Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Another Very Brief Note On Isaiah Berlin

I have been enamored with the thought, writing, and even the oratory of Isaiah Berlin ever since I first discovered his work sometime in the early to middle 1990s, that I never tire of discovering newer things about him or finding new applications of his work to current events and everyday non-academic life.

I want to focus on a particular move he always makes which forms but one part of his general wisdom. What he always does is to start by having what appears to be this comprehensive gaze, looking at wide reaches of vast historical time and its accompanying thought, chiefly among these his analysis of the great Romantic revolution and how it basically upended the entirety of the traditional/ ancient, as well as classical worlds.

But Berlin's move is always to go as deep into what he is describing almost as the greatest lawyer for the defense would, and still further as someone living inside or even born into the world he is describing.

Isaiah Berlin will go deep into whatever it is and then he will reverse course, suddenly pull back and outwards and say something to the effect of "but of course this world or object I am examining is far from perfect, is not entirely correct and needs some kind of countervailing force or dissent".

This move forms the basis of Berlin's worldview, not only his pluralism, but an attitude towards being in the world. It is the attitude of one who wished to be seemingly a skeptic and believer at one and the same time. Some might see it as the mark of an essentially moderate or centrist cast of mind. But this is not exactly right. The word that comes closest is that much debated word liberal. It is very close to the cast of mind of yours truly.

A good example of Berlin's brilliance as orator can be found here:

Unlike today's "thought leaders" Berlin was a genuine public intellectual. The thought leader today all too often advocates for a very specific case or cause, even an ideology. The public intellectual in Isaiah Berlin's sense sought to bring subjects into the widest public discourse with an aim at exploration and even genuine enjoyment.

The example I want to use is in his essay "The Sense Of Reality" which was delivered at Smith College in Northampton, in 1956. He takes a wonderfully long time discussing how  some humans have noted that some things seem inevitable in a natural and/or mechanical sense, while still others take the contrary view that things seem not inevitable but rather unpredictable, as "artificially" willed into existence and predicated on contingency, even randomness.  In short, how both contrary attitudes seem apparent at different times and in different reigning orders:

"Everyone, no doubt, believes that there are factors that are largely or wholly beyond conscious human control. And when we describe this or that scheme as impractical or Utopian we often mean that it cannot be realized in the face of such uncontrollable facts or processes. These are of so many kinds: regions of nature with which we cannot interfere, for example the solar system, or the general realm dealt with by astronomy; there we can alter neither the state of the entities in question nor the laws which they obey." 

Berlin goes on at great length in this vein, even discussing the reaction against mechanistic or reductionist views, for example, the influence of Hegel as well as Darwin and Marx. He admits, and not with any diminution of respect, that we have much to learn from such developments. indeed in one passage he is unabashed in his passion for the greatness of certain minds in history:

"It is when one of these nerves is touched, nerves which lie so deep within us that it is in terms of them that we feel as we feel and think as we think, that we are conscious of those electric shocks that indicate that some genuinely profound insight has occurred. It is only when this unique, immediately recognizable, disturbing experience comes that we are in the presence of this peculiar and very rare form of genius, possessed by those who make us conscious of the most pervasive, least observed categories, those which lie closest to us and for that very reason escape description, however much our emotions, our curiosity, our industry, are mobilized to record the whole of what wee know." 

How different this is than the current view which would only interrogate with suspicion or dismiss with disparagement "great" minds from the past!

Berlin is describing the unparalleled excitement that comes with a kind of discovery or breakthrough with more customary and traditional ways of knowing, and a development that is inseparable from the "specialness" of certain minds who appear to make the breakthrough. Partisans of rationality and the Enlightenment are right to conclude from passages like these that Berlin is never entirely in "their" camp, however much he respected their tradition. Why Isaiah Berlin matters is that he refused, for the most part, to be solidly in any discernible camp, neither fully rationalist, nor fully romantic.

But then he goes on:

"For Marxists and, indeed, all those that social or individual life is wholly determined by laws at least in principle discoverable, men are weaker than they supposed in their pre-scientific pride; they are calculable and in principle capable of omniscience. but as we ordinarily think of ourselves, especially as historians or men of action - that is, when we are dealing with particular individuals and things and facts - we see a very different spectacle of men governed by few natural laws; falling into error, defeated, victims of one another, through ignorance not of laws, but largely of the results of human acts, those being most successful who possess (apart from such, which is perhaps indispensable) a combination of will-power and a capacity for non-scientific, non-generalizing assessments of specific situations ad hoc; which leads to a picture of men as free, sometimes strong, and largely ignorant that is the precise contrary of the scientific view of them as weak, determined and potentially omniscient." 

I love how he pairs omniscience and weakness here, contrary to usual habits which would have us think that the position of omniscience would usher in only maximum strength. But above all, as always, he says science alone is never enough. We live today in a world dominated by two views, one you could call religious (and/or spiritual) and the other scientific. Though the scientific and the spiritual are thought to be opposites (with the important exception of those who hold that both science and religion tell essentially the same story, or work and evolve in tandem) they both have a consensus and similarity that is less positive: in both there exists a rule bound sense of determination. A law is a law whiter given by a supernatural force or scientific proof or discovery and these appear to pronounce upon what is to be done.

The scientific view is the dominant one in our current epoch, for it claims to the fullest knowledge possible at any given time - which is considered to be something like a final argument. Indeed, science is so dominant that it is practically a requirement when any subject is broached in major media outlets, it seems de rigueur  to always say "what the science has to say" on the given subject - whether we are discussing eating and nutrition, music appreciation and performance, or ethics and morality, and. of course, sexual behaviors. I am reminded of a recent podcast on dreams which was all about what science tells us dreams in fact actually are rather than what people have simply always thought about them since the latter might appear self evidently inadequate. This is a very different way of discussing dreams than as a source of both mystery and revelation, or as a mere entertainment to pass the time.

Another important thing to note about Isaiah Berlin is his influence on prominent and helpful minds who are currently active. Berlin's work never becomes dated and is applicable to real life situations rather than mere academic speculation or specialization. To name only two: Timothy Snyder, the political historian and commentator and contemporary philosopher  Kwame Anthony Appiah are both deeply influenced by Isaiah Berlin.

 I think Berlin points to something that is neither science nor spirit exactly. It doesn't not contradict nor challenge these but does not wave the flag for them either. This "something else" of Berlin refuses systemization; it might refuse even definition, and Isaiah Berlin held it to be real. In much the same way that he though freedom itself was a real fact of human existence, and thus of reality. Yet the only way Berlin was able to conclude as he did was to pass through a great many views that had come before him and enter into such views with the greatest sympathy, even if the views in question were initially alien to him or at least not far from intuitive or self evident. To me, such a process or style of thought is itself one kind of wisdom.


Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Thinking About Consensus

"When does something truly become popular? And I don't mean 'popular' in the sense that it succeeds; I mean 'popular' in the sense that the specific thing's incontrovertible popularity is the most important thing about it. I mean 'popular' in the way Pet Rocks were popular in 1975, or the way E.T. was popular in 1982, or the way Oprah Winfrey was popular for most of the nineties.

The answer to this question is both obvious and depressing: Something becomes truly popular when it becomes interesting to those who don't particularly care. You don't create a phenomenon like E.T. by appealing to people who love movies. You create a phenomenon like E.T. by appealing to people who see one movie a year." Chuck Klosterman

"Everyone has a theory of human nature. Everyone has to anticipate the behavior of others, and that means we all need theories about what makes people tick." Steven Pinker

I though it was time to write something a little philosophical about 1970s popular culture. In truth I am never not being philosophical since I think philosophy is literally everything but in what follows I will be self consciously and purposively philosophical but using examples of 1970s popular culture.
At this period of time in the 20th century there were a very small number of public figures who represented some kind of center of social life. They were in essence metaphors for the average person. If you think of the centrality of television it appears that two men performed this function: Walter Cronkite and Johnny Carson. These figures represented drama and comedy, respectively. People would look up to Walter Cronkite to tell them about the death toll in Vietnam or the scandals of Watergate which of course are subjects most dramatic and serious in nature. Then they would look to Johnny Carson for comic relief, who would make jokes or skits about alleged shortages of toilet paper, actual shortages of gas, or the weather. If you think about it, or just look at the data, practically all of America watched these two men. I would say that on a purely cultural, or as I would prefer to put it, aesthetic level, Walter Cronkite and Johnny Carson kind of lead things at that time.

Because of this, both Johnny Carson and Walter Cronkite could be considered geniuses of a sort when it came to performing or presenting in front of an audience. One, Cronkite, was a genius at delivering the news in such a way as to communicate with the widest array of cultures, political ideologies, ages. economic strata and so on. The other, Johnny Carson, was a genius at bringing laughter and entertainment more generally to the same breadth of diversity in his audiences. There were not very many other figures or shows commanding such national attention.  More to the point, it took a very special kind of human being to perform such functions over so many decades and with such consistency - which is why when I use the word genius I am being quite literal.

In addition to central human figures there were shows: there were fall lineups for the television viewer and these lineups consisted of only enough shows needed to fill a five or six hour time frame, thus making the amount and duration of shows necessarily small. If you were an ABC person you would have had to watch Eight Is Enough and Three's Company and Charlies Angels, because these were the only shows fitted into the scheduled time slots.

Indeed, so centralized was the culture that even the characters on the t.v. shows would always refer to that one hugely popular cultural object outside of the fictionalized world of the show and mention the object by name.  It was as if one company owned all the same objects. This was a kind of artistic product placement. Thus, on Eight Is Enough the members of the family made sure to mention that they were going to see A Chorus Line because that was the one big musical theatrical show of the period. It was as if everyone who did not live near New York, when they made their one trip to New York in their lifetime, chose A Chorus Line as the show to watch.

When Tommy Bradford, the aspiring musician in the family, mentions the rock that he loves he has to mention Peter Frampton, because millions of people listened to Peter Frampton. They even make sure that Tommy Bradford  has a hairdo similar to Frampton's. Every little boy in America had a bowl haircut just like Adam Rich did on the same show. I had my hair styled the exact same way as did millions of boys. Such things like hairdos you wear and what bands you listen to are examples of a kind of artificially created consensus. Another word I like for them is Fashion, which is anything but superficial.

Now if you weren't an ABC person you had the choice of really only two other networks: NBC or CBS. Yes there was also PBS but that was a rarefied and special kind of programming and there was only one PBS.  The choice of dozens of channels, hundreds of channels was out of the question at this time. Now each of these networks had a certain "house style." To name one example, in contrast to ABC, which was the most mainstream and commercial in house style, NBC was seen as having a more "liberal" house style, which is why Saturday Night Live would debut on that network.

There were no individualized computers where you could create your own playlists made of all the  hundreds of thousands of things created by humans in the entire 20th century. There were radicals or nonconformists who refused to watch television, usually for political or religious reasons. But these were a.) small in number in comparison to the rest of the population and, b). tended to create their own centralized cultures involving favorite entertainment, like the Whole Earth Review or some homegrown Jesus magazine. Therefore, these countercultures had a center and a consensus.

Now it is important to understand that all of this was a consensus. The consensus contained various artificial constructions, erected to sort of hold society together so that it would not collapse into violence and privation. This centralized mode of keeping the peace was part of their function. It was a form of social cohesion - thus my analogy of America tuning into Johnny Carson at 11:30 in their bedrooms. If you are doing that you are quite limited in the amount of other activities you can do at the same time. This is what I mean by "consensus."

But it is also most important to realize that alongside the consensus there was the reality of how individuals really "felt in there hearts", and heartfelt feelings are always individual and anti-systematic. They may be dormant but they are still present. These innermost feelings were not captured precisely by the consensus culture. The consensus was a kind of crude approximation, sometimes false, sometimes true, but always missing the mark. Society went on like this for much of the 20th century which, if you think about it, is a really long time for one mode to reign.

One of the functions of high art or culture, as opposed to that which I am discussing here, is the creation and distillation of such innermost feeling into forms that best express them: like poems, novels, movies, painting and the like. These have their own traditions and practices but they are quite distinct to the historical, commercial consensus with which I am concerned in this post. One example of a countercultural art is of course the avant-garde. Yet an avant-garde too has its own internal consensus, one example being that there are notable names which tend to be few in number, like a Susan Sontag or Merce Cunningham. When we talk of the higher arts we are talking of a kind of subversion of consensus. Their inherent value is precisely  not in "consensus" but in individuality. Even if their starting point is a genre which is rooted in a consensus they always refuse to stay there.

What I am saying is that the consensus was never ultimately real. There was the successful appearance of a consensus. In this sense the consensus could be thought of as an artwork, as any artwork is a creation of representation and not reality proper. This had the effect of hiding from ourselves our very real differences from one another.

What really happened when the Analog Age was destroyed and replaced by the current Digital Age in which we are ensconced was that we learned for the first time that there is never any such thing as a consensus.  People are simply too damned different from one another for there to be one. They are so different in fact that attempts to form group identities around shared features break down invariably because the differences are always greater than the similarities, whether inside a group or between groups.  The genius of liberal society is that it refuses to force the issue and instead manages or contains conflict. It creates space for people to pursue quite diverse projects without telling everybody what project to pursue. Anti-liberal societies, like the one in which we now in fact live, want to come up with a project and proceed to push it through wily-nily and believe in consensus in a religious and zealous way. All lack of consensus, when discovered, is seen as a kind of error or mistake, an immature development on the way to an eventual and hopeful consensus in the future.

