Toward a phenomenology of television

I admit that I’ve lost anything but a passing interest in contemporary film and television. I’m not entirely in the dark on such matters; I browse Youtube occasionally, and I have a store nearby where I can find used DVDs for as little as a buck. A year ago, I got into a jag there, buying and binge watching police procedural from the the first decade of the present century. But in general, I don’t watch telvision and stay away from special effects spectaculars. (Although the last film I actually went to a theater to see was Godzilla 2014; but then I have a soft spot for Big Greeny from my childhood, and just wanted to make sure they treated him with respect. I doubt I’ll go to any of the proposed sequels, though.) And 3-D doesn’t interest me. Harpo Marx was once asked about Lenny Bruce who was achieving notoriety at the time; he replied “I have nothing against the comedy of today; it is just not my comedy.”

However, having had to study the phenomenon of television in grad school, and having invested considerable time in thinking, talking about, watching, and even, in my youth, making film, I do have some general remarks that may be useful here.

First, never lose sight of the economic background here. Both commercial cinema and television are primarily business enterprises. The purpose of film production is to provide entertainment enough to attract audiences willing to spend money on it. This has caused considerable friction between those who provide capital for production and those who come to filmmaking with a particular vision that they are hoping to realize.

The purpose of a television show is to produce enough of an audience to sell to advertisers. (This is obviously less true of the secondary markets, DVDs and on-demand viewing; technology has changed that dynamic, although it is still in effect on most of cable.) This is actually quite a lower bar than selling tickets to the theater, since the audience only needs enough incentive as necessary to get them to watch at a particular time for possible advertises. A show only needs to be less uninteresting than competing programs at the same time in order to achieve this.

With these concrete notices, we can get into the phenomenology of the two media. The most important thing to grasp here – both easily recognized and yet easily forgotten – is that what distinguishes these media from all others, and differentiates them from each other, is their relationships to time, and how the makers of these media handle those relationships. Of course every medium establishes a relationship to time, and this relationship effectively defines the medium to a large extent. But each medium does this in a unique way, as opposed to all other media. * Yet one of the problems we have in distinguishing film and television as each a distinct medium is that fictional television seems to have a relationship to time similar to that of theatrical drama or at least of film. This is not the case.
The true structural principle of television did not become recognizable until the late ’70s, when television began broadcasting 24 hours a day. By the late ’90s, when cable television was multiplying into literally hundreds of channels, it should have been obvious to all; but part of the success of television is that it depends on, and manipulates, our attention to the particular. Most people do not think of themselves as ‘watching television.’ They see themselves watching Seinfeld or Mad Men or The Tonight Show or ‘some documentary about the North Pole.’ On the immediate existential sense, they are quite right, it is the individual program to which they attend. The trouble is, when the Seinfeld rerun ends, many of them do not get up to do something more interesting in their lives; they sit there and watch Mad Men. Or at least let it play on while they discuss what it was like to live in the ‘60s, and then the Tonight Show… and if they can’t get to sleep, it’s that documentary about the North Pole on the Nature Channel, or an old movie on AMC (does it really matter which?), or an old Bewitched rerun….

Now it sounds like I’m painting a bleak portrait of the average television viewer. But such a viewer is what television is all about. And we should note that this says nothing against such viewers. They are presented with an existential dilemma: What to do with free time in a culture with little social cohesion and diminishing institutions that once provided that cohesion?

So, whereas film is about how to manage visuals and audio and story and acting in the compacted period of a couple hours, television is about how to provide endless hours of possible viewing. It is not about this or that particular show – trends are more telling at any given moment.That CSI and NCIS and The Closer and The Mentalist and Criminal Minds, etc., etc., all appear in the same decade tells us more of what people found interesting on television that decade than any one of these shows, and certainly more than any one episode.

Which brings me to my real point. Although there are still some decent films being made on the margins and in other countries, the history of the cinema I knew and loved is at an end. Despite the fact that the basic premise of both movies is that a group of talented warrior gather to defend the good against overwhelming force there is no way to get from The Seven Samurai to The Avengers. That there is a core narrative conflict they share only means that there are core narratives shared across cultures, and we’ve known that for a long time.

But while the aesthetics of The Avengers is substantially different from that of The Seven Samurai, there is certainly an aesthetic at work in it. I am not willing to grant that television has any aesthetic at all. We can certainly discuss how aesthetic values are deployed in individual shows and individual episodes. But these are almost always borrowed from other media, primarily film. Television, just as television has no aesthetic value. And that cannot be said for film.

One way to note this is admitting that the ‘talking heads’ television is what television does best. That and talk-overs (as in sports) or banter, playful or violent, as on reality TV shows. Fictional shows can deploy aesthetic values, true; but only to get the viewer to the talk show, the next commercial, the next episode. Anything that accomplishes that.

Of course, what we end up discussing is the individual show, or the individual episode. and because television lacks aesthetic value of its own, it can fill endless hours deploying a multitude of aesthetic values from other media – poetry recitals, staged plays, documentaries, thrillers, old films, old television, various sports, news and commentary – perhaps ad infinitum. That’s what makes commenting on individual shows so interesting – and yet undercuts any conclusion reached in such discussion. All the shows we find interesting today, will be forgotten in the wave of the next trend tomorrow. But don’t worry – there will always be reruns and DVDs. As long as there is a market for them, that is.
My general point here is such that it cannot be disconfirmed by any show, or group of shows, or discussion of these – such would only confirm part of my point, television’s dependence on our attention to particulars.

One way to see think of the general problem is to imagine rowing a boat in a river; upstream someone has tossed in a flower – perhaps it is even a paper flower, and we’ll allow it to be quite lovely. So it drifts by us, and we remark its loveliness, while not addressing the many rotten pine cones that surround it. Now do either the flower or the pinecones get us an aesthetic of the river? No. So ‘bad’ television tells us no more about the aesthetics of television than does ‘good’ television.

And the river trope has another use for us here. We know the flower was tossed into the river only recently; but the pine cones have been floating about us for some time. Yet to us, now rowing past these, the pine cones are contemporary with the flower.

