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Swing and A Miss

August 24, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

How do algorithms know which options are right for you? They are purportedly a mathematical calculation based on personal tastes, previous preferences and your own interaction. I will use examples from Pandora and Netflix to express my meaning, but really, I could broaden this discussion to any number of entities. Also, I am using a very broad understanding of algorithms for this general discussion.

Recently, the song “Pachelbel Meets U2” popped onto my classical channel. Regardless of the song’s merits, however, I was immediately annoyed. I wanted this channel to be purely classical. For me, U2’s “With or Without You” came through so strongly that I could not focus on Pachelbel and it totally distracted me. I explain this only because it demonstrates taste’s incredible caprice. I like U2, I like Pachelbel, I like instrumentals of contemporary music, so, really, isn’t this just an example of me being picky? And I answer, yes! Of course, but isn’t that what taste is?! All I know is that I gave this song a thumbs down on my classical channel, for no really good reason. Sorry, Pandora, that was a swing and a miss.

My favorite category on Netflix is “Because You Watched.” This category bases suggestions off of something that you recently watched. These selections are not restricted to genre. In fact, they almost defy genre. Sometimes it links by actor, or comments by other viewers. And Netflix has nothing to lose with this process. The more content they recommend, the better for them. In fact, all of the companies that invest in complex algorithms have everything to gain. And consumers react by giving them data that they need to run the algorithms. If Pandora throws in instrumentals to my classical, and I vote thumbs-down, then Pandora responds with another selection. It also simultaneously removes this song (and perhaps some song group) from my category.

Broadly defined by Merriam-Webster, algorithms are a “procedure for solving a mathematical problem in a finite number of steps that frequently involves repetition of an operation.” Could that also be a definition of taste? There are many reasons that I might remove something from a playlist. Here are only a handful:

1] I don’t like the song

2] it doesn’t fit my current mood

3] I like it, but it is outside of the station’s intended purpose

4] I don’t like U2 and/or Pachelbel

5] I don’t like mixing genres

6] I don’t like remakes

7] I don’t like pianos or guitars

So, how does any mathematical equation break this nonsense down into bits of actionable information? How could an algorithm match infinite experience? Netflix and Pandora answer this by including other people’s recommendations. So, perhaps you gave a thumbs up to a movie that happened to be in the science fiction genre. Instead of recommending only sci-fi movies, Netflix will populate a handful of sci-fi and also some random films based on what other people liked. So, if another person liked the sci-fi movie you just watched, you will probably see a recommendation that has nothing to do with science fiction. And this seemingly random selection comes from other people’s tastes. Netflix, Pandora and others gain a lot by incorporating this feature. The more you interact, the more accurately they recommend, but also the more user-specific data they gain, which reinforces the whole system.

Does this type of system function differently than, say, radio in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, when top Billboard hits drove the radio songs that we all heard? Radio offered choice mainly by genre: country, Spanish, pop, etc. Though they did compile data, it pales in comparison to the amount of data that is available by these new devices. Radio offered music and we listened or not. I never thought twice about how many times I heard the Eagles or Michael Jackson on the radio. But now, I wonder why my Pandora Spanish station continues to play songs by Latin artists in English. Why are the ads in English, whereas my friends’ ads are in Spanish? I wonder if my behavior prompts Pandora to believe that English is my first language.

As we invite these devices into our homes and lives, it is worth truly thinking about taste. (Per a previous post, taste according to Merriam-Webster is: “a] critical judgment, discernment, or appreciation b] manner or aesthetic quality indicative of such discernment or appreciation.”) Why does Pandora (or any service) recommend something to you specifically? What do they know about you and are they making the critical judgments for you? I do not ask this because I am worried about some cyber conspiracy (although I’m sure there is data to support that too). But rather, I am worried about how taste interacts with culture. How individualized is the Pandora community and does it in any way reflect community as we currently define it?

With constantly changing technology, I wonder if something is being mistakenly hidden, missed or suppressed. I go back to the idea that Pandora thinks my first language is English, though I have given no data to support this. The algorithm seems to be making critical judgments about me, not just my music.

To read more posts about about taste, try these.

Taste defined in art and music

Taste according to Gibbon and Brillat-Savarin

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When Tomorrow Never Comes: Brief Thoughts on Elvis Presley

July 6, 2018

Thanks to Matt Phillips, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today's post.

This April, HBO premiered a new, two-part documentary about Elvis Presley. Directed by Thom Zimny and produced by John Landau and Priscilla Presley, Elvis Presley: The Searcher offers an intimate portrait of the man behind the universal icon. While the film provides new insight into Elvis and his life (and presents previously unseen footage, photographs, and recordings), it somehow leaves the attentive viewer with a striking sense of wonder.