If you decide to destroy the construction of an artificial consensus, which is what the handlers and inventors of the computer basically did, what you will be left with are constant teams of warring parties, or a motley collection of individuals who can never agree on any first principles. The realization of an interconnected world is the attempt to pursue consensus directly which as I said is impossible. The only result can be a maximum lack of consensus because humans were never meant to be inside each others' heads all of the time.

A society where we are all in each others' heads all of the time might inevitably lead to one in which we are at each others' throats too much of the time.  Such is the realization of total transparency and interconnection. I do not say we are fated to stay or perish here. I do say that any discussion of what is to be done must start with this awareness of our Digital Age as an age and a system quite unlike others hitherto experienced and known. It is not all bad but it is also in no way inherently good or progressive.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Representations of the 1970s in contemporary film and television, and some more words on Presentism.

I try to watch as many contemporary representations of the 1970 as I can: such representations are, in their own way, a form of costume drama. Of particular interest to me as of late are episodic series that are set in the 1970s.

Showtime's I'm Dying Up Here,  and NetFlix's Mindhunter are two that are the most notable, or that I have been able to watch.

Mindhunter is a serial, episodic work created by David Fincher and Charlize Theron. Thus far there has been one season with another on the way. I'm Dying Up Here is also episodic and to date there have been only two seasons when there really should be more, if only for aesthetic, that is, narratological reasons, rather than commercial/qualitative reasons.

Every single work set in the past is usually committed to or another sort of presentism. Presentism is hard to define but you could say it is closely related to progressivism in a moral or political sense. That is, because presentism is a dominant view of our age - more than in ages past - and because there is in our current moment an enormous amount of artistic work set in the past, presentism is inevitable. The most presentist work in the contemporary period to have been set in the past was of course MadMen, which reads like an aesthetic treatise on the virtues of presentism. There is a debate and discussion to be had over whether presentism ought to be avoided or celebrated, and whether it even can be avoided.

I, for one, am generally against presentism, and believe it ought to be guarded against even if it is the most natural thing in the world, and, well, universal (if only because one must live in one's present). The presentism I have in mind with regard to works of representation sometimes takes the form of glaring anachronisms.

The first time I encountered a maddening form of anachronistic presentism was during the girls' bathroom scene in Linklater's masterpiece Dazed And Confused where the girls discuss something they call a "male pornographic fantasy" in the context of a discussion of the television show Gilligan's Island - using a jargon and a level of conceptual abstraction that reminded me more of a college media studies class in 1992 than the high school girl's bathroom Texas small town in 1976 where the picture is meant to take place.

The question of what concepts people did or did not have, what language they would have likely been able to use or would have been available to them to use (all of these series, for example, use catchphrases, vernacular, slang, jargon and vogue words which did not exist in the eras that are meant to be represented, though some are more "guilty" than others) is an under-examined question.  In truth none of us can really know with exact certainty about some behaviors, interior feelings and concepts in the past. The only way we can know the exact sound and appearance of people in the past is through two visual mediums: fictional representations made in the past as performed by actors in dramatic art like films, and any documentary footage from the past showing non-actors going about their daily, untutored business. Aside from these what remains are written accounts which don't have the same exactitude as visual or verbal documents of an actual period of time.

But, setting this qualification aside, we can nevertheless get a partial sense of the past through all sorts of ways- both written and visual - and in ways that are more accurate than not. What presentism does is in some sense deny this altogether, in part because it has an ever present moral analysis of the past rather than a disinterested observation of it.

I have often argued that in the 1930s you could find people on the street who sounded and acted like Myrna Loy or William Powell did on the screen and in this sense their appearances on the screen should be considered realistic, however unreal a thing a Hollywood movie was (particularly at that time and in that genre) or how unordinary ("larger than life") those two movie stars of the time appeared. It is merely that nobody acts like William Powell or Myrna Loy now. This is the same case as if young women stopped sounding and acting like Zosia Mamet on Girls fifty years from now to such a degree that said future viewers, upon seeing the show for the first time, might claim that her onscreen behavior is unrealistic or unbelievable.

If you fast forward from 1992's Dazed And Confused to today's Mindhunter, I find an enormous amount of such anachronistic material in the casual conversation of the characters. Usually it takes the form of characters being too knowing about things rather than the unconscious figures they more likely were. Did people use the word "inappropriate" as synonym or code for grave moral offenses in 1977 as much as they do now? I'm Dying Up Here is particularly egregious in this regard. The character seem on the verge of saying "awesome" a lot of the time and beginning sentences with a slow"so": modes of speech and behavior that are utterly of 2017 and I would bet were nonexistent in 1973. Another verbal gesture, committed by one of the youngest characters in the story more than once, is a loud "Seriously!" belted out whenever she feels exasperation at another's action. This is a hallmark of contemporary, real-life speech. I seriously doubt it was "a thing" in 1974.  All of the character use the word "fuck" all of the time too and that word's universality and frequency is very much a feature of the present moment.

Another notable example of a very good show that nevertheless exhibits some anachronisms is David Simon's and George Pelecanos' The Deuce on HBO. In the case of this series this historical inaccuracy occurs mainly terms of the sounds - the dictions, and cadences - of the millennial actors' voices, which are sounds no similarly aged person in 1972 ever would have made. This is but an effect of the fact that actors are of a generation who simply sound a certain way -  the sounds you hear on Girls - and there is apparently no attempt to change this as is sometimes done in terms of geographical accents.
I'm Dying up Here

I'm Dying Up Here is also salvaged not only by its art direction, which has as much faithfulness to the 1970s as seems possible at this time, but by the excellence of its acting, which reaches Cassavetes (!) styled levels of intensity, temporality and subtlety of meaning. The entire cast is so good but Melissa Leo, Ari Graynor, and Brad Garrett come to mind most immediately. There is a dramatic integrity and richness that overrides any of the presentism I mention. The writing is nowhere near as good as the acting, but like most episodic television, it really is the kind of quality writing that you would have found in the best studio narrative pictures from forty or fifty years ago but which the studios today seem hell bent on not delivering in any place outside of your home or your physical person.

It is important to recognize that the 1970s is innately and inherently interesting from a dramatic and representational point of view because the entire era was committed to the willful elimination of restraint and the maximization of expression of all kinds and at all costs.

This means that the 1970s is a very useful foundation for visual artists, including filmmakers. Put simply, it is never boring.
opening credits, The Deuce

The 1970s itself was a gift the era gave to future posterity. For great contrast it is most instructive to compare those series set during the 1990s, which was an era inexplicably dedicated to a willful nondescriptness.

