Monday, June 27, 2011

Rand & Aesthetics 18

Rand on rock music. While Rand was well known for being outspoken to the point of palpable rudeness, she could become, when she wanted to, as indirect and suggestive as the very worst of equivocators. Her assault on rock music begins with a series highly speculative, empirically impoverished remarks on what she calls "primitive" music:
The deadly monotony of primitive music -- the endless repetition of a few notes and of a rhythmic pattern that beats against the brain with the regularity of the ancient torture of water drops falling on a man's skull -- paralyzes cognitive processes, obliterates awareness and disintegrates the mind. Such music produces a state of sensory deprivation, which -- as modern scientists are beginning to discover -- is caused by the absence or the monotony of sense stimuli....

Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday Night Whim-Worshipping 2.

Seeing commenter A was in the mood for something a little denser, we are happy to oblige. Update: Seemed a bit glitchy, so here's the second part.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Rand & Aesthetics 17

Rand on "modern music." Ayn Rand's most extended published take on "modern music" appears in her "Art and Cognition" essay. It features all the usual Randian intellectual vices: tendency toward over-generalization, vagueness, lack of specific examples, and condemnation via implicit suggestion and innuendo:

A brief word about so-called modern music: no further research or scientific discoveries are required to know with full, objective certainty that it is not music. The proof lies in the fact that music is the product of periodic vibrations -- and therefore, the introduction of nonperiodic variations (such as the sounds of street traffic or of machine gears or of coughs and sneezes), i.e., of noise, into an allegedly musical composition eliminates it automatically from the realm of art and of consideration. But a word of warning in regard to the vocabulary of the perpetrators of such "innovation" is in order: they spout a great deal about the necessity of "conditioning" your ear to an appreciation of their "music." Their notion of conditioning is unlimited by reality and by the law of identity; man, in their view, is infinitely conditionable. But, in fact, you can condition a human ear to different types of music (it is not the ear, but the mind that you have to condition in such cases); you cannot condition it to hear noise as if it were music; it is not personal training or social conventions that make it impossible, but physiological nature, the identity, of the human ear and brain. [RM, 64]

Rand here suggests (without explicitly saying so) that one of the distinctive characteristics of "modern music" is that it lacks "nonperiodic variations" (e.g., sounds of traffic, coughing, etc.). Now the phrase "modern music," in common parlance, covers a wide range of styles, from "impressionists" such as Ravel and Debussy all the way to hard-core serialists like Boulez and Elliot Carter. Since Rand mentions no names, it's not clear whose music she is referring to as "modern." While it is true that, in the sixties and seventies, there existed a brief vogue to introduce taped noises into what were otherwise musical compositions, outside of John Cage, I don't know of any composer of any notoriety who attempted to put forward a musical composition that was made up entirely of "nonperiodic variations" (i.e., noise). This leads to another potential confusion. Is Rand suggesting that the introduction of any noise into a musical composition renders the whole composition, music and all, as "non-art"? Orchestras sometimes accompany the closing bars of Tchiakovsky's 1812 Overture with sounds of canon fire. Do these non-periodic vibrations render the 1812 Overture as non-art? Or how about a musical work that includes a narrator? Is Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf non-art? What about compositions which use "non-pitched" percussion instruments, such as bass drum, castenets, cymbals, whips and snare drums? At least half (and probably more) of the orchestral repertoire uses such percussion. Is half the orchestral repertoire made up of works which must automatically be eliminated "from the realm of art and of consideration" because of the use of instruments that produce non-periodic vibrations?

In her haste to find a pretext for calling "modern" music non-art, Rand, in her carelessness, has once again presented a hollow argument. It may be annoying and even aesthetically viscious for avant-garde composers to introduce taped sounds of machine and street noises into their musical compositions. But that, in itself, doesn't render the musical portions of such compositions any less musical. Before one denounces a given aesthetic style, one at least has to take the trouble to understand that style. Otherwise, one comes off as prejudiced rather than insightful, as an aesthetic ignoramus rather than a knowledgable critic.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Notes On Cultism in The Logical Leap: Why Anonymous Objectivists Can't Read.