We think of an old TV show, say Seinfeld as if it is a phenomenon of the past; it isn’t. Reruns are still playing in major markets, making it a viable competitor to Mad Men or even Game of Thrones. It is still contemporary television. (Television does not develop a-historically, but the history of its development has been somewhat different than for media where individual works are the primary product.) So an ‘aesthetics of television’ would need to account for that phenomenon as well – not just the aesthetics of Seinfeld or of Game of Thrones, but why it is these aesthetics are received by their differing audiences at the same moment in history – and allowing even that many will watch both. And I suggest it would also have to address the aesthetics deployed in ‘non-fiction’ television (scare-quotes because I’m not sure there is any such thing). I suggest this cannot be done. What television as television presents us is grist for the mills of sociology, semiotics, cultural history; but an aesthetics?

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have criticism of individual episodes or discussion of favorite programs. In fact most of us having watched television or still watching it are doomed to this. But we should be aware that, reaching for the flower, we may end up with a rotten pine cone – or, what is most likely, simply a handful of water, slipping through our fingers. returning to a river we merely float along.


* On the time issue: The art of cinema – that is, the cinema I know, which I admit is no longer of interest, except on the margins – is defined by the control of time. This is also true of music and drama, but in a different way, since the filmmaker has a tool neither of the other two have: editing. Films were made on the editing boards.

But this technique could be accomplished – at least to some extent – in the camera itself. Thus even amateur filmmakers, making home movies, deployed the aesthetic of the medium – a particular control of time that photography could not emulate. Thus, picking up a movie camera and operating it immediately engages an aesthetic, however poorly realized and however unrecognized, even by the one using the camera.

Stories are inevuitable in every media; exactly becasue of this, each medium must define itself in terms of its approach to and presentation of stories, not the stories themselves, since stories will occur inevitably – and when they do not, the audience will invent and impose one.

To be less elliptical then, film’s dominant concern was – and still is, although in a way I no longer recognize – vision, in both the literal and figurative senses of that term, as we experience it through time.

While such considerations are understood by producers of television, that’s not what television is about. Television is about filling time with whatever, and getting the viewer to the next block of time (as defined by producers and advertisers). If a talking head can do this, there’s your television.

Again: We viewers are not the consumers of television – that would be the advertisers. We are the commodity that television sells to them.

That changes everything.

A reply to

“Medium, Message, and Effect” by David Ottlinger:

Mathematical Platonism: A Comedy

Mathematical Platonism holds that mathematical forms – equations, geometric forms, measurable relationships – are somehow embedded into the fabric of the universe, and are ‘discovered’ rather than invented by human minds.

From my perspective, humans respond to challenges of experience. However, within a given condition of experience, the range of possible responses is limited. In differing cultures, where similar conditions of experience apply, the resulting responses can also be expected to be similar. The precise responses and their precise consequences generate new conditions to be responded to – but again only within a range. So while the developments we find in differing cultures can oft end up being very different, they can also end up being very similar, and the trajectories of these developments can be traced backward, revealing their histories. These histories produce the truths we find in these cultures, and the facts that have been agreed upon within them. As these facts and the truths concerning them prove reliable, they are sustained until they don’t, at which point each culture will generate new responses that prove more reliable.

Since, again, the range of these responses within any given set of conditions is actually limited by the history of their development, we can expect differing cultures with similar sets of conditions to recognize a similar set of facts and truths in each other when they at last make contact. That’s when history really gets interesting, as the cultures attempt to come into concordance, or instead come into conflict – but, interestingly, in either case, partly what follows is that the two cultures begin borrowing from each other facts, truths, and possible responses to given challenges. ‘Universal’ truths, are simply those that all cultures have found equally reliable over time.

This is true about mathematical forms as well, the most resilient truths we develop in response to our experiences.  I don’t mean that maths are reducible to the empirical; our experiences include reading, social interatction, professional demands, etc., many of which will require continued development of previous inventions.  However, there’s no doubt that a great deal of practical mathematics have proven considerably reliable over the years.  Whereas, on the contrary, I find useless Platonic assertions that two-dimensional triangles or the formula ‘A = Π * r * r’   simply float around in space, waiting to be discovered.

So, in considering this issue, I came up with a little dialogue, concerning two friends trying to find – that is, discover – the mathematical rules for chess (since the Platonic position is that these rules, as they involve measurable trajectories, effectively comprise a mathematical form, and hence were discovered rather than invented).

Bob: Tom, I need some help here; I’m trying to find something, but it will require two participants.
Tom: Sure, what are we looking for.
B.: Well, it’s a kind of game. It has pieces named after court positions in a medieval castle.
T.: How do you know this?
B.: I reasoned it through, using the dialectic process as demonstrated in Plato’s dialogues. I asked myself, what is the good to be found in playing a game? And it occurred to me, that the good was best realized in the Middle Ages. Therefore, the game would need to be a miniaturization of Medieval courts and the contests held in them.
T.: Okay, fine, then let’s start with research into the history of the Middle Ages –
B.: No, no, history has nothing to do with this. That would mean that humans brought forth such a game through trial and error. We’re looking for the game as it existed prior to any human involvement.
T.: Well, why would there be anything like a game unless humans were involved in it?
B.: Because its a form; as a form, it is pure and inviolate by human interest.
T.: Then what’s the point in finding this game? Aren’t we interested in playing it?
B.: No, I want to find the form! Playing the game is irrelevant.
T.: I don’t see it, but where do you want to start.
B.: In the Middle Ages, they thought the world was flat; we’ll start with a flat surface.
T.: Fine, how about this skillet.
B.: But it must be such that pieces can move across it in an orderly fashion.
T.: All right, let’s try a highway; but not the 490 at rush hour….
B. But these orderly moves must follow a perpendicular or diagonal pattern; or they can jump part way forward and then to the side.
T.: You’re just making this up as you go along.
B.: No! The eternally true game must have pieces moving in a perpendicular, a diagonal, or a jump forward and laterally.
T.: Why not a circle?
B.: Circles are dangerous; they almost look like vaginas. We’re looking for the morally perfect game to play.
T.: Then maybe it’s some sort of building with an elevator that goes both up and sideways.
B.: No, it’s flat, I tell you… aha! a board is flat!
T.: So is a pancake.
B.: But a rectangular board allows perpendicular moves, straight linear moves, diagonal moves, and even jumping moves –
T.: It also allows circular moves.
B.: Shut your dirty mouth! At least now we know what we’re looking for. Come on, help me find it. (begins rummaging through a trash can.) Here it is, I’ve discovered it!
T.: What, that old box marked “chess?”
B.: It’s inside. It’s always inside, if you look for it.
T.: My kid brother threw that out yesterday. He invented a new game called ‘shmess’ which he says is far more interesting. Pieces can move in circles in that one!.
B,: (Pause.) I don’t want to play this game anymore. Can you help me discover the Higgs Boson?
T.: Is that anywhere near the bathroom? I gotta go….