I agree with the theory that says that the 1990s were simply part of the 1980s rather than an independent period, and one of the founding ideas of the 1980s was this idea of recovering one's senses after the perceived excesses of the previous era, and getting back to some tradition of some kind. Now if this is your primary goal in life this has certain repercussions for how you will look to future generations and what you will be able to accomplish. If you make a dramatic production about, say, the Lewinsky/Clinton scandal, then it is incumbent upon you to represent the late 1990s which is, objectively speaking, a really dull project compared to representing, say, the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs match of 1973. In 1973 there was nobody in culture, least of all the people in the milieu of that event, dedicated in the slightest to being nondescript or generic. 1998, however, is the apotheosis of this long 1980s project of trying to make culture be a neutral backdrop to the ostensibly important matters of daily life. Nondescript style became the dominant religion of those years, and you can get a taste of this by looking at any mise en scene of a Seinfeld episode.

One of the many interesting things about the two shows is that they exhibit the differences between the early and later 1970s, differences that are considerable. Part of this is the enormous middle to late 1960s influence on the early part of the 1970s from which the much more commercial consensus culture of the late 70s was quite a departure. The earlier 1970s show is photographed in vivd, quite strong colors. The latter 1970s of Mindhunter is concerned with the cars the characters drive more than their fashions or architecture, but is photographed in a very dark, almost unlit fashion. Here is an entire blog post dedicated to all of the various 1970s vehicles painstakingly represented in the show.

Ensemble of I'm Dying up Here
Holt McCallany, Anna Torv and Jonathan Groff in Mindhunter
Mindhunter, my last example, is the best of all that I have seen, at least from a filmmaking perspective. This depiction of FBI researchers in the year 1978, straddling the disciplines of law enforcement, psychology, science, as they attempt to comprehend and face the difficult evils of a most peculiar subset of criminals, is so valuable in its insight, in its aesthetic power, and as character driven drama, that it is one more example of the supremacy of episodic television in our current moment over other visual dramatic forms and that the project of cinema itself is very much in evidence. Mindhunter is very much a work in progress in that there has been but one season, but I believe that in its rigorous elimination of scenes of violence or action as classically understood in works in its (action or thriller) genre and in its complete focus on the attempt to understand human evil at a certain point in our history, it makes for some exemplary television.

What the supremacy of episodic television that you stream at home means is not something upon which I can fairly speculate. (It also raises the idea that we might be seeing a return of a certain kind of nineteenth century novelistic form - albeit in a new guise - that had been dormant for much of the 20th century. But that is a subject for literary historians and critics more than others).

I must admit that this might have little or nothing to do with the 1970s, though I do note that filmmakers are going back to the 1970s more now that was the case, say, a decade ago, and this interest in the 70s era means the 70s decade might have more to do with current aesthetic trends or currents than a perspective not informed by a sense of historical eras could comprehend as fully.

Of course all of the preceding will be of interest only if you accept that an older period can be represented or reconstructed with any degree of fidelity, and, moreover,  that to do so is germane to the meaning of the dramatic representation as a whole. Also, the ability to accept these propositions  varies with the work. Mindhunter is in so many ways a work not about the era in which it is set but about what are actually timeless matters - surprisingly so, in a pleasant way.

On the other hand, all film is visual and having to stare at people with certain kinds of clothes and hairdos getting in and out of certain kinds of cars and dwelling in certain kinds of buildings is not something you can underestimate - if only because you are forced to look at it for even basic comprehension. If for no other reason, that is why the question of period details might be as important as some arcane discussion about the prevalence of psychological damage general to the profession of comics or the history of forensic police work in late 20th century America.

And, finally, you also have to accept some manner of discontinuity between one period and another such that people really have marked differences from one age to the next, and there is not simply one unbroken, human story seamlessly linking the succeeding ages. If you lean, as I do, towards discontinuity, you will be less prone to presentism.

But as partisan of the discontinuity thesis as I am, I recognize too much discontinuity results in ethical incoherence and valuelessness. The list of human universals is many. (See Donald Brown on this point in his book Human Universals). But we should never lose our sense of alienation from the past so that we not simply turn it into another form of the present. I have always been inspired by the famous Carlo Ginzburg quote:

The historian's task is just the opposite of what most of us were taught to believe, He must destroy our false sense of proximity to the past because they came from societies very different from our own. The more we discover about these peoples' 'mental universe' the more we should be socked by the cultural distance that separates us from them."

It is hard to argue the same for the arts because a good deal of the arts is simplicity or explicitly embarked upon seeing similarities between things, empathy being but one, overemphasized, tool in this regard. In that sense presentism might be not unavoidable but necessary. But I do want to argue that at least some of the arts should be allied with Ginzburg's  project in history. Not all movies and books should be the same in their sensibility though in an age as presentist as ours I should learn to expect or accept that this might be an area more for theory than practice.

Monday, June 11, 2018

1970s Cinema: my introduction to a screening of BLUME IN LOVE

Mazursky calls his film Blume In Love and it must be said at the outset that 1970s cinema, and artistic production most generally, was preoccupied with questions of human emotion in all of its guises. If you are going to watch a 1970s movie you are going to have to, as the saying went then, "get in touch with your feelings". And further, really feel those feelings. You are never asked to actually do anything about them. That would be to create, say, "the" revolution, which, as Fassbinder famously said, "doesn't even belong on the screen".

What is important is that you know your feelings:  the feelings of both your own and others, and that these feelings be allowed to "hang out." 1970s movies are like one really long consciousness raising session.  A lot of stuff comes up and of course it isn't always pretty. Some of tonight's movie won't be pretty - it's surface beauty and sophisticated charm, of which there is also plenty, notwithstanding. The attitudes of the titular character towards women certainly can be as far from pretty as is imagined. But the important thing is he is trying. And he of course will get as good as he gives. But the bare expression of all is the end in and for itself.

It's more in the spirit of Lenny Bruce's plea to reflect on the truth of "what is" rather than "what should be."  This is one of the reasons why movies that otherwise seem to have a quite diverse or opposite surface, or come in different genres, nevertheless will immerse you in a scene, or many scenes, where a sense of real time plays out, that are, in a word, durational.

This will happen in any kind of picture, even action ones. And this happens as much in, say, Hal Ashby's The Last Detail, as it does in a Jacque Rivette picture. You see it Andrei Tarkovsky as much as you do in Sidney Lumet. And not only in scenes with more than one character: this arresting of action (or, as I refer to it in my book, immersion in the moment) happens when it lets us sit with Jane Fonda as Bree Daniels in Klute when she is by herself, or sit with Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe as he is waking up in bed in Long Goodbye, realizing that he must feed his cat, or sit with Walter Matthau as Coach Buttermaker  in a car, possibly inebriated, in the opening of Bad News Bears.