In reply to this post, an Anon Rand fan writes:
I see that Daniel Barnes is still doing his dishonest blathering.

He writes: “On p26, Harriman claims that, using this unique Randian inductive method, from a single observation of paper burning in a fireplace, we can conclude that the statement "Fire burns paper" is "a universal truth".”

Other than Harriman writing "Fire burns paper" on p. 26, Barnes is a liar. Harriman uses "fire burns paper" to describe a child learning this generalization for the first time. He describes it as a “statement of a concrete observation”. He does not say it is a single instance nor present it as a universal truth or “Every S is P”. Children at that age don’t think in terms such as “some”, “every” or “all.” Eventually most children, even ones as stupid as Barnes, will learn there are exceptions, for example, paper that is water-soaked. This is such common knowledge there was no need for Harriman to say so, except to foil a dishonest critic like Barnes.
Here at the ARCHNblog we have become accustomed to being called liars, dishonest etc by boldly anonymous Randians. We are also equally accustomed to said Objectivists drying up and blowing away when challenged to provide proof of our supposed four-flushing malfeasances.

As I'm traveling and don't have the book handy, I've nonetheless googled it and found the passage I was referring to reproduced over at the Objectivist Living forum:
In utilizing concepts as his cognitive tools, [the first-level inducer] is thereby omitting the measurements of the particular causal connection he perceives. "Fire" relates the yellow-orange flames he perceives to all such, regardless of their varying measurements; the same applies to "paper" and the process of "burning." Hence the first statement of his concrete observation: "Fire burns paper." This statement is simply a conceptualization of the perceived data--which is what makes it a generalization.

Notice that when our first-level inducer identifies a perceived causal connection in words, he does not do it as a description of unique concretes, even though that is all he perceives; he at once states a universal truth.
- David Harriman, p26, The Logical Leap.
Readers can compare our Anon's claim with the actual passage themselves. But to me it's obvious not only that what Anon doesn't know about the problem of induction could be written in 6 point type over Fenway Park, but that these "New Intellectuals" seem to lack some basic reading skills.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Rand & Aesthetics 16

Rand's aesthetic judgments about music. We get the full sense of the subjective and arbitrary character of Rand's aesthetics when we glance at Rand's pronouncements about specific composers. These pronouncements are often so thin and baseless that it their basis in sheer egotistic prejudice should be obvious.

On Beethoven:
I'll tell you what I hear in [Beethoven's] music as [in his] philosophy of life. With regard to Beethoven, I am profoundly opposed to his music,, specifically from the sense-of-life aspect. Esthetically, I can hear that he is a great musician. I have to acknowledge the skill with which he is presenting what he is presenting. But his music has what I call a malevolent universe. It is in essence the view that man is doomed, that he has no chance, that he cannot achieve his goals, that he cannot triumph on earth -- but must struggle just the same.... It's the belief that man must struggle even though he has no chance of winning, and that he must perish heroically. That is a malevolent view of man and of the universe, and that is what I hear in practically everything Beethoven has written.
There's already been a discussion on this site about the absurdity of Rand's assertions concerning Beethoven's alleged malevolence, so there's no need to go into great detail here. In any case, since few if any admirers of Beethoven find him to be malevolent, that should be enough to settle the question. Rand is merely trying to justify her dislike of a composer that even she has to admit is a "great musician."

On Wagner:
I think Wagner, unfortunately, is enormously vulgar, so that a sense-of-life appraisal is almost irrelevent. There is a certain musical value in some of his compositions. I would not classify him as particularly great. His melodies, which are the element by which I principally judge a composer, are, are enormously lacking in originality or inventiveness. If you strip them of all their trimming, his melodies are, with rare exceptions, street-organ or circus music. What Wagner makes his reputation on is precisely the trimmings -- the technical, alleged virtuosity of his orchestrations, with a dozen leitmotifs all mixed together, amounting to nothing. It is not a profound view of life. It is the view of a manipulator, of somebody who is playing on the fringes, but does not really have much to say.