Bob wants a “Truth” and Tom wants to play a game. Why is there any game unless humans wish to play it?

A mathematical form comes into use in one culture, and then years later again in a completely other culture;  assuming the form true, did it become true twice through invention?  Yes.  This is one of the unfortunate truths about truth: it can be invented multiple times.  That is precisely what history tells us.

So, Bob wants to validate certain ideas from history, while rejecting the history of those ideas. You can’t have it both ways. Either there is a history of ideas, in which humans participated to the extent of invention, or history is irrelevant, and you lose even “discovery.” The Higgs Boson, on the other hand, gets ‘discovered,’ because there is an hypothesis based on theory which is itself based on previous observations and validated theory, experimentation, observation, etc. In other words, a history of adapting thought to experience.  (No one doubts that there is a certain particle that seems to function in a certain way. But there is no Higgs Boson without a history of research in our effort to conceptualize a universe in which such is possible, and to bump into it, so to speak, using our invented instrumentation, and to name it, all to our own purposes.)

Plato was wrong, largely because he had no sense of history. Beyond the poetry of his dialogues (which has undoubted force), what was most interesting in his philosophy had to be corrected and systematized by Aristotle, who understood history; the practical value of education; the differences between cultures; and the weight of differing opinions. Perhaps we should call philosophy “Footnotes to Aristotle.”

But I will leave it to the readers here whether they are willing to grapple with a history of human invention in response to the challenges of experiences, however difficult that may seem; or whether they prefer chasing immaterial objects for which we can find no evidence beyond the ideas we ourselves produce.

E. A. Poe: Philosophy of Composition

Note: Having just posted my poem, “The Tragedy of Hamlet,” I thought about explaining why I engaged in such a verse text that was composed with, frankly, a kind of ruthlessness, in the sense that it quite intentionally plays on the expectations of the readers, especially regarding the many interpretations of Shakespeare’s original that those familiar with that play carry with them; but also expectations concerning the specific words and phrasing. (There is, for instance, a sexual joke somewhere in the middle of it; but more important is the play on the repetition of references to ‘lord’ in the aristocratic sense, and ‘Lord’ in the religious sense.) (It was also important to me to end the poem with a line borrowed from Gertrude Stein’s libretto for “Four Saints in Three Acts,” which was the background influence to the poem, and to have this line evoke the problem of memory, which is clearly one of the sub-textual themes of Shakespeare’s play.)

Well, I could go on with such a discussion for quite a while. Instead, I’ll let a better poet than I raise the larger issues underlining these. In the following essay, Edgar Allen Poe delivers a most cold-blooded explanation of the writing of one of the most beloved poems in the American canon (“The Raven”*). I remember, as an English student, professors trying to wave this essay away, or explaining it as a post-hoc apologia. Nothing could be further from the truth – read it for yourself. Poe knew exactly what he was doing – and anyone aspiring to write good poetry should.




Charles Dickens, in a note now lying before me, alluding to an examination I once made of the mechanism of “Barnaby Rudge,” says- “By the way, are you aware that Godwin wrote his ‘Caleb Williams’ backwards? He first involved his hero in a web of difficulties, forming the second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done.”

I cannot think this the precise mode of procedure on the part of Godwin- and indeed what he himself acknowledges, is not altogether in accordance with Mr. Dickens’ idea- but the author of “Caleb Williams” was too good an artist not to perceive the advantage derivable from at least a somewhat similar process. Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before anything be attempted with the pen. It is only with the denouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.

There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis- or one is suggested by an incident of the day- or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative-designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.

I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view- for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest- I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can be best wrought by incident or tone- whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone- afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.

I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would- that is to say, who could- detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to say- but, perhaps, the autorial vanity has had more to do with the omission than any one other cause. Most writers- poets in especial- prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy- an ecstatic intuition- and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought- at the true purposes seized only at the last moment- at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view- at the fully-matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable- at the cautious selections and rejections- at the painful erasures and interpolations- in a word, at the wheels and pinions- the tackle for scene-shifting- the step-ladders, and demon-traps- the cock’s feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.

I am aware, on the other hand, that the case is by no means common, in which an author is at all in condition to retrace the steps by which his conclusions have been attained. In general, suggestions, having arisen pell-mell are pursued and forgotten in a similar manner.

For my own part, I have neither sympathy with the repugnance alluded to, nor, at any time, the least difficulty in recalling to mind the progressive steps of any of my compositions, and, since the interest of an analysis or reconstruction, such as I have considered a desideratum, is quite independent of any real or fancied interest in the thing analysed, it will not be regarded as a breach of decorum on my part to show the modus operandi by which some one of my own works was put together. I select ‘The Raven’ as most generally known. It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition- that the work proceeded step by step, to its completion, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.

Let us dismiss, as irrelevant to the poem, per se, the circumstance- or say the necessity- which, in the first place, gave rise to the intention of composing a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste.

We commence, then, with this intention.

