

K457: Mozart as a metaphor

After my solo performance last month I have been thinking about continuing with my piano practice. I have also thought about picking up exactly at the point where I left off with my late piano teacher. Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C minor. That’s sonata 14 K. 457. The last few pieces that I worked on with my piano teacher in the final few weeks were scary. In some ways the represent something analogous to old relationships, old romances.

 

There is something unresolved about those pieces. Those pieces represent something unresolved in me. There’s a Rachmaninov piece where I just couldn’t get some of the speeds right, or just didn’t put the elements together in a performance worthy way. With the Mozart piece, I am reminded of the fact and semi-insult of my music teacher ‘Bob’, that I work very much on showy vignette short pieces. Could I ever work on an extended piece, such as a whole Sonata? I did perform Coleridge-Taylor’s Petit Suite de la Concert. But I never felt that I had performed or learned a piece that was part of a deeper pianistic canon.

 

So lately I’ve been trying to resolve this. IT feels like an internal journey going through the Mozart piece. There are different movements, a fast one, a slow one and a recapitulation one. Typical Sonata form. There’s something about Mozart that I find terrifying. Most of the other pieces of music I’ve worked on can be often clever, but there’s something continually insightful in the fingerings, the harmonies and the structure of Mozart’s music. There’s something beautiful about it that is not as obvious as the actual sonic experience of the music. I enjoy playing fun stuff like Scott Joplin or jazzing it up with friends, but usually there is not much intellectual depth to it. The pedagogical issues in Mozart are such that one cannot cheat with practicing and good technique.

 

This Mozart sonata is more than a piano piece to me, but reflects a form of philosophising, a form of introspection, a form of therapy. I fear it, therefore I must face it. There are many things in life that we fear that seem to become bigger as a fear object if we avoid it. This is one demon I wish to face.

 

There are other kinds of morals as well when practicing Mozart. The vision of music (and the world) as a variety of nuances: Forte vs. piano, legato vs. staccato, left hand vs. right hand. In music as in life, we can’t be overly one of these things all the time, doing so would be a flaw of character and a lack of depth and diversity. I tend to go for pieces that fulfill certain tendencies, but Mozart reflects and emotionally tempered and varied outlook, much more than say, Beethoven or Chopin after him. Often playing piano or legato can go against one’s present mindset, and so playing Mozart requires one to forcibly summon the mindset for smooth legati or piano volumes when the piece needs it.

 

One the thing I especially like about practicing Mozart is how it stays with me after I play it. It stays with me in the harmonic vocabulary when I’m improvising something else or even in a different style. It stays with me in life, knowing when my behaviour needs a staccato or a forte volume. It stays with me from the very careful passages I go through in a microscopic way, if I see it in another piece that requires say, an arpeggiation. It’s quite intimidating how much level of detail is in the Mozart sonata. Its exactly because it is daunting that I am so drawn to it. That has become an aspect of my outlook, to know that the daunting things often are most rewarding