This passage proves, more than any other, that when it comes to serious music, Rand was in way over her head. Classical musicians (i.e., those who are in the best position to judge) generally regard Wagner as one of the greatest composers. They would look upon Rand's criticisms of Wagner as ignorant and deeply prejudiced. Rand's avowal that she principally judges composer by their melodies would inspire deep contempt (the most important element in serious music tends to be harmony, not melody). Her assertion that most of Wagner's melodies are "street-organ" and "circus" music would yield howls of derision. And what is this comment about Wagner's "alleged virtuousity of orchestration": since when is Rand an expert on orchestration?This is, to be entirely frank, very embarrassing stuff; and the fact that Rand seems entirely oblivious as to how foolish she is coming off only makes it that much more cringe worthy.

On Gilbert and Sullivan:
I can't stand them.... I am positively allergic to their operattas, both to the content and to the music, but particularly the music. The content is often very clever and witty, but the sense of life projected is so satirically anti-man, that there isn't a redeeming feature anywhere. It is as if Gilbert and Sullivan were laughing at everything about man. And therefore, the sound of their music makes me uncomfortable.
The odd thing here is that, even though the (alleged) "laughing at man" is entirely the product of Gilbert, that Rand objects "particularly" to Sullivan's music. If she knew nothing of Gilbert's librettos, would she still have objected to Sullivan's music?

Rand is also known to have referred to Mozart as "pre-music" and to have regarded an acquaintance who admired Richard Strauss as someone with whom she could never be "soul mates." One shudders to think what Rand would have thought of Debussy, Elgar, Mahler, and countless others of whom she was too ignorant to disparage.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Rand & Aesthetics 15

Rand's theory of music. Rand's views on music reveal far more about her basic modus operandi than they do about music. Her theory explaining the "nature of man's response music" is unique in with Objectivism in that Rand recognized it as being a mere hypothesis. Yet even this very recognition is fraught with difficulties. It has that character (so prominent amongst Rand's philosophy) of manifesting a heads-I-win,-tails-you-lose dynamic. For Rand's basic, default attitude toward music was: I am right, but I can't prove it. In other words, we are supposed to give her credit for acknowledging she couldn't prove her theory, yet she did not consider herself obliged to admit she might be wrong. She really does seem to be trying to have it both ways.

Given that her "hypothesis" about music appears no better or worse than any of her other theories, it is difficult to explain why she would consider it a mere hypothesis. Rand's theories of concepts and value are also mere hypotheses. Her attempts to "prove" or "validate" them are no more convincing than her hypothesis about music. So why did she recognize the hypothetical character of her theory of music while ignoring the fact that the rest of her philosophy was also hypothetical?

Oddly enough, her theory of music at least attempts to make use of scientific evidence (which cannot be said of most of her other theories). To be sure, the scientific evidence she references is very old: namely, Helmholtz's 1863 Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik (On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music),

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Notes On Cultism In the Logical Leap 3: The Stupid, It Burns!

I was expecting The Logical Leap: Induction In Physics to be really, really terrible, and I have not been disappointed. Just to get a good handle on how it serves as a dutiful cultic delivery vehicle for Rand's immaculate conceptions I've had to go back to the ITOE, and it takes a while to extract any clarity from that shambles. I'll type that up soon. But to sum up TLL, where it does not merely consist of warmed over Randian tripe, is basically an exercise in philosophic Calvinball with Harriman straining to retrofit the giants of Enlightenment science into Team Objectivism. Of course, this would be a complete intellectual embarrassment if not for the fact that such Objectivists have no shame.

As for the Harrikoffrand arguments themselves, that will have to be a separate, eyerolling post. Suffice to say for now that we might judge how good they are by the quality of their conclusions, so I now present an example of the amazing power of Objectivist "induction". On p26, Harriman claims that, using this unique Randian inductive method, from a single observation of paper burning in a fireplace, we can conclude that the statement "Fire burns paper" is "a universal truth".

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

A "Necessary Connection"?