The initial consideration was that of extent. If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression- for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed. But since, ceteris paribus, no poet can afford to dispense with anything that may advance his design, it but remains to be seen whether there is, in extent, any advantage to counterbalance the loss of unity which attends it. Here I say no, at once. What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones- that is to say, of brief poetical effects. It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief. For this reason, at least, one-half of the “Paradise Lost” is essentially prose- a succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably, with corresponding depressions- the whole being deprived, through the extremeness of its length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity of effect.

It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art- the limit of a single sitting- and that, although in certain classes of prose composition, such as “Robinson Crusoe” (demanding no unity), this limit may be advantageously overpassed, it can never properly be overpassed in a poem. Within this limit, the extent of a poem may be made to bear mathematical relation to its merit- in other words, to the excitement or elevation-again, in other words, to the degree of the true poetical effect which it is capable of inducing; for it is clear that the brevity must be in direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect- this, with one proviso- that a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all.

Holding in view these considerations, as well as that degree of excitement which I deemed not above the popular, while not below the critical taste, I reached at once what I conceived the proper length for my intended poem- a length of about one hundred lines. It is, in fact, a hundred and eight.

My next thought concerned the choice of an impression, or effect, to be conveyed: and here I may as well observe that throughout the construction, I kept steadily in view the design of rendering the work universally appreciable. I should be carried too far out of my immediate topic were I to demonstrate a point upon which I have repeatedly insisted, and which, with the poetical, stands not in the slightest need of demonstration- the point, I mean, that Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem. A few words, however, in elucidation of my real meaning, which some of my friends have evinced a disposition to misrepresent. That pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure is, I believe, found in the contemplation of the beautiful. When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect- they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul- not of intellect, or of heart- upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating the “beautiful.” Now I designate Beauty as the province of the poem, merely because it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring from direct causes- that objects should be attained through means best adapted for their attainment- no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the peculiar elevation alluded to is most readily attained in the poem. Now the object Truth, or the satisfaction of the intellect, and the object Passion, or the excitement of the heart, are, although attainable to a certain extent in poetry, far more readily attainable in prose. Truth, in fact, demands a precision, and Passion, a homeliness (the truly passionate will comprehend me), which are absolutely antagonistic to that Beauty which, I maintain, is the excitement or pleasurable elevation of the soul. It by no means follows, from anything here said, that passion, or even truth, may not be introduced, and even profitably introduced, into a poem for they may serve in elucidation, or aid the general effect, as do discords in music, by contrast- but the true artist will always contrive, first, to tone them into proper subservience to the predominant aim, and, secondly, to enveil them, as far as possible, in that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the essence of the poem.

Regarding, then, Beauty as my province, my next question referred to the tone of its highest manifestation- and all experience has shown that this tone is one of sadness. Beauty of whatever kind in its supreme development invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.

The length, the province, and the tone, being thus determined, I betook myself to ordinary induction, with the view of obtaining some artistic piquancy which might serve me as a key-note in the construction of the poem- some pivot upon which the whole structure might turn. In carefully thinking over all the usual artistic effects- or more properly points, in the theatrical sense- I did not fail to perceive immediately that no one had been so universally employed as that of the refrain. The universality of its employment sufficed to assure me of its intrinsic value, and spared me the necessity of submitting it to analysis. I considered it, however, with regard to its susceptibility of improvement, and soon saw it to be in a primitive condition. As commonly used, the refrain, or burden, not only is limited to lyric verse, but depends for its impression upon the force of monotone- both in sound and thought. The pleasure is deduced solely from the sense of identity- of repetition. I resolved to diversify, and so heighten the effect, by adhering in general to the monotone of sound, while I continually varied that of thought: that is to say, I determined to produce continuously novel effects, by the variation of the application of the refrain- the refrain itself remaining for the most part, unvaried.

These points being settled, I next bethought me of the nature of my refrain. Since its application was to be repeatedly varied it was clear that the refrain itself must be brief, for there would have been an insurmountable difficulty in frequent variations of application in any sentence of length. In proportion to the brevity of the sentence would, of course, be the facility of the variation. This led me at once to a single word as the best refrain.

The question now arose as to the character of the word. Having made up my mind to a refrain, the division of the poem into stanzas was of course a corollary, the refrain forming the close to each stanza. That such a close, to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis, admitted no doubt, and these considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel in connection with r as the most producible consonant.

The sound of the refrain being thus determined, it became necessary to select a word embodying this sound, and at the same time in the fullest possible keeping with that melancholy which I had pre-determined as the tone of the poem. In such a search it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word “Nevermore.” In fact it was the very first which presented itself.

The next desideratum was a pretext for the continuous use of the one word “nevermore.” In observing the difficulty which I had at once found in inventing a sufficiently plausible reason for its continuous repetition, I did not fail to perceive that this difficulty arose solely from the preassumption that the word was to be so continuously or monotonously spoken by a human being- I did not fail to perceive, in short, that the difficulty lay in the reconciliation of this monotony with the exercise of reason on the part of the creature repeating the word. Here, then, immediately arose the idea of a non-reasoning creature capable of speech, and very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone.

I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven, the bird of ill-omen, monotonously repeating the one word “Nevermore” at the conclusion of each stanza in a poem of melancholy tone, and in length about one hundred lines. Now, never losing sight of the object- supremeness or perfection at all points, I asked myself- “Of all melancholy topics what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death, was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length the answer here also is obvious- “When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”

I had now to combine the two ideas of a lover lamenting his deceased mistress and a Raven continuously repeating the word “Nevermore.” I had to combine these, bearing in mind my design of varying at every turn the application of the word repeated, but the only intelligible mode of such combination is that of imagining the Raven employing the word in answer to the queries of the lover. And here it was that I saw at once the opportunity afforded for the effect on which I had been depending, that is to say, the effect of the variation of application. I saw that I could make the first query propounded by the lover- the first query to which the Raven should reply “Nevermore”- that I could make this first query a commonplace one, the second less so, the third still less, and so on, until at length the lover, startled from his original nonchalance by the melancholy character of the word itself, by its frequent repetition, and by a consideration of the ominous reputation of the fowl that uttered it, is at length excited to superstition, and wildly propounds queries of a far different character- queries whose solution he has passionately at heart- propounds them half in superstition and half in that species of despair which delights in self-torture- propounds them not altogether because he believes in the prophetic or demoniac character of the bird (which reason assures him is merely repeating a lesson learned by rote), but because he experiences a frenzied pleasure in so modelling his questions as to receive from the expected “Nevermore” the most delicious because the most intolerable of sorrows. Perceiving the opportunity thus afforded me, or, more strictly, thus forced upon me in the progress of the construction, I first established in my mind the climax or concluding query- that query to which “Nevermore” should be in the last place an answer- that query in reply to which this word “Nevermore” should involve the utmost conceivable amount of sorrow and despair.