The temptation with icons is to dismiss their artistry, to see them as symbols or relics rather than as artists or masters of craft. The icon’s cultural image, whatever it is, supersedes his/her practice. Image, sadly, often eclipses craft. Call this a symptom of the mass media barrage or the shortsighted collective memory of the masses.

Call it unfair, if you like.

Take, for instance, the image that is Elvis Presley.

We know him as “The King of Rock and Roll.” We know him as the teenager who made a million girls swoon. Think about Elvis Presley for one moment. See his pearly white teeth, those eyes dashed in dark wonder, those hips moving back and forth. Those lips. And see him in his later years, an irreducible showman slowly expanding into his white, bedazzled jumpsuit.

And that’s the problem—we only see him.

Think, too, that Elvis must have known he was being seen and that, inevitably, he would continue to be seen. I find it hard to believe that Elvis was unaware of his own power as image. According to the documentary, after his initial touring years and TV appearances through the 1960s (until the ’68 Comeback Special, in fact) Elvis primarily acted in films, most of which were vehicles for his sex appeal and—if Colonel Tom Parker had anything to say about it—selling ‘merchandise.’

Whatever that means.

Roland Barthes says in Camera Lucida that, “[V]ery often (too often, to my taste) I have been photographed and knew it. Now, once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing,’ I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image” (10). When I ‘see’ Elvis, I can’t help but imagine how conscious he was of the lenses pointed at him. How much of Elvis—as great an entertainer as he was—is a separate body from the real Elvis, a kind of corpus-facade assembled by the psyche, fear, and (un)willingness of the artist? I do not claim that our collective image of Elvis reveals less than we think it does (or should?), but rather that this image reveals something different from the real—it is a question of different, but not more or less.

Lately, I’ve been listening to Elvis Presley. I spent the majority of my twenties burning through Springsteen, The Doors, all the classic rock that sprang from Elvis’s early recordings at Sun Studio in Memphis. Later, into my thirties, it was the bluesmen and obscure rock—now, I’m a folk and country lover. I never understood how large Elvis Presley stood in relation to my own tastes. Above and beyond them all, in fact.

His first recorded album—Elvis Presley, released in 1956—is a stripped down and skeletal work. It feels like a simple capture of sound. That is to say it doesn’t sound (or feel) over-produced. The musicians and producer avoid the trap of chasing perfection. And that, I argue, is what makes it authentic. In these songs we have an Elvis who has yet to experience the pressures and necessary compromises of fame. In short, the album was made without expectations—this freedom may have made room for Elvis’s creation of a new music: rockabilly. Contrary to popular belief, the documentary makes it clear that Elvis sought out Sam Phillips and his recording studio. Phillips, in fact, claims that Elvis drove his truck—he was working as an apprentice electrician—back and forth in front of the studio before finally getting up the guts to walk in and ask to record. Elvis’s immensely famous rendition of “That’s Alright” was impromptu, a recorded jam session instigated by the singer. My favorite song on the album is “Trying to Get to You,” a slow plodding showcase for Elvis’s soulful voice. The brief guitar interlude is just that—an interlude to serve the song rather than a grandstand to steal the spotlight. I like to think this song is a microcosm for how Elvis existed both within the universe of a song and the physical universe. His voice is so dynamic that it seems—for a minute or two—as if he’s the only man in the world who dares or knows how to sing.

Twelve years after this recording, after a stint in the army and a largely disappointing sojourn into show business, Elvis Presley did a music special for network television (otherwise known as the ’68 Comeback Special). The circumstances of how this show was arranged are detailed fully in the documentary, but one result was an informal, backstage jam session with Elvis and the original members of his band. The entire set is energetic and passionate—it shows Elvis at his best. He’s stepped back into the role of a singer in a band, and he’s singing the songs he loves in the most simple, powerful way. The rendition of “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy” features a sweaty Elvis Presley clad in black leather banging out rhythm guitar and singing at the top of his lungs. But in this particular performance it’s not the sound that matters. Here, we see a young rock and roller free to do what he’s always wanted to do. He’s singing a great song for a few folks in a small room—and he’s doing that with all the passion he can muster.

