The higher stoopidity

December 17, 2009 at 4:28 am 1 comment

| Gabriel |

I recently listened to Donald Kagan’s Intro to Ancient Greek History (itunes link) course and really enjoyed it. Kagan is of course well-qualified to teach the course (he wrote the book on the Peloponnesian War). In addition, he’s witty and has a definite point of view (he describes Rousseau as a “cancer on humanity”) and the course is in dialogue with issues in other disciplines, like the question of “balancing” in IR poli sci. The most obvious thing (especially in the intro and conclusion lectures) about which Kagan is opinionated is that Western civ a) derives from the Greeks and b) is the ultimate source of, such on-the-whole beneficial things as (lower-case “l”) liberalism, “the tragic vision,” and rationalism.

Putting aside Kagan’s opinions about the “hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go” question, Kagan’s most interesting lens is a methodological tendency that he calls “the higher naivete.” By this he means that we ought to give a heavy presumption in favor of the ancient sources even when they are speaking of things somewhat distant from the ancient writer’s direct knowledge. So if the ancients believed that there was a Trojan War, a Dorian invasion, a historical Homer, etc, then we ought to believe them unless we have good evidence to the contrary, rather than being skeptical of the written sources and demanding confirmation from archaeology. He’s not completely credulous though, for instance (like Plutarch) Kagan thinks that Lycurgus may have been a historical Spartan politician, but didn’t actually create the entire Spartan political-social system whole cloth. More controversially, Kagan reads Thucydides skeptically, seeing him as an apologist for Pericles against a prevailing anti-Pericles consensus for which we have no surviving history but of which we can find hints in Aristophanes. [According to Kagan, the ancient controversy centered on whether Pericles was right to demand that the Megarian decree be decided by arbitration since simply giving into Spartan demands to drop it outright would have been appeasement. There were also accusations against his personal character].

This is interesting in its own right, but in a weird way reminds me of pop music. To paraphrase Tertullian, you might be asking what hath Herodotus to do with (newly inducted Rock and Roll Hall of Famers) Abba? Well, last year I saw Jenn do a paper on the “rockism” critical perspective in which “pop” and other genres are disdained as less serious than rock. When I was younger and really seriously into music (as a fan, not a scientist) I was very much an ardent rockist, but now I’ve achieved what you might call the higher stoopidity. So for instance, when I was in college I thought “Enema of the State” was a disgraceful cheapening of punk rock (which of course is supposed to be really serious), whereas now it’s one of my favorite albums and I haven’t listened to “Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death” in years.

As I see it, rockism is really a special case of romanticism, seeing the artist as an autonomous actor whose work expresses his soul. With the exception of guitar-playing, it denigrates craft, especially when that craft is outsourced to short-term collaborators like songwriters or producers. Both simply aging and a deeper scientific understanding of art as a collaborative process has convinced me that a) craft is really hard and autonomy is a romantic myth and b) self-serious pop music is ridiculous.

David Galenson provides us with a typology of experimentalists (i.e., crafts) vs conceptualists. Although he is mostly interested in 20th century painters, you can apply the method to pretty much any type of art. The original context is interesting though because (unlike Galenson) I hate conceptualist visual art. Once you start thinking about it in a context like that you appreciate that there really is something to craft, including in the much maligned Tin Pan Alley and it’s heirs in Swede-pop (“Tin Pan Fjord”?). You can appreciate the craft with which something is put together even if it doesn’t transcend conventions, genre or otherwise. I mean, Blink-182’s “Don’t Leave Me” is just a beautifully crafted pop song that (like about half the songs on the album) is both musically catchy and lyrically expresses a fairly subtle and ironic take on romantic love.

Likewise from a variety of work — Howard Becker’s Art Worlds, Lena and Peterson’s ASR, Uzzi et al’s work on Broadway, my own work with Esparza and Bonacich on the Oscars — we see that artistic production is inherently and irreducibly collaborative. Once you undermine the autonomous artist you undermine romantic inspiration and the contrast between inspired breakthroughs and hack work starts to look a lot less tenable.

I don’t claim this is a professional opinion so much as a matter of aging, but I also have an increasingly low opinion of pop music that takes itself really seriously. A lot of people like to make fun of Allan Bloom’s essay “on rock music” as the musings of a clueless old snob, but I think he nailed it in criticizing the “infinite seriousness” with which we talk about rock music and its “three great lyrical themes: sex, hate, and a smarmy, hypocritical version of brotherly love.” All three of these Nihiline themes were perfectly captured in the video “Do Something” from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and especially the “Sodomize Intolerance” sign he holds up at one point:

One of the most self-serious bands of my youth was Rage Against the Machine, who even went so far as to include a reading list in one of their liner notes. Their politics can broadly be summed up by the “arm the homeless” sticker on Tom Morello’s guitar and more broadly as “let’s fantasize about revolutionary violence to eliminate inequality.” [gee, what could possibly go wrong with that?]. Even if rock songs were a coherent means of articulating a political philosophy, and Rage did do a pretty decent job of it,  the kinds of politics they are best suited to express tend towards nihilism. The don’t-fuck-with-me ideologies of Mikhail Bakunin or Franz Fanon (or on the right, Robert Nozick) are really compelling and energizing which is why they can make for great pop music. In contrast it’s hard to imagine a really exciting and angry song advocating a centrist ideology of a basically liberal economy as overseen by sensible regulation and a moderate welfare state. (Now climbing to the top of the pop charts is the Wonks’ hit single “let’s make a revenue-neutral swap of the payroll tax for a pigovian carbon tax” from the album “Unintended Consequences”). The only examples I can think of for political but centrist pop music are Dropkick Murphys (center-left) and Oingo Boingo (center-right), but I think it’s noteworthy that this kind of thing tends to be rare and these bands aren’t nearly as focused on politics as bands with extremist politics like Dead Kennedys.

I mean, take Nirvana, which was probably the most critically acclaimed band of my youth. At the time I thought their best songs were really artsy-fartsy stuff like “Heart-Shaped Box” whereas “Sliver” was basically just pop candy, but in retrospect I see the former as an unstructured amalgam of pretentious imagery (see Dylan, Bob) and the latter as the perfect distillation of the subjective experience of childhood (or maybe it’s that my toddler recently pulled the “grandma take me home!” act).

I think this works in fine art too. This may be a minority opinion, but I think John Adams is at his best when he’s not trying to be hugely political (e.g., “Death of Klinghoffer” and “Nixon in China”) but when he’s evoking primal myth. I found “El Nino” to be incredibly moving largely because (if you ignore the didactic film Sellars shot to accompany it) it’s not meant to make any point other than to evoke the mythic power of the Christmas story (which makes for not just a great opera, but also a great movie).

I’m not entirely down on political art — I like “Nixon in China” in part because it expresses something really important about American character and foreign policy that’s hard to articulate in nonfiction. Nonetheless I see it as a higher stoopidity to embrace Abba and look forward to the day when Blink-182 and Beyonce take their places in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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1 Comment

  • 1. Michael Bishop  |  December 18, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    This is a great post! I find my taste in music has a somewhat similar arc – Heart Shaped Box was my favorite too!

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