Bertolt Brecht (and later Augusto Boal) had a chart where he said that in the classical or "Aristotelian"  theater every scene happens to serve other scenes, a subsequent or following scene, but that in the epic theatre the scene plays for or serves itself. Or, as Sherman Alexie put it in another context, "Aristotle was not an Indian." And by immersion to which I oppose what I call classical condensation, I do not mean that what we are witnessing is necessarily more naturally absorbing; plenty of the highest edited acton pictures, which are the very essence of "condensation",  could be called immersive in the sense of being riveting. I simply mean this quality of staying with the characters as they play out their lives in a present minded sense.

The reason for this in depth playing out of a scene, refusing cutting to a new one, is the conceit that in so doing the actors in the scene will reveal something of themselves and in turn reveal something of ourselves to ourselves.  1970s filmmaking is an aporetic art: it has many more questions than it has answers to, and the questions are some of the best ones you could ask. As in a Socratic dialogue these are the sort of questions that don't admit of easy definition. As in "what is justice"? Or, in tonight's case, "What is Love?" The search for the right question is always central, not any correct answer. 1970s cinema is as much an actors' cinema as it is a naturalistic photographer's cinema.

Of all the emotions, it is the nature of love that was the 1970s' great theme. What is love? When does it go right, and when does it go wrong? What is love for? It connects tonight's movie with others close in time period in particular Cassavetes' Minnie And Moskowitz, certainly Mazursky's An Unmarried Woman, only four years later from Blume, again another Cassavetes in Woman Under The Influence, Frank and Eleanor Perry's Diary Of A Mad Housewife, Lovers And Other Strangers, Sidney Furie's Sheila Levine is Dead And Living In New York. Of course in Jean Eustache's La Maman et La Putain where all of the characters never stop talking about love for all three plus hours. It haunts Kaufman's Invasion Of The Body Snatchers too: for an urgent fear of not having a genuine emotion, of losing your humanity, is a common theme in these pictures. For Cassavetes it reaches its ultimate expression in his Love Streams, a 1970s movie that simply happened to have physically a 1980s production/release date but is, as they say, stone 1970s spiritually. More recently, if you count the early 1980s as recent, Joan Micklin Silver (with help from Anne Beattie) tackles quite similar terrain as tonight's film in her Chilly Scenes Of Winter. And most recently, I can't help but feel that some of that spirit is carried on in Lena Dunham's Girls.

Blume In Love in Mazursky's oeuvre could be seen as a spiritual sequel to his Bob Carol Ted And Alice, that earlier film also being all about love. Blume's philosophic, essayistic opening continues in a different vein the popular psychological therapy discourses and concerns of that earlier film. Notice in particular the snatches of people seemingly plucked from daily, real life in the opening, the interest in documenting and commentating on life as it is lived and found and in the locations one would have found in daily life. This is the strategy of using documentary techniques in a fictional context.

Getting more specific to Blume, all of Mazursky's considerable gifts are in fullest flower: the usage of a diverse range of colorful characters for maximum emotional effect, (Just putting together George Segal, Kris Kristofferson, Susan Anspach, and Paul Mazursky in an acting role is exhibit A), a constant sense of humor about life, no matter how bad things can get, a love for all human creatures wherever they find themselves, an unapologetic almost Capraesque, commitment to affective sentiment, (and not far off from the Renoir films they have been playing here). I

In short, a point of view that could only be called humanistic if that word can be freed from any ideological, spiritual or partisan specificity. I know of no filmmakers that can get to the heart of genuine human emotion between two people (Harry And Tonto is master class in that) any better than Mazursky and he has few peers in this regard. He made his pictures for people in the audience, not an imagined ideal audience, nor a great unwashed audience that he can preach to, but potentially, well, anybody. The photographer Vilmos Zsigmond, when asked what made pictures of the 1970s special, the context being a discussion of Mark Rydell's Cinderella Liberty, said they they tried to make movies by and for people, as if people actually mattered. I sincerely hope you experience at least some of that spirit tonight since that was certainly what they set out to do.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Sociology versus Aesthetics, or, the Fallacy of Consensus

In all of my blog posts over the years my sole concern has been aesthetics, especially as distinct from sociology. I should also add that when I use the word aesthetic I contend for it to include what ordinarily  is considered "spiritual". Humans make works of art but they do not do so as they please and they do not simply get hit with so many objects that fall from the sky ready made. Such objects have to be built and it is often the most arduous job in the world. It is possible for humans to create essentially artificial objects set apart from what we ordinarily call the real world itself. The very fact that such an object is set apart - bracketed from reality - means that we should never treat it as the same as we would our daily life. A painting of the family next door is still never identical to the family next door. Neither is a photograph. For one thing it is an inanimate object. For another, the very act of making an object for the purposes of reflection should tell us that we are meant to reflect and not directly act.

The trouble of course is that art objects emerge from scenes comprised of a particular sociology. Though the sociology is essential to their creation it is always the least important part of that creation. To think otherwise is to commit to the fallacy of consensus. The assumption is that there is a single or singular reality to which a work must conform or pay allegiance. This is one of the ways we are in the grip of  the myth of consensus (actually fallacy is the better term since there is some deepest truth in all myth - along, of course, with some falsehood).

Consensus says that we have to somehow come together on a set of issues and if we fail to come together then we are doomed to some kind of tragic societal or existential death. One can be forgiven for buying into this fallacy in the case of climate change where how we act, or not act, in the world might involve that kind of destruction.

But it is sheer madness to have this desire for consensus in all  or even many areas of life. Humans are not chiefly consensual creatures for we happen to come in the form of singular embodied individuals.  We do cooperate in the interest of survival, but our cooperative impulses are (thankfully!) thwarted at every turn by the force of individual personalities, the presence of which is regretted by mystics suspicious of the human ego, but the absence of which would mean a dehumanization that would spell a death in life, even if sold as some kind of transcendence. In speaking against cooperation in this way I don't mean to sound terrible. And I realize the force of some individual personalities can be a force for evil. But I am saying we should at least honor that fact that we have individual personalities and are not as of yet simply carbon copies of one another.  Our choices are not between cooperation and competition. Our choices are between choosing a life in which our individuality is honored (which doesn't have to require competition) or a life in which only our identify as part of some larger group is what is honored.

Consensus is very bad for the arts. Every time a consensus has been enforced in the history of art, aside from the fact that the majority of the work in a single period has a sameness about it when viewed by future audiences, the result has been that superior work that doesn't exactly match the consensual style always gets ignored, if it is not destroyed outright. If it does survive, the formerly rejected work, upon reexamination many years later, now always seems to be reassigned the highest value. Upon such reconsideration people wonder aloud with an apparently sincere tone of regret how they could have been so wrong in the first place. The reason this happens is that in the sociological milieu of the work's original debut all anybody cared about was the work's correspondence to the consensus of the time. They did not care about more eternal values like curiosity, pleasure, or emotional and intellectual interest. The need for consensus will cause people to pan work that should have been praised and vice versa.  (The same phenomenon can also cause work to be praised merely because it is in the dominant style of a period, when, upon disinterested examination, the work can be found to be not particularly valuable).