But given all this artistry, I feel the most accurate image I have of Elvis Presley comes from his country album, Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old). Cut in 1970, the album is a comprehensive journey through country music and its many nuances. In the original Rolling Stone review from March 1971, the critic Peter Guralnick says of the album, “[I]t’s the singing, the passion and engagement most of all which mark this album as something truly exceptional, not just an exercise in nostalgia but an ongoing chapter in a history which Elvis' music set in motion.” No song displays Elvis Presley’s skill and artistry more than “Tomorrow Never Comes.” The song begins with the tender touch of a ballad, but within the first minute, the skilled balladeer seizes the song, the lyrics, the music, the tempo, and takes them for his own. As the song climaxes with a frantic plea of “Yeah, you tell me, you tell me you love me, yeah, baby,” it’s as if Elvis is singing into the abyss. This is a performance of genius, desperation, kindness.

But given all this, I ask myself: Is sound always more authentic than image? I tell myself it is, that sound doesn’t lie because it’s so difficult to create (and recreate), but we can’t forget that the recording studio itself—all the wires and mixing boards and padded rooms—likely encourages a certain performance. Is this self, the willingly recorded self, more authentic than the self that is willingly made into an image? I’m not so sure. But I am sure that the willingly recorded self is far more authentic than the images of a self made without permission. Perhaps Elvis is implicated, along with the audience, in the creation of himself as an icon (or is his image a false idol?). After all, it is Elvis acting in those films, smiling boyishly in those early television appearances, and using his body—how obscene!—to hold our ears hostage. And it is we, the audience, who worship the body of the man, who reach out with an unquenchable desire to touch, touch, touch. When, in contemporary popular culture, has there been a single body more desired, more leveraged for profit and gain? Certainly Elvis contributed to his own iconography; this is true even if his contribution was consent. But I wonder, does the icon give perpetual license to his image, to the making of his image, or to the interpretation of his image?

To all? To neither?

Thinking deeply about the combined sounds and images of Elvis leads me to the concept of duende. In Edward Hirsch’s book on the subject, The Demon and the Angel, he writes, “The duende, then, is a vehicle for surpassing the ego, the rational or day mind. It gives us access to another force within us, the deep or night mind” (94). Hirsch is attempting to describe how an artist (in this case, a poet) can transcend their ego to reach a heightened state of creation, a kind of demonism. His assertion is that the rising of the duende kills the ego. In other words, the greatest artists reach a state of death when they are at the height of their powers. If we reduce the scope of excellence to a simple number, I’d wager that Elvis Presley reached a state of duende, or touched the duende, more times than any other musician I’ve ever heard. What I’m saying then is that Elvis Presley—before his death—may have died a thousand deaths. Or ten thousand. And all this in the service of artistry.

Elvis Presley: The Searcher also discusses the complicated relationship Elvis had with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Of all the interpretations possible, the film leads me to think that Elvis’s image, his sounds, and his artistry were co-opted—for a time, at least—by a snide purveyor of ‘merchandise.’ It’s true, though, that Elvis may not have reached the level of icon without this man’s business sense and help (if we can call it that). What is that saying? One hand washes the other, I think it is. Still, part of me wishes Elvis Presley had said something uncouth to the Colonel now and again: I wish Elvis had grabbed his crotch, squeezed, and said, “I got your merchandise right here, buddy.” But then again, someone might have captured that on film.

And then where would we be?

 

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill & Wang, 1981. Print.

Hirsch, Edward. The Demon and the Angel. New York, San Diego, London: Harcourt, 2002. Print.

“Elvis Presley: Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old).” Rolling Stone, 4 March 1971, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/elvis-country-im-10-000-years-old-19710304

Elvis Presley: The Searcher. Directed by Thom Zimny, Home Box Office (HBO), 2018.

Elvis: ’68 Comeback (Special Edition). Directed by Steve Binder, NBC, 1968.

Presley, Elvis. Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old), RCA, 1971. Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/album/5nFIESxbIeBxoREzNMzzbN

Presley, Elvis. Elvis Presley, RCA Victor, 1956. Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/album/7GXP5OhYyPVLmcVfO9Iqin

 

Joy or Happiness

June 22, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“Man wishes to be happy, and only wishes to be happy, and cannot wish not to be so.” - Blaise Pascal

Listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony recently got me thinking about the difference between joy and happiness. Why does Beethoven end the 9th with an “Ode to Joy?” Why not “Ode to Happiness?” So many authors have discussed the importance of the idea of happiness, but not necessarily joy. Assuming that Pascal (and many others) are correct in stating that happiness is man’s ultimate desire, it would be important to better understand the term. Mortimer Adler writes (in the Syntopicon): “Discussion begins rather than ends with the fact that happiness is what all men desire. Once they have asserted that fact, once they have made happiness the most fundamental of all ethical terms, writers like Aristotle or Locke, Aquinas or J.S. Mill, cannot escape the question whether all who seek happiness look for it or find it in the same things.”