At bottom, Objectivist epistemology is based on a fundamental fallacy which leads at first to verbalism and then to an authoritarian turn. This fallacy, often difficult to unpack, is clearly expressed here (my italics):
"And, lastly, I suggest that you try to project what would have happened if, instead of Annie Sullivan, a sadist had taken charge of Helen Keller’s education. A sadist would spell “water” into Helen’s palm, while making her touch water, stones, flowers and dogs interchangeably; he would teach her that water is called “water” today, but “milk” tomorrow; he would endeavor to convey to her that there is no necessary connection between names and things, that the signals in her palm are a game of arbitrary conventions and that she’d better obey him without trying to understand."
- Ayn Rand, “Kant Versus Sullivan,” Philosophy: Who Needs It p90.
A truly remarkable thing to write, and to think.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Rand & Aesthetics 14

Style and "psycho-epistemology." With her over-emphasis on selectivity, her sense of life construct, and her invidious distinction between Romanticism and Naturalism, Rand has plenty of tools to criticize aesthetic tastes she didn't approve of (i.e., nearly any taste she did not share). She had yet one tool her aesthetics that she could make use of to flog art she despised: namely, style as it relates to "psycho-epistemology." According to Rand:
The subject of an art work expresses a view of man’s existence, while the style expresses a view of man’s consciousness. The subject reveals an artist’s metaphysics, the style reveals his psycho-epistemology . . . .

An artist’s style is the product of his own psycho-epistemology—and, by implication, a projection of his view of man’s consciousness, of its efficacy or impotence, of its proper method and level of functioning.

Predominantly (though not exclusively), a man whose normal mental state is a state of full focus, will create and respond to a style of radiant clarity and ruthless precision—a style that projects sharp outlines, cleanliness, purpose, an intransigent commitment to full awareness and clear-cut identity—a level of awareness appropriate to a universe where A is A, where everything is open to man’s consciousness and demands its constant functioning.

A man who is moved by the fog of his feelings and spends most of his time out of focus will create and respond to a style of blurred, "mysterious" murk, where outlines dissolve and entities flow into one another, where words connote anything and denote nothing, where colors float without objects, and objects float without weight—a level of awareness appropriate to a universe where A can be any non-A one chooses, where nothing can be known with certainty and nothing much is demanded of one’s consciousness.
With this weapon in her aesthetic arsenal, Rand can make some startling pronouncements about various styles of painting:

Style is the most complex element of art, the most revealing and, often, the most baffling psychologically. The terrible inner conflicts from which artists suffer as much as (or, perhaps, more than) other men are magnified in their work. As an example: Salvador Dali, whose style projects the luminous clarity of a rational psycho-epistemology, while most (though not all) of his subjects project an irrational and revoltingly evil metaphysics. A similar, but less offensive, conflict may be seen in the paintings of Vermeer, who combines a brilliant clarity of style with the bleak metaphysics of Naturalism. At the other extreme of the stylistic continuum, observe the deliberate blurring and visual distortions of the so-called "painterly" school, from Rembrandt on down—down to the rebellion against consciousness, expressed by a phenomenon such as Cubism which seeks specifically to disintegrate man’s consciousness by painting objects as man does not perceive them (from several perspectives at once).

Much of the psychological bafflement Rand confesses to arises out of her definition of art. It's from Rand's own insistence that art is a "selective recreation of reality" that so many of her invidious conclusions about art, particularly modern art, arise. After all, on what basis does Rand justify her conclusion that individuals who respond to "blurred mysterious murk" (presumably this is Impressionist and non-representional art) spend most of their time "out of focus." What evidence does she have to support so implausible a contention?

Art is not merely a selective recreation of reality. It is the creation of something that leads to an aesthetic experience. Nor is there any evidence that an artist's style necessarily reveals the degree to which his mind is in or out of focus. Impressionist painting was driven, in part, by the desire to paint, not in a studio, but outdoors. This encouraged painters to adopt quicker methods of composition, in which the painstaking attention to detail was replaced by bold strokes and emphasis on color. The Impressionists were generalists seeking to capture the "essentials" of a scene: just what Rand claimed to do in her philosophy; only the Impressionists had a much greater excuse than Rand, as they were merely trying to convey light and beauty, not information or philosophical truth.