This is the only explanation for why Friedkin's masterpiece Cruising, to name but one of a great many examples - Ishttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ishtar_(film)htar is another, as is Zabriskie Point - could have suffered it's original fate.

What happened in the reception of Cruising is that the consensus that held sway was whatever the male gay community at the time felt about that particular movie, and they imposed this consensus not only on their own viewing of the picture, (if they bothered to view it), but ultimately on how the rest of the world had to view it. Worst of all, they attempted to disrupt the film production itself by protesting the shoot and creating loud noises intending to destroy takes, in hopes that it would never have the opportunity to become a final film. Before a proper evaluation was even possible the very idea of the thing was an affront to their consensus; proof or evidence was quite beside the point. Thus, a highly intelligent investigation into the nature of sex and violence and, yes, gender in the narrative, cinematic form of a police procedural was mistakenly viewed as some kind of homophobic, horror/slasher picture.

This can happen in any art medium. In my own field of music a good example of an oppressive consensus was the wholesale rejection of certain kinds of tonal harmony in composition. For music to be considered relevant and therefore good, it had to use non-tonal elements or at the very least elements sufficiently dissonant so that they defied any associations with tonal implications. The plethora of bad serial or row music was but one result of that consensus. Bust as you can see here in this moment from a Leonard Bernstein lecture, not all of the leading figures in an artistic "scene" will be certain to agree as Bernstein here makes a case for a a certain tonal sense. 

In a very real sense when it comes to how we evaluate any new work, we have all become like the detractors of Cruising when it originally came out. We are always vigilant and mindful of the threat that an artwork might challenge a consensus. We praise works that flatter the consensus in our heads and condemn works that inconvenience it, or even contradict it. What this means is, among other things, however exciting and relevant a work of art may be for us for today, it might lose such excitement and relevance for people in a certain future. This is a far greater sense of discontinuity than for a thing to be merely "dated." The reason for this is that we interpret aesthetic objects - that which is intended for aesthetic meaning and purposes - in moral/sociological ways. But to do this is to abandon the aesthetic sense altogether, an abandonment we will be the poorer for, whether we are consciously aware of this loss or not.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Thoughts on strong affect in art


I have often said that our crises of society might be more aesthetic in nature than the normal ways they are usually understood when they are referred to as moral, political,  or, frankly, crudely sociological in nature. I was happy that philosopher Daniel Kaufman, on a favorite site with which he is associated, The Electric Agora, called the problem what it is, when he invoked the word and concept philistine.https://theelectricagora.com/2017/12/24/4307/ I wrote a piece in 2000 called The New Philistinism and, as Kaufman wisely clarifies in his piece, the situation has only worsened in the eighteen years since my 2000 piece.

I think the notion of the arts and letters being an essential and special way of understanding is one notion that is unpopular at the moment. People take what they consider the concerns of the real world to be what ultimately matters and if not the real world then the "spiritual" correlate of the real world which comprises of their particular faith and/or religion. But the idea of artificial works of representation being inherently interesting and interesting precisely to the degree to which they can be separated from sociology is an idea that is itself under represented and if thought of at all is immediately rejected. Above all, if the arts and letters are respected they are only respected to the degree with which they are seen to further certain causes in the real world.

I was reminded of this problem when, in taking a break from my usual study of 1970s visual culture, I went back and watched several masterpieces of Hollywood melodrama from the middle fifties through the sixties. One of the things that struck me was the emotional seriousness, the sheer meaningfulness of the mise en scene: the lighting, coloration and composition seemed the equal of any of the masterworks of representational painting. The actors too were doing things of an emotional depth on screen, bespeaking a complete fearlessness with regard to what they were trying to evoke. There is a sense of awe on the screen: awe from the creators in their creation and an attempt to evoke awe in the spectator, a complete lack of jadedness, laziness, or snark. If contemporary people laugh at such films now because they think them dated, politically inconvenient (note I do not say correct) or silly,  I think the fall might reside in those contemporary people rather than in the films. The creators of such films were aesthetes and thought in aesthetic ways. I am thinking of films by people like Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk, Elia Kazan, Richard Quine, Joshua Logan and Vincent Minnelli, to name just a handful.
PICNIC (Logan)

One characteristic of the films I have in mind is their emotional intensity. There is an enormous amount at stake for the characters and, quite in keeping with the nature of how cinema was envisioned by their creators, the films at every moment attempt to express such high stakes in every conceivable way possible with the tools at the time - again another striking similarity to painting. That is, the emotion is a matter of art direction and lighting and wardrobe as much as it is of acting.

Of course one of the reasons why this is the case with these films is that emotion is actually their main subject matter. However much outward action or plot there is in the films, their real theme is human interiority, or consciousness itself. And to make matters more interesting, because many attitudes and behaviors were forbidden for representation on the screen at the time in a literal form, filmmakers had to work extra hard to envision new ways of expression. It is not so much that the films are "Freudian" or "psychological" because, frankly, you who are in the  in the audience will have to feel or undergo something internally simply by experiencing the films - whether you are versed in psychology or not, and maybe even whether you are particularly emotional or not. The films traffic in feelings in something like a raw state - that is, prior to any psychological theories.  Now strong emotion in art is neither inherently good or bad, but it is simply a fact that works of strong emotion can only accomplish certain things that will be impossible if a work were to take a cooler approach. At the end of the day it might be a subjective affair indeed, the objective excellence of the works in question notwithstanding.

What I am talking about, of course, is style, rather than genre. ("The concept of genre is as cold as the tomb": Andrei Tarkovsky) The power is not merely the result of narrative structure or even milieu. To my way of thinking, Rebel Without A Cause, Bigger Than Life, Strangers When We Meet, The Sandpiper and Johnny Guitar have much more in common than not, even though the locales, ages, and periods of the stories couldn't be more dissimilar on the surface. Yet they feel like the same artistic project in that they have found a way to represent characters and their environments on film in such a way that every detail matters and is organized - compositionally - for maximum affect.

I think to look at the films in this way is to see that films like these are much closer to opera, dance and ballet than  they are to either the theatre or the novel.  If I am right then we have been wrong all along in trying to fit these films into categories normally associated with psychological realism or novelistic narration.