Here then the poem may be said to have had its beginning- at the end where all works of art should begin- for it was here at this point of my preconsiderations that I first put pen to paper in the composition of the stanza:

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! prophet still if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us- by that God we both adore,
Tell this soul with sorrow laden, if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore-
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven- “Nevermore.”

I composed this stanza, at this point, first that, by establishing the climax, I might the better vary and graduate, as regards seriousness and importance, the preceding queries of the lover, and secondly, that I might definitely settle the rhythm, the metre, and the length and general arrangement of the stanza, as well as graduate the stanzas which were to precede, so that none of them might surpass this in rhythmical effect. Had I been able in the subsequent composition to construct more vigorous stanzas I should without scruple have purposely enfeebled them so as not to interfere with the climacteric effect.

And here I may as well say a few words of the versification. My first object (as usual) was originality. The extent to which this has been neglected in versification is one of the most unaccountable things in the world. Admitting that there is little possibility of variety in mere rhythm, it is still clear that the possible varieties of metre and stanza are absolutely infinite, and yet, for centuries, no man, in verse, has ever done, or ever seemed to think of doing, an original thing. The fact is that originality (unless in minds of very unusual force) is by no means a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition. In general, to be found, it must be elaborately sought, and although a positive merit of the highest class, demands in its attainment less of invention than negation.

Of course I pretend to no originality in either the rhythm or metre of the “Raven.” The former is trochaic- the latter is octametre acatalectic, alternating with heptametre catalectic repeated in the refrain of the fifth verse, and terminating with tetrametre catalectic. Less pedantically the feet employed throughout (trochees) consist of a long syllable followed by a short, the first line of the stanza consists of eight of these feet, the second of seven and a half (in effect two-thirds), the third of eight, the fourth of seven and a half, the fifth the same, the sixth three and a half. Now, each of these lines taken individually has been employed before, and what originality the “Raven” has, is in their combination into stanza; nothing even remotely approaching this has ever been attempted. The effect of this originality of combination is aided by other unusual and some altogether novel effects, arising from an extension of the application of the principles of rhyme and alliteration.

The next point to be considered was the mode of bringing together the lover and the Raven- and the first branch of this consideration was the locale. For this the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fields- but it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident- it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place.

I determined, then, to place the lover in his chamber- in a chamber rendered sacred to him by memories of her who had frequented it. The room is represented as richly furnished- this in mere pursuance of the ideas I have already explained on the subject of Beauty, as the sole true poetical thesis.

The locale being thus determined, I had now to introduce the bird- and the thought of introducing him through the window was inevitable. The idea of making the lover suppose, in the first instance, that the flapping of the wings of the bird against the shutter, is a “tapping” at the door, originated in a wish to increase, by prolonging, the reader’s curiosity, and in a desire to admit the incidental effect arising from the lover’s throwing open the door, finding all dark, and thence adopting the half-fancy that it was the spirit of his mistress that knocked.

I made the night tempestuous, first to account for the Raven’s seeking admission, and secondly, for the effect of contrast with the (physical) serenity within the chamber.

I made the bird alight on the bust of Pallas, also for the effect of contrast between the marble and the plumage- it being understood that the bust was absolutely suggested by the bird- the bust of Pallas being chosen, first, as most in keeping with the scholarship of the lover, and secondly, for the sonorousness of the word, Pallas, itself.

About the middle of the poem, also, I have availed myself of the force of contrast, with a view of deepening the ultimate impression. For example, an air of the fantastic- approaching as nearly to the ludicrous as was admissible- is given to the Raven’s entrance. He comes in “with many a flirt and flutter.”

Not the least obeisance made he- not a moment stopped or stayed he,
But with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door.

In the two stanzas which follow, the design is more obviously carried out:-

Then this ebony bird, beguiling my sad fancy into smiling
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore-
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore?”
Quoth the Raven- “Nevermore.”

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning- little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door-
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”

The effect of the denouement being thus provided for, I immediately drop the fantastic for a tone of the most profound seriousness- this tone commencing in the stanza directly following the one last quoted, with the line,

But the Raven, sitting lonely on that placid bust, spoke only, etc.

From this epoch the lover no longer jests- no longer sees anything even of the fantastic in the Raven’s demeanour. He speaks of him as a “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore,” and feels the “fiery eyes” burning into his “bosom’s core.” This revolution of thought, or fancy, on the lover’s part, is intended to induce a similar one on the part of the reader- to bring the mind into a proper frame for the denouement- which is now brought about as rapidly and as directly as possible.

With the denouement proper- with the Raven’s reply, “Nevermore,” to the lover’s final demand if he shall meet his mistress in another world- the poem, in its obvious phase, that of a simple narrative, may be said to have its completion. So far, everything is within the limits of the accountable- of the real. A raven, having learned by rote the single word “Nevermore,” and having escaped from the custody of its owner, is driven at midnight, through the violence of a storm, to seek admission at a window from which a light still gleams- the chamber-window of a student, occupied half in poring over a volume, half in dreaming of a beloved mistress deceased. The casement being thrown open at the fluttering of the bird’s wings, the bird itself perches on the most convenient seat out of the immediate reach of the student, who amused by the incident and the oddity of the visitor’s demeanour, demands of it, in jest and without looking for a reply, its name. The raven addressed, answers with its customary word, “Nevermore”- a word which finds immediate echo in the melancholy heart of the student, who, giving utterance aloud to certain thoughts suggested by the occasion, is again startled by the fowl’s repetition of “Nevermore.” The student now guesses the state of the case, but is impelled, as I have before explained, by the human thirst for self-torture, and in part by superstition, to propound such queries to the bird as will bring him, the lover, the most of the luxury of sorrow, through the anticipated answer, “Nevermore.” With the indulgence, to the extreme, of this self-torture, the narration, in what I have termed its first or obvious phase, has a natural termination, and so far there has been no overstepping of the limits of the real.

