Archive for May, 2012

The Importance of Consequences

May 12, 2012

I recently started listening to a podcast called writing excuses. It’s aimed at aspiring genre (sifi/fantasy/horror ect.) writers, but it’s a lot of fun to listen to even if you have no intention of ever writing anything that is not required for class. One of my favorite episodes is the one on violence. The podcasters (who are all published authors) talk about how they portray violence in their books. It’s only 15 min long, you should go listen to it before continuing.

The podcasters end up talking about the consequences of violence in their books more than the violence itself. They argue that it is the exploration of how violence affects characters and situations that is compelling to the reader. This can be thought of in terms of Arendt’s definition of violence. She claims that violence is instrumental. It must have a purpose and cannot be an end in itself. Whether violence will work towards or against its intended purpose is never clear because it is part of human action which, according to Arendt, is always unpredictable. When the podcasters explore the possible consequences of violence, they are examining whether or not it achieved its intended goal and what some of the possible unintended effects could be.

Early in the podcast, the authors talk about an incredibly violent scene form the Matrix. They said it was beautifully choreographed and fun to watch, but it bothered them because it had no consequences. From an Arendtian point of view, this is an example of violence that is not being used instrumentally. Because the violence has no goal (Okay, so you can argue that the goal is to save Morpheus, but surly they could have found a more desecrate way into the building.) it has become an end in itself. The movie fails to acknowledge any consequences of using violence this way. The violence stops feeling real to the viewer and becomes no more compelling than a well choreographed dance.

This is actually a general trend of how violence is used in movies, video games, and cartoons. None of the characters react realistically in the story, so neither does the viewer/gamer/reader. In these situations, violence is no longer being acknowledged as an action in the Arendtian sense of the word. It is being used only for visual appeal (like a light show) and  has no real effect other than to change the color of the walls or carpet.

When violence is acknowledged as an action, it can change things. It has consequences that can then be explored. The fun thing about reading (and probably writing) books (or movies/games/TV shows) is that you can explore many different possible reactions to violence. The more a reader can identify with, or at least understand, a characters response, the more compelling that character and the situation they are in will be.

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Absolutely

May 10, 2012

According to 19th century “absolute music” aesthetics (e.g. Hanslick, Gurney), in order for something to be considered art music, it must be autonomous – it must be governed only by its own internal laws (its “identity”) and not serve some social function such as entertainment, communication or expression. To serve a social function is to compromise its essence by conforming to power relations that exist outside of the work, the same power relations that are the subject of Foucalt’s theory. Modernist composers of the post-WWII period attempted to free themselves of these power relations by making music out of rationally constructed laws based on strictly ordered pitches, dynamics, timbres, articulations, etc. In this way, modernists separated the compositional process from their own artistic intuitions, which are tainted by power relations that exist outside of the music itself. Of course, Foucalt might make the argument that the very idea that progress and autonomy are valuable is itself a reinforcement of existing broader social power dynamics.

Until 1964, George Rochberg was a composer of serialist music which appealed to these modernist ideals. When his son died, he decided that serial music was not an aesthetically a viable option for coping with his loss. He needed to express, to communicate, and ultimately to conform to the power relations that value certain utterances over others (e.g. triads over 016 pitch class sets). As we established in class, these power relations are a prerequisite of meaning, and therefore, of successful communication. Eventually, he came to outright criticize modernist aesthetics, the ideals of progress and autonomy altogether. He wanted to embrace culture, the past, connotation and extra-musical baggage. It is these things, he argued, that enable meaning and expression. Excessive rationality, he argues, leads to a separation of oneself from one’s product, the death of true action. Arendt makes a similar argument in her warning against unbridled implementation of rational systems.

The ironic twist is that the broader power dynamics that value autonomy and truth above all are what enabled Rochberg to make this claim publicly. In other words, his music was only in a position to be heard because of his background in academic music and the legitimacy that comes with it. The world only valued his opinion because of his history in music and musical environment that he explicitly rejects. Had he simply begun writing music in A major when he was 20, he would have been the laughing stock of the “serious music” world and his music never would have seen the light of day. So it is power (that which valued modernist ideals over Romanticism in the serious music culture) that enabled him to speak legitimately, and it is another kind of power (the cultural environment that enables extra-musical meaning and expression in a work of music) that enabled him to speak expressively. His story is one of remarkable success, a man who traversed complex and contradictory power-value systems and arrived at the top.  His music’s okay.