In fact - and in this way they are really like paintings or arias - the films are more interested in the emotional moment rather than only moving the plot forward.
This, then, is one virtue of strong emotion in a work of art like a movie. Strong emotion forces the action to be arrested for a time. It is an experience akin to religious or spiritual worship or contemplation. As we all know when somebody is in a sate of contemplation they aren't generally running around  in the world in extroverted and busy tasks.  (Of course that some spiritual masterworks of art are contemplative by virtue of turning down the dial on emotion, as in Mark Rothko, is a fact that only goes to show that there are, as it were, different kinds of religions.)

You can try to fit the films into such labels as realism but it not where their heart really is. They are radical expressions of states of feeling. The narrative course of the film  or psychological categories (or diagnosis) of the film's characters are actually secondary. What matters is the emotional moment. In this sense these works of art of a staid and conservative Hollywood era are anything but. They are revolutionary in their romanticism, in their stubborn insistence on the virtue of authenticity and truth seeking - values that however overused and problematic they are in word, are as indispensable and inescapable in culture more generally in deed.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

A particular, if not peculiar, form of Humanistic education

My previous post was a look backward as I began a big move forward. I should like to go back to the beginning and discuss certain influences. Any kind of artist or critic has to have definite and definitive influences. These form the imaginative center and in practically all cases this is a psychological theme unique to the individual's identity. The world of the arts is the largest mansion conceivable. The doors are many; some of which are dead bolted, still others unabashedly unlocked, and ajar.

One of the things about art objects is that when you interact with them, if you are doing it correctly - and there are more or less correct or incorrect ways of interaction - the more correct mode of interaction will involve repetition, and ultimately be a form of education. Through memorizing the artwork, even if like I was, a child doing the work and not old enough to even comprehend it in its fullness, the art object will become a part of you. As a result, whether you intend this intimacy or not, by "memorizing" the object you will, learn, if only unconsciously, a lot of things about the arts in general since you are learning about certain patterns, or genres, or styles going back many years, centuries, epoch etc., thus learning about some of the oldest antecedents in an indirect fashion.

1967 being the year of my birth, and my father being a Beatles fan, meant that right out of the womb the record player was playing the Sgt Pepper album. If my earliest filmic memory was seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey twice my earliest music memory was the Sgt Pepper album and, simultaneous with this, some Bach recordings. My parents told me that I would ask to hear Day In The Life over and over again, so fascinated I was by it as  composition and the dissonant orchestral sonorities in that crescendo.

Last month  I saw an original pressing of Let It Be at my shirtmakers' shop and my entire body was transported back to four years old or a few years after as I had not looked at the photos on the album cover since them. I remember, as I had always done, staring for great lengths of time at the photos of the musicians. I did this because I had I thought that my looking was a form of magic that would reveal to me how these songs I enjoyed so much were made, doubtless a cognitive error on my part,  but one that revealed a curious hunger in the context of me being quite isolated for long periods of time - isolated not only from the musical instruments in question but also from relationships with others.  I used to fantasize or wonder about how the music was made and the photos of Abbey Road Studios revealed many technical and technological devices and artifacts about which I was curious and had little or no understanding.

Around this time I discovered the Guys And Dolls original soundtrack. Whenever I found a song I really liked I learned how to manipulate the needle, carefully as to not scratch the record, but, more precociously, how to identify by the visual size of the groove formations, which songs were the ones I liked.

For some reason I was obsessed with Fugue For Tinhorns. Here is the same version to which I listened incessantly.

It was the incessant almost rhythm changes styled form and contrapuntal singing I loved so much, as much as the phrasing of the cast singers. Now you could say this is nothing special, simply a round. But you'd be wrong to say that, because Frank Loesser seems to have the perfect ear for just the right melodic sequence to choose.  I was also learning about melody itself from some great ballads on that album, in particular "I'll Know".

A third record was one of the Bach Bradenberg Concertos. This one in particular I would repeat over and over.

The very first Miles Davis I heard was this soundtrack for a Louis Malle film.

This sparked a life long obsession with slow tempos as well as the blues tonalities. Curiously, the next Miles I would hear was not anything from this period, not Kind of Blue, but In A Silent Way. I was really at the mercy of what I could find in record stores and such stores were at the mercy of what was considered worthy of stocking from the past, what was reissued or not, and what was considered a sure or safe sale. Probably the kinds of groves and sounds on In A Silent Way were more popular than anything from the fifties or middle sixties at least in the Tampa, Florida where I spent most of the year,

I was not exposed to very much rock at this time aside from The Beatles. I remained ignorant of much of it. I was intensely interested in rhythm and blues and soul music however. Seeing The Jackson Five at Madison Square Garden might have been the initial stimulus. Then again there were some old Bessie Smith recordings that were in the house. The only exposure I got to rock was what was overheard at public venues or on the radio and I never really followed it in anything like a systematic way.

But you can't really escape rock. I was on this swim team and my coach kept calling me Frampton because my last name rhymed with Frampton. Actually my swim coach himself looked like Peter Frampton. "Hey Frampton do that lap again!" was a constant refrain. Not only would he call me Frampton but he would blare Frampton Comes Alive from loudspeakers and an 8 track coming from his elaborately designed van.

I actually had a girlfriend at this age (which I understand now is not considered age appropriate since I was child, though she was a child as well, a peer), and she was in love with Peter Frampton, and had a huge poster of him in her bedroom. Because I liked her mother's taste in music so much more and considered her, well, simply more attractive than the daughter, I would sort of hang around the mother more and find excuses to leave the daughter's room and go see the mom in the kitchen or living room, and listen to mom talk about Joni Mitchell and Miles Davis, and gaze at this mom in her halter top, much to the chagrin of the daughter.

I believe listening to these particular musical styles was inculcating me into their ways and their methods. I think the best things you can have for inspiration by, or memorization of, things that are at least good in quality.

When I wasn't restricted to the basically lone experience of record listening I was enormously blessed to experience live artistic performances. One of the hallmarks of every Summer as a child were the several weeks or even months I would spend in New York City. Now this was a NYC Summer in the 1970s. Because of, among other things, my father's deep love for the theatre, I would see practically every production that was mounted in NYC and I mean everything - from Joseph Papp, to commercial Broadway fare to avant-garde off-Broadway fare as well as both musicals and dramatic plays.

For some reason seeing the original production of Bob Fosse's Chicago made the deepest impression on me. Part of it was Fosse's sensibility which seemed to have some spiritual connection with mine. That is, Fosse, like myself, was an aesthete. Everything for him was a matter of sensual form, no matter the particular content or medium.

A great part of my love for his original production of Chicago resided in two women: Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon as they appeared here. This is the closest thing to a documentation of the two of them as they appeared then as I have been able to find.