But in subjects so handled, however skillfully, or with however vivid an array of incident, there is always a certain hardness or nakedness which repels the artistical eye. Two things are invariably required- first, some amount of complexity, or more properly, adaptation; and, secondly, some amount of suggestiveness- some under-current, however indefinite, of meaning. It is this latter, in especial, which imparts to a work of art so much of that richness (to borrow from colloquy a forcible term), which we are too fond of confounding with the ideal. It is the excess of the suggested meaning- it is the rendering this the upper instead of the under-current of the theme- which turns into prose (and that of the very flattest kind), the so-called poetry of the so-called transcendentalists.

Holding these opinions, I added the two concluding stanzas of the poem- their suggestiveness being thus made to pervade all the narrative which has preceded them. The under-current of meaning is rendered first apparent in the line-

“Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore!”

It will be observed that the words, “from out my heart,” involve the first metaphorical expression in the poem. They, with the answer, “Nevermore,” dispose the mind to seek a moral in all that has been previously narrated. The reader begins now to regard the Raven as emblematical- but it is not until the very last line of the very last stanza that the intention of making him emblematical of Mournful and never ending Remembrance is permitted distinctly to be seen:

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting,
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted- nevermore.

* Poe: The Raven
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is and nothing more.”

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—
Darkness there and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
’Tis the wind and nothing more!”

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”

But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said “Nevermore.”

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of ‘Never—nevermore’.”

But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!

Winner’s Hamlet: complete play in 5 acts

The Tragedy of
Prince of Denmark

By E. John Winner


Long live the king!

– speak, speak! I charge thee speak!

‘Tis strange.

If thou art privy to thy country’s fate,
‘Tis here!
‘Tis here!
‘Tis gone!


My dread lord,

If it be

My lord, the king your father.

The king? my father?

Arm’d, my lord.

He hath importuned me with love
“I am thy father’s spirit,
If thou didst ever thy dear father love –
If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not;
Hamlet, remember me.”
– Remember thee!
-Remember thee!

Within –
Lord Hamlet –


How is’t, my noble lord?

Mad for thy love?

How does my good Lord Hamlet?

– Words, words, words.

Fare you well, my lord.

– friend!

What speech, my lord?

Come, sirs.

– O, my dear lord –



Nay, ’tis twice two months, my lord.
‘Tis brief, my lord.

Dost thou hear?
The king rises.

Hamlet in madness hath
Polonious slain.

Thy loving father, Hamlet.

King Claudius!
The rabble call him lord,
O thou vile king.
Speak, man.

I should be greeted,
if not from Lord Hamlet.




Ay, my lord;


For no man, by the Lord.

Why? This?

E’en so;

Hamlet the Dane. – Remember it, my lord?

Thou pray’st not well.

Was’t Hamlet wrong’d?
Never Hamlet.

King Claudius:
Carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet.

It is here, Hamlet, thou art slain.

King Claudius dies.



Hamlet: If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,

When this you see, remember me.

the business and the passion – music and capitalism


I am linking to a lecture at Youtube; if it doesn’t play for some reason, here is the URL:

Presented on BBC Four as the John Peel lecture of that year (2014), this is indeed a lecture – yes, a lecture – by Iggy Pop – the Igster, America’s most wayward wayward son, the man known to toss himself on broken glass when in the throes of performing, former front-man for punk precursors The Stooges, and occasional colleague of the late David Bowie.

It’s a strange, yet in many ways fascinating lecture.  Written in the voice of an elder musician of considerable experience, offering advice to young aspiring rock stars, the lecture also presents a critique of the music industry as capitalist system, and suggestions for surviving that; but also an engagingly ambivalent discussion of the question of piracy in the digital era.

Basically, Iggy is against piracy on general principles, yet also defends working people trying to listen to music without paying for it, in an era of spiraling consumer costs.  This ambivalence arises from a preliminary discussion about the nature of music as a “feeling thing,” an emotional commitment transcendent of monetary concerns.  That’s an odd remark from any professional entertainer these days, but especially from a ‘shock rocker’ who has devoted a life-time to transgressing accepted social norms.  Yet it is wholly believable.

There are two interesting moments, early on, when Iggy comes close to sobbing.  The first is when he remembers performers he had befriended, the Ramones – all of whom were dead by the time of this lecture.  The second is when he remarks on the kind of America that young people in the ’60s were hoping would follow the presidency of John F. Kennedy – which hopes seemed dashed by Kennedy’s assassination.  (The evidence is that this hope was entirely in vain to begin with, but never mind; this is how Iggy remembers it.)

Iggy speaks very personally (and personably), without ever losing the authority of someone who has an expertise born of experience – this is a lecture (or at least a presentation, if you will), not a confessional.  Not disappointing those of us who have followed his career over the years, he voices no regrets.  What is there to regret?  He made the music he wanted to, took his chances, lived with the consequences, and survived.  In the music industry as it has existed since the late ’60s, that’s the nearest one gets to heroism.

Over all this lecture is remarkably heart-felt, articulate, witty and insightful.  It really shines a light on the darker recesses of a music industry that most people take for granted, while allowing another light shine from within, of those who just want to make music because they love it and have something to say.


I’ve removed a note I included here off-topic,  commenting on recent events in Oregon, as I realized it distracted from the lecture posted here.  But I may post such commentary separately later.