The fact that happiness is difficult to define may also explain why joy is also difficult to define. For Beethoven’s piece, is the final joy only attained in the presence of God? Is joy a goal that must be reached in brotherhood, but not alone? Is it fleeting? The rising and falling movement of the music renders emotion, which for me, clearly expresses joy. I wonder, however, do all people react similarly? And, if I misinterpret the music’s emotion, does it make a difference?

I think of joy as a form of extreme bliss, though I am not sure if this is accurate or precise. Merriam-Webster lists joy as “a state of happiness or felicity,” but that does little to help me differentiate between happiness and joy. The same dictionary lists happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment.” Both definitions invoke the idea of a state of being, suggesting impermanence. Happiness includes the idea of contentment, though, which implies a level of permanence. Also, happiness is listed as one of the great ideas in the Syntopicon, while joy is not. In fact, the idea of happiness as a great idea is discussed in terms of permanence or a great achievement, rather than a momentary pleasure. And of course, the authors of the Declaration of Independence named the “pursuit of happiness” as an inalienable human right. From these usages, we can begin to craft an idea of happiness.

Classical philosophers are split between defining happiness as a temporal good or one that can only be attained in the afterlife. There seems to be agreement on the idea that happiness implies a state of contentment, but beyond that, the basis for happiness ranges from physical health to wealth to wisdom and to a virtuous life. Many of the things that they propose to measure happiness can only be measured at the end of life, which makes me wonder if temporary moments of happiness are incorrectly termed? Perhaps these shorter moments interspersed throughout life sometimes fall under the category of joy, but not quite happiness. Socrates develops an idea of happiness by explaining to Glaucon (in The Republic) that justice is “concerned not with the outward man, but the inward.” He moves then to state that happiness is a natural form inside every human. This essence cannot be separate from us, though it can be mistaken or missed altogether. Others, such as Kant, Milton, and Aquinas, explain that only imperfect happiness exists on earth, and perfect happiness will be attained in the afterlife. Regardless of philosopher, however, they agree on the value of the contemplation of happiness.

In writing the final movement of the 9th Symphony, Beethoven altered a poem by Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller titled “An die Freude.” According to the Cambridge Dictionary, freude can mean “joy, pleasure, delight, gladness or rejoicing,” but does not mention happiness directly. Instead, the German term expresses an ecstasy not present in Merriam-Webster’s English definition of joy (a state of happiness or felicity). I also like the way that “freudenvollere” (which means “more joyful”) compounds “joy” with the idea of being filled. In Beethoven’s piece, the music literally fills all space (ear, body, etc) with joy. It is a physical movement, which for me, is a most appropriate translation of “An die Freude.” Also important is the fact that Beethoven was near the end of his career when he wrote the piece. Nearly deaf at this time, I believe that a lifetime of experience developed the emotion of that piece.

I wonder if there is a difference in the entire conception between the two terms. Is joy meant to be transitory, ecstatic, fleeting and impossible to chase, whereas happiness is meant to attain a steady sense of fullness, as in a life well-lived? While I am sure we would all like to have some joy, typically we discuss happiness as an end in itself. Why? Possibly because of joy’s transitory nature. Possibly because joy, or an overfilling, seems too much to ask, whereas happiness appears attainable.

Regardless of the intent behind the 9th Symphony "Ode to Joy", I think Beethoven (and Schiller) nailed it. Music expresses emotion in a way that language alone cannot. To better understand what I mean here, listen to the wide variety of musical interpretations in German, English and Spanish (I offer a small sample below, but there are endless versions online). A comparison may highlight some key features of joy.

Ode to Joy Flash mob, Barcelona: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbJcQYVtZMo

Miguel Rios sings Himno de la alegria: https://www.musica.com/video.asp?video=5285

Ritchie Blackmore, rock ‘n roll: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrniC87g6X0

Flash mob, Nürnberg: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a23945btJYw

Baroque Symphony: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljGMhDSSGFU

For more on happiness, consider joining our upcoming Quarterly Discussion on Augustine. Contact asimon@hmu.edu with questions or to register.

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Great Books Chicago 2018

May 18, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s blog.

Conversation: an oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas.

Discussion: consideration of a question in an open and usually informal debate; or a formal treatment of a topic in speech or writing.