I was so taken with Rivera and Verdon that I had a poster of the two of them throughout my childhood over my bed. A video documentation by a cast member - courtesy of Candy Brown - gives you a sense of what the staging felt like:

The erotic in art has always been a matter of censorious contention in many audiences.  This is a pity, for in Fosse we have someone who made the highest art of the erotic, albeit in mass popular forms like movies or musicals. He had no illusions about his subject matter and could be as morally stringent as a Sunday preacher (or Brecht) as in Star 80, Sweet Charity (or for that matter, Chicago) but he was not only a critic or satirist: he was also an unabashed entertainer, interested in the eternal pleasures of life. Work which is interested in such pleasures for their own sake - like the work of Jacque Demy or Radley Metzger - will always have opponents and naysayers of various kinds. But it is all a question of style and not all styles are equally congenial to all populations, subcultures etc.

What do all of the above have in common, aside from their intrinsic excellence? You will note that they are examples of adult culture: that is, they were not specifically designed for a children's audience, and yet I was a child being exposed to such material. Most importantly, all of these works of culture are made by we humans: they are produced, designed, created. They are not simply found falling from the sky or laying on the ground. Things humans create are always set apart from the daily world even as they engage with that same daily world. The designed or created aspect has to do with imagination and representation: two categories that create much misunderstanding as to their ultimate purposes in life. Now imagination and representation have an abstraction from life even as they fully engage with life. They are fictions but have about them much truth and as such are partly nonfictional. It is human to reflect upon life rather than simply survive or suffer this life. I think what I have in mind in this particular post is the cumulative effect of certain reflections and what their uniqueness or aesthetic vastness might mean for a single human life and how it may develop in time.

An immense thank you to Candy Brown for posting her footage on youtube.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

What I mean when I call myself an Aesthete - 2018 installation

It is a new year - 2018!

All new things are inextricably intertwined with the old, even the oldest things, however free that which is new wishes to be from the old.

Around fifteen years ago, right around the turn of the millennium, (remember the Y2K?), I underwent a transformation of sorts. It was unbidden or unwilled - or so it felt at the time. I tried to explain it then - as best as I could under the admittedly compromised circumstances - and I started using the word aesthete to categorize and conceptualize it. In truth, however many flaws we find in the notion of the category, whether we really like it or not, we all have to call ourselves something, and in most cases, many separable things at the same time.

As my interest in the 1970s is constant and ever rewarding, I am going to use Michael Ritchie's masterpiece Semi-Tough to illustrate. In this picture Ritchie has Bert Convy play a salvational spirituality/self improvement "guru" modeled after Werner Erhard. As part of the fictionalized and staged seminar meant to satirize workshops and movements of the kind in the 1970s, Bert Convy, playing the character of one Frederick Bismarck, puts on a skit demonstrating the difference between what is essentially meant to be a lower versus higher way of being in the world. To demonstrate the former Convy has an actor approach him with a cliched greeting that would be known to people in their daily lives: "Hi, how's the wife and kids?" The tone is breezy, perfunctory and the like. Convy then switches to the higher alternative. In the latter, when Convy greets the actor the two men gaze into each others' eyes seriously, even soulfully, and hold a firm handshake for longer than is usual.  No false and evasive backslapping here. Explaining the difference, Convy remarks. "See in the second meeting I am really meeting somebody. I am meeting a person! Get it?" And as is always the case, both in 1970s movies as well as life, the crowd gathered in the auditorium erupts into enthusiastic applause at this demonstration. I deal with the issue of parades and crowds in 1970s artistic culture in general here http://themoderatecontrarian.blogspot.com/2012/08/notes-towards-aesthetics-of-1970s.html

Encapsulated in this one moment in time, in the year of 1977 is a joke riffing on a constant anxiety - in both the older, Modern and newer, Contemporary periods alike - the anxiety concerning what it is to even be a self. The concern, now contested and possibly quaint, is that in order to be properly human - authentic is still the main term most in use - one must not be like a machine or robot. The whole point of Ritchie's comedy is that one can be overtly concerned about being authentic and this can be a kind of dogma all it's own, equal to the false stuffiness or rigidity the real presentation or experience of self is meant to replace. The comedy resides in people overtly anxious about getting it right, as one might say today, in "overthinking."

About twenty years after the 70s, in what is to my mind one of the most important essays of the past twenty-odd years - the practically prophetic "Concealment and Exposure" (written about a decade before the full takeover of the internet and social media) - philosopher Thomas Nagel is sharply critical of what he calls an "adolescent" American culture, in which people express too much of themselves and excessive modes of honesty and transparence undo the temperate modes of an earlier era, with its respect for privacy and belief in the goodness of a certain amount of opacity. Nagel's point is not all that different from Ritchie (and Walter Bernstein, Ring Lardner Jr and Dan Jenkins, the film's writers). If the point could be summarized, at the risk of a crude reduction, the question of there being a consensus for how we ought to behave or feel is always limited by the natural disagreements among individuals in any given society, as well as the fact that humans have a need for some matters about the self to be hidden for the sake of the peace. This is connected to notions of civility vis a vis the town square.

Yet in a real sense it is the object of Michael Ritchie's ridicule that has won the day: the older regime of reticence has been overthrown, and of course many intelligent observers are apt to say "thank goodness, it is about time", and the like. Self expression and exposure (and, increasingly, exposures by others if what is being exposed is, say, a crime) are seen as ultimate virtues and can be found around the clock and omnipresent, bound neither by geographical distance nor any coherent conception of public decorum.

What does any of this have to do with my chosen identity of "aesthete"?

Well on the most practical basis we do have to do something with all of that which is constantly churning inside of us. We can't keep it all to ourselves in raw form, nor can we exactly let it all out. Aesthetics is the practice of trying to make something of discipline out of what is inside of us, but in some kind of subtle or indirect fashion so that it is not direct reality. Only retroactively, by submitting what is inside of us to some kind of transformation or evaluation, can we get some kind of understanding or command of it all. You might think of this as a middle path between complete exposure on the one hand or concealment on the other. This is in fact what the Arts are all about.  One of the best ways to manage the exteriorization of the interior is to invent forms that indirectly communicate the interior - stanzas and paragraphs, marks on a page or screen, acted performances, sounds on musical instruments and much more. Because the forms are in a real sense "make-believe" they cannot and should not have the same stakes as matters of direct reality. It is akin to how Hannah Arendt defined thinking itself and when I say than I am an aesthete I say that my interest is precisely in such production and not on doing anything directly about the world in an immediate way. You might say I am more interested in how things feel and appear and what this tells us about ourselves than in moving from point A to point B in a practical way. Even if you will insist that my crude division between practical action and imaginative feeling is invidious or false, I still come back to the notion that we have to call ourselves something, if not may things and it is the aesthetic realm to which I am chiefly dedicated, even if I happen to be living in a time uniquely inhospitable to such pursuits as the aesthetic, or better yet, precisely because I must live in a cultural environment so constituted.