Problems in current cultural changes

‘End-of-civilization’ theories always interest me, because they mark a recognition that a culture is in the midst of profound changes.

At the suggestion at the blog, Plato’s Footnote, I read an article by Mark Judge, in review of a book by Mario Vargas Llosa: ‘Star Wars’ and the End of Culture ( ), which complains that the current infatuation with spectacular movies, threatens our ability to value the cultural artifacts of the past.

I have no interest in Star Wars *. So as to Judge/Vargas Llosa – well, we’ve been hearing similar critiques for more than a century – and surprisingly, taken on their own terms, they are all true. However they all share similar problems. First, their definition of ‘culture’ is obviously very narrow and class-dependent. It is true that the culture of the Bourgeoisie and of the Aristocracy that preceded them is intellectually more stimulating and more complex, and emotionally more enticing and more rewarding than the culture Modernity produced for the person on the street. But accessing that ‘higher’ culture requires education, patience, and desire for the good it provides. The greater number of people simply don’t have time for this – but they have cultural needs for stimulation and satisfaction that cannot be denied. One might criticize the avaricious nature of those who cater to those needs, or the cynicism implicit in many of their products. But it is narrow minded to claim that no one should do anything to cater to those needs.

This opens out into another problem with end-of-civilization theorizing. Despite that such theories are arguments concerning history, their narrow understanding of culture leads to a impoverished, blinkered view of how history, especially cultural history, unravels. for one thing, cultural artifacts are very dependent on the technology used to produce them -Joyce’s Ulysses, as cultural artifact, is more dependent on the printing press than on Joyce’s pen. This also means that certain artifacts can become outdated, or even disappear, as technology changes. Collectors, scholars, and museums do what they can to use current technology to preserve artifacts left over from previous technologies – but they cannot recapture the cultural gestalts that gave originally gave these artifacts meaning. We can certainly read War and Peace on Kindle, perhaps even in Russian; but while the text still resonates for those with the proper education, we have only a general sense of its impact in Russia when first published. I’ll try to explain this in terms of an art I have been interested in since a kid.

I have always loved films and was long fascinated with film history. This has led me to confront some difficult problems. First, the physical medium is actually quite fragile. One can find lists of ‘lost films’ on the internet, but these lists are actually incomplete, because they depend on traceable documentation that is itself incomplete.

Second, films rely heavily on the set of conventions expected from them, and thus on the cultural codes surrounding them, because, unlike literature, they cannot be re-imagined by the audience. A studio could produce a ‘remake’ of Chaplin’s Gold Rush, but this would not really be a remake, but a variant re-telling of the same story. (And yes, that means there is no such thing as a ‘remake,’ that word is a used as a publicity ploy.)

Because of this, in order to learn film history, one has to develop a considerable tolerance for allowing cultural codes of the past, even those no longer interesting, or even offensive. The most notorious example of this, controversial even when released, is Birth of a Nation. For me, the realization of the full implication of this came while watching A Bill of Divorcement, the drama of which depends partly on the decision by Katherine Hepburn’s character, not to marry, based on then contemporary eugenics theories (due to her father, she has ‘bad genes’ and must avoid reproduction!). Recognizing the artificial nonsense of this premise made me see the whole film in a different way. I realized the camerawork was static, the dialog stilted, the characters over-drawn, and much of the acting overdone – all of which were quite acceptable conventions for audiences in 1932.

Now, one can say that these are simply criticisms of films of any era, even one’s own. But what this meant to me was that I was losing the capacity for suspending such critical judgment for the sake of losing myself enjoyably in films from the past. Shortly after, a whole host of silent-era and early sound-era films became unwatchable for me. I still cherish a handful, that can still be regarded as well made, with characters we still relate to – especially comedies. But a lot of films I had previously enjoyed have become tiresome efforts to get through cultural icons I could no longer enjoy, for which I no longer have time.

I do think they have value; film history is important, especially for those who would understand the changes that have produced the movie conventions of our own day. But I have come to understand the lack of interest that young people have for films of the past. It’s not just the absence of color or of spoken dialog or of CGI. The old films belong to cultures they do not inhabit.

So this is understandable, and a trend not worth bemoaning. It’s simply in the nature of culture change over generations, and in the nature of us to change with it.

But there is a trend I would like to complain of here – the loss of articulation. In a culture that is healthy – that is, interesting, involving, participatory – cultural artifacts are not simply produced to be ‘consumed’ – that is, sat through uncomplainingly, experienced without challenge, absorbed without question. In a healthy culture, people living in it participate in cultural production by developing a means of articulating what there is in their culture that they like or do not like; of discerning and discriminating between levels of value and differences in kinds and qualities of satisfaction. This is the origin of the language of criticism and review, of discussions of aesthetic taste, and of the agreement in a given culture concerning which artifacts are to be most valued, disseminated, and preserved.

But what I hear and read from young people today, indicates a loss of this necessary articulation. The critically rich language of value seems now replaced with impoverished exclamations of sense stimulation. ‘Awesome!’ – ‘epic!’ – ‘too many feels!’ Young people seem less and less able to articulate their responses to their cultural enjoyments. If so, they are losing the ability to participate in the production of these enjoyments; they become as sheep feeding at the trough of slop poured to them by greedy entrepreneurs with no sense of artistic integrity, and no interest in quality, since all they need to do is tweak the right nerves in their audiences to free them of their wealth.

That, I think, is the real problem here: not the “end of culture,” but the transformation of contemporary culture into a market of inarticulate consumers and mean-spirited producers. That doesn’t mean culture ‘ends,’ but it does mean that young people will be living with the culture they have without knowing the kinds of enjoyment, the stimulations and satisfactions, of full participatory co-production and articulation. They can get as much ‘wow!’ as they can afford (they’ll always have to pay), but they won’t know what it means to belong to a culture they helped produce.
* A side-bar remark on The Force Awakens – its phenomenal success may prove an utter disaster for Hollywood in the long run. Studios will now be competing to produce ‘blockbuster’ films costing literally a billion dollars each, and will be expecting two billion in return for each investment – the market is not really rich enough for that. (Perhaps that will lead to a proliferation of more interesting modestly-budgeted films that are not so effects laden – but I doubt it.)