I suspect that one of the main draws of Rand's aesthetics is that it provides an uncompromising condemnation of "modern" art. Such modernism, Rand implies, is a "rebellion against consciousness." Cubism, in particular, "seeks specifically to disintegrate man's consciousness by painting objects as man does not perceive them." Oh really? How does Rand know such a thing? Using the same logic, couldn't something very similar be said about emoticons and smilies? or stick figure illustrations? or any graphical representation that isn't absolutley photographic in its representation? While there is absolutely nothing wrong in deploring modern art, if one wishes to criticize it, one must do better than this.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Rand & Aesthetics 13

Style in literature. Rand's remarks on literary style begin rather innocuous and vague, but quickly take on more sinister connotations once she applies them as tools of criticism:

A literary style has two fundamental elements (each subsuming a large number of lesser categories): the "choice of content" and the "choice of words." By "choice of content" I mean those aspects of a given passage (whether description, narrative or dialogue) which a writer chooses to communicate (and which involve the consideration of what to include or to omit). By "choice of words" I mean the particular words and sentence structures a writer uses to communicate them.

For instance, when a writer describes a beautiful woman, his stylistic "choice of content" will determine whether he mentions (or stresses) her face or body or manner of moving or facial expression, etc.; whether the details he includes are essential and significant or accidental and irrelevant; whether he presents them in terms of facts or of evaluations; etc. His "choice of words" will convey the emotional implications or connotations, the value-slanting, of the particular content he has chosen to communicate. (He will achieve a different effect if he describes a woman as "slender" or "thin" or "svelte" or "lanky," etc.)

None of this is particularly objectionable or particularly insightful. The main criticism that could be essayed against it is that, in the hands of a malicious critic, the importance of a writer's style could be exaggerated and used as a pretext to malign great works of literature. Many of the greatest novelists were not particularly adept stylists. These include such writers as Stendhal, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Melville, Dreiser, and Faulkner, among others.

Rand proceeds to trot out two passage allegedly describing New York, one written by Mickey Spillane, the other by Thomas Wolfe. I say allegedly because the Wolfe passage is not really a description of New York, but rather, a description of the emotions stirred up within Wolfe's protagonist by the sight of New York. Rand, ignoring this distinction, concludes: "Wolfe's style is emotion-orientated and addressed to a subjective psycho-epistemology: he expects the reader to accept emotions divorced from facts, and to accept them second-hand."

The key term here is "subjective psycho-epistemology." In Objectivism, the term subjective has the same moral connotations as the term Satan has for a Christian fundamentalist. It is indicative of the deepest, most unregenerate evil. By claiming that Wolfe's works are "addressed" to a "subjective psycho-epistemology," Rand is suggesting that admirers of his work are afflicted with this very same subjectivism, and are perhaps deserving of psychological counseling, if not outright moral condemnation. Does Rand have any grounds for ascribing subjectivism (in the disparaging sense of the word) to Wolfe's admirers?

No, she doesn't. Wolfe presents a target-rich environment for the critic, because he was an immensely talented writer who often, alas, had nothing of any great importance to say. The best he could achieve was to write very eloquently (sometimes over-eloquently) of his own trivial thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Since many young people share or can relate to Wolfe's thoughts, emotions, and experiences, they are drawn to the grandiloquent poetry in which he expresses them. There is nothing in any of this to draw the sinister conclusion that Wolfe appeals to those afflicted with subjective psycho-epistemologies. All literature, to the extent that it appeals to emotions (and what literature doesn't appeal to the emotions?), appeals to the "subjective."

Rand takes her principle to even more questionable extremes when she writes:

Style is not an end in itself, it is only a means to an end—the means of telling a story. The writer who develops a beautiful style, but has nothing to say, represents a kind of arrested esthetic development; he is like a pianist who acquires a brilliant technique by playing finger-exercises, but never gives a concert.

The typical literary product of such writers—and of their imitators, who possess no style—are so-called "mood-studies," popular among today’s literati, which are little pieces conveying nothing but a certain mood. Such pieces are not an art-form, they are merely finger-exercises that never develop into art.

While Rand is correct that style is not an end in itself, this doesn't mean that "mood-studies" are not an art-form. What is a lyric poem, but a "mood study"? Why shouldn't a lyric poem (or a lyrical short story) not be a work of art? We once again are confronted with an example of Rand making sweeping pronouncements about issues she doesn't know much about and hasn't thought through.