When does conversation become a discussion? According to Merriam-Webster, conversation flows freely between observations, opinions and topic. In other words, conversation is a fluid exchange between people. Discussion, on the other hand, tends to be more focused. In discussions, participants examine a specific question. One of the things that makes Great Books Chicago so fun is that it excels in both areas. There are social events to fill the needs of conversation, which complement the discussion sessions focused on specific readings. The most recent Great Books Chicago focused on popular culture through the lens of television, film and music. Popular culture often gets a bad reputation as if analysis of contemporary art forms is somehow less respectable than analysis of “classical” art or “high” art. The new trilogy by the Great Books Foundation, however, demonstrate important intersections between art and culture.

Some of my favorite discussions at Great Books Chicago focused on the critic’s role. In a selection by A.O. Scott from Better Living Through Criticism, Scott defends the role of the critic as an essential element of art. In a sense, professional critics raise the awareness of an average viewer. He claims that all humans desire to critique, even if it only surfaces in the form of selection (choosing one movie over another, for example). Furthermore, if we find ourselves critiquing something, we should have a valid reason for doing so. Scott writes, “What I’m more interested in here is the general tendency – I would really say the universal capacity for our species – to find fault. And also to bestow praise. To judge. That’s the bedrock of criticism. How do we know, or think we know, what’s good or bad?” Scott believes that if we are willing to label a piece of art as “good” or “bad,” then we should also understand the foundations of that criticism. In fact, society depends upon it in order to keep us on “the path of truth and beauty” in Scott’s view. He also refutes the misconception that only “intellectual” art deserves criticism, but rather the forms which find mass popularity. These forms reflect something vital back to us.

Attempting to engage with all of popular culture is daunting. Modern technology makes it possible for humans to spend the entire day without a break in media. Furthermore, many people run multiple platforms simultaneously. Headphones allow us to create an independent atmosphere and a playlist of our own. This does not mean, however, that we cannot listen attentively. Nor does it mean that we are becoming immune to art’s effects. But whatever our current rate of consumption does mean is worth investigating. Scott continues, “We are far too inclined to regard art as an ornament and to perceive taste as a fixed, narrow track along which each one of us travels, alone or in select, like-minded company.” Instead, he continues, “It’s the job of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom. That everyone is a critic means, or should mean, that we are each of us capable of thinking against our own prejudices, of balancing skepticism with open-mindedness, of sharpening our dulled and glutted senses and battling the intellectual inertia that surrounds us. We need to put our remarkable minds to use and to pay our own experience the honor of taking it seriously.” (258) In other words, try to understand why you like what you like.

During Great Books Chicago, I met with many wonderful folks who had lots of ideas, some of them different from my own. Through discussion we find likeness and difference. I appreciate this format because of its freedom from personal judgment. Rather than being attacked for my ideas, some of which are decent and some of which are wrong, I better understand the difference. As a result of discussion, I make more well-rounded and better-informed decisions. Since art is a form which demands criticism, selecting something (even on my private iPod) can be viewed as a public act. As Scott says, “[T]here’s no such thing as a private or personal criticism. It has to be a public act.” I wonder if our personal “tastes” function the same way as a Facebook algorithm which feeds us only what we want to see? I do believe that it is worth looking at the reasons behind our choices, tastes, behaviors and critiques. Great Books Chicago is an ideal platform for thoughtful debate. (One other aspect of discussion that bears mentioning here is that there is no mandatory participation. Many people enjoy adding their opinions, but there is no mandate which asks us to participate. Some people simply enjoy hearing others debate. However you like to participate, these opportunities tend to elevate the dialogue.)

Discussion enlightens an astonishing amount of viewpoints generated from a single piece of art. Another selection from the trilogy by Neil Postman, “The Age of Show Business,” examines how television is primarily a medium for entertainment. Therefore, anything we view on television should first be understood as attempting to entice the viewer through visuals. He writes, “A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection, or catharsis. And we must not judge too harshly those who have framed it in this way. They are not assembling the news to be read, or broadcasting it to be heard. They are televising the news to be seen. They must follow where their medium leads. There is no conspiracy here, no lack of intelligence, only a straightforward recognition that ‘good television’ has little to do with what is ‘good’ about exposition or other forms of verbal communication but everything to do with what the pictorial image looks like.” If we are to better understand ourselves (as individuals and as a part of any larger culture), it is worth our time to investigate where we spend our time and why. If something in our nature demands that we judge and critique, then doing so in group discussion benefits everyone.

For more about Great Books Chicago, visit the Great Books Foundation website. Join us next year for Great Books Chicago 2019!

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