The failure of analysis in aesthetic experience

Aestheticians (or some of them) have long sought to find grounds for claiming, “there must be reasons we say ‘X’ is an aesthetic object;’ but they come across reading as if saying, ‘there must be some reasoning a critic can use to convince us that “X” is an aesthetic object,’ which is a different question; in either case they have failed. (Logically, but not necessarily rhetorically; indeed the art of aesthetic criticism lies in marshaling a certain kind of objective language to both justify subjective aesthetic judgment, and persuade the audience to the correctness of that judgment – the success of this in effect objectifying the judgment for the audience community.)

This is really not about whether there are such things as ‘aesthetic objects’ exist independent of our judgment of such (what could that even mean?), but about how we talk about them, and whether there is any logical necessity in talking about them in a given way. Anyone who loves the arts wants to say ‘yes,’ but the harsh reality is that language is a social phenomenon; it doesn’t float above us waiting to validate our experiences; and aesthetics is the field that makes this most obvious.

Taste is a matter of inculcation, training, and experience. And not even everyone sharing the same inculcation, training, and experience, will entirely agree on selected objects.

Consequently, although there was some efforts in the 19th and 20th centuries, to find a way to transform aesthetics into a science, these failed miserably. They dominated the teaching of art and literature for a time; but eventually most people interested in art and literature simply stopped bothering with them. (‘Monroe Beardsley – who cares?’ The co-author, with W.K. Wimsatt, of “The Affective Fallacy” – arguing, in part, that the value of a poem should not depend on the emotions we read into it – was simply wrong-headed. The affective is not a fallacy, it is the very reason we come to literature in the first place.)

The notion that art is a cultural monument that we must all bow down to, in fact triggered an aggressively negative response in the ’60s, part of the “Cultural Revolution” that tossed all such notions – even some good ones – into the trash can. We largely recovered by tacit agreement that differing aesthetic values would obtain in different social factions – effectively different cultures (or ‘sub-cultures,’ although this term is illegitimate, since it presumes a mainstream culture that, in America, is really an illusion). So now, no one tries to impose the aesthetics of the museum on the those who prefer illustrated novels.

There is no ground for saying of a poem, or painting, or song, that it is ‘lovely.’ We call it such because we have been raised in a certain way, have had certain experiences (shared with others), and so attune ourselves to certain other experiences. The objectivity of art is not a matter of what’s in the object, but in the shared values of a given community.

Recently, The Electric Agora ( – where these thoughts originated as commentary), I had cause to read Frank Sibley’s criticism of what might be called ‘logical aestheticism’ – – which includes several critical responses to Sibley’s article. I won’t go far into Sibley’s argument; basically, his thesis is that the language we use to discuss aesthetic experiences is neither quantifiable nor conditional, in a manner that we can justify them analytically. They are, instead, results of education and experienced taste. The expert in an art is not the one who has thought rationally about it, but the one who has been immersed in it.

In Peter Kivy’s response to Sibley, attempting to redefine the problem in terms of aspect perspective, (which, if successful, would provide a means of including both rational analysis and Sibley’s theory of taste), I noted this passage:

“We are asked to perceive the melodic line of “Der greise Kopf” (“The Grey Head”) as a line drawing – the silhouette of a man’s head encrusted with snow and ice. How might I bring someone to hear the song as the outline of a face? As in the case of the duck-rabbit, my strategy would be to pick out some crucial feature or features that can be perceived in an appropriate way. I might say, for example: “Notice how the melodic line of the piano introduction climbs, pauses, as if to demarcate the nose and mouth, climbs again, to the brow as it were, and then descends in one long unbroken gesture that outlines the back of the head.” We do not stand mute before an instance of aesthetic aspect-perceiving; we are prepared to point out the features that are involved in perceiving one aspect or another.”

I was going to critique Kivy here; but on re-reading, I realized he was not writing as assertorically as I first read him. Nonetheless, the quoted passage will do to surface the problem here.

This is exactly the sort of thing an academic critic would say. The problem is, one has to already have a sense that “Der greise Kopf” is music worthy of listening to, to be persuaded by the argument. What could such a critic say to someone who simply tossed it off as ‘just so much noise to me’? Worse yet, what could be said to someone with an education similar to the critic who shrugged and said, ‘well, I really don’t like that piece, my taste leans towards jazz’? That’s worse, because the boundaries of the debate remain aesthetic, but there are no grounds by which the debate can be adjudicated. One says ‘potAYto,’ one says ‘poAHto’ – let’s call the whole thing off.

And, of course, then there’s the educated and experienced listener who simply accepts a different culture, with different cultural norms.

So I also want to quote two of my favorite musicologists * here, in order to indicate how important cultural context and experience really are to this issue, which classical aestheticians tend to miss (or, revealing a class bias, dismiss):

“Just let me hear some of that
Rock And Roll Music,
Any old way you choose it;
It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it,
Any old time you use it.
It’s gotta be Rock And Roll Music,
If you want to dance with me.”
– Chuck Berry, Rock and Roll Music

“One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain.”
Bob Marley, Trenchtown Rock

We can certainly raise ethical objections to the lyrics of certain songs (those that advocate rape or violence, for instance), but I don’t see how we can raise any objections to the music one is culturally prepared to listen to. What would we say – ‘this is not beautiful’? ‘this is not music’? We have heard such arguments in public discourse – and we have seen that they fall on deaf ears. The aesthetic begins in the social modification of primal desires and visceral responses; articulate judgment follows as explanation. But this is not the ‘thing in itself.’ This ‘thing’ is a feeling, not a ‘thought.’

* Every successful musician (barring clever advertising hype) is a intuitive ‘musicologist’ – one expert in musical expression and its social reception – almost by definition; they would not be successful otherwise. The point hereis, in what culture will they’re expertise apply? The aesthetic is always culturally bound. No ‘logical analysis’ or neuroscience will ever effectively get around that.