Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: May 2007 (page 1 of 2)

Statement of the Problem

Arguments making a case for complexity and hybridity, usually formulated in response to previous over-simplifications, are by definition hard to refute–but they can also be hard to get excited about.

Alison Shell

Yasushi Utsonomia

From the notes to Jon The Dog meets Mad Scientist Utsunomia :

I believe that place cannot be separated from performance and sound as a factor in music. Until quite recently, it was necessary to travel some distance to enjoy music, which would be performed at some specified place and time, and I believe there was a special value in this distance and place. There was a meaningful and close connection between the place and the music performed there, which somehow has become lost, resulting in a weakened music, qualitatively.

Especially the possibility of recording has weakened the role of place, and for that reason, music has lost much of the power and function it once had. Further, in many genres of music, the recording process adds reverberation and other information which was formerly a function of the place of performance, making a mere technical frame of something that was once essentially meaningful and purposeful.

There are many tacit agreements in recording technology and sound production technology. For example, though there is no use of human senses without some slight motion, for the convenience of recording, positions of microphones are rigidly determined, or moved at the convenience of the recorder. But with the physical act of sound reception as a basis, this is not a matter of interest for the brain. The brain processes sounds from perpetually moving ears as a means of obtaining a greater amount of information, which is the brain’s main interest. The amount of information spikes by this motion, but recognition that it is the motion creating the increase is not very common.

Because Utsunomia is a forward-thinking person, though, his approach is that rather than trying to simulate natural places in recordings through ever more synthetic methods, we should try to establish a sense of place specific to recordings which could not exist in real space. And this recording does it: it’s physically disorienting and destabilizing.

Jerry Fodor on Galen Strawson on Consciousness

Seven points me to Jerry Fodor’s assessment of Strawson’s plainly named Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?. Some very hasty thoughts on the following:

There are three philosophical principles to which Strawson’s allegiance is unshakeable. The first is that the existence of consciousness (specifically, of conscious experience) is undeniable; that we are conscious is precisely what we know best. (To be sure, we can’t prove that we are conscious; but that is hardly surprising since there is no more secure premise from which such a proof could proceed.) Strawson’s second principle is a kind of monism: everything that there is is the same sort of stuff as such familiar things as tables, chairs and the bodies of animals. This, however, leaves a lot of options open since Strawson thinks that nothing much is known about that kind of stuff ‘as it is in itself’; at best science tells us only about its relational properties. What is foreclosed by Strawson’s monism is primarily the sort of ‘substance dualism’ that is frequently (but, he thinks, wrongly) attributed to Descartes.

The third of Strawson’s leading theses is a good deal more tendentious than the first two; namely, that emergence isn’t possible. ‘For any feature Y of anything that is correctly considered to be emergent from X, there must be something about X and X alone in virtue of which Y emerges, and which is sufficient for Y.’ But Strawson holds that there isn’t anything about matter in virtue of which conscious experience could arise from it; or that if there is, we have literally no idea what it could be. In particular, we can’t imagine any way of arranging small bits of unconscious stuff that would result in the consciousness of the larger bits of stuff of which they are the constituents. It’s not like liquids (Strawson’s favourite example of bona fide emergence) where we can see, more or less, how constituent molecules that aren’t liquid might be assembled to make larger things that are. How on earth, Strawson wonders, could anything of that sort explain the emergence of consciousness from matter? If it does, that’s a miracle; and Strawson doesn’t hold with those.

The emergence problem, as well as most the suggested answers, is not a new one, and I’ve found any of its proposed solutions to be exceedingly thorny. The French materialists of the 1800s ran in circles around this issue: some went full-force into vitalism (i.e., the assignment of some mysterious “life principle” to all matter) and declared any and all matter to be capable of judgment, while others tried to negotiate compromises of assigning some sort of proto-consciousness to matter. Diderot’s solution was one of the more sophisticated, but also someone question-begging: he called all matter to be “passively” conscious, made “active” through some kind of transformation. Is this emergence or not? The problem does not appear to admit half-measures; either the raw stuff of consciousness is there, or it’s not.

This separates the problem of consciousness from the lame “half an eye” attack on evolution, which is easily answerable by saying that half-eyes existed and were evolutionarily adaptive. It’s precisely the seeming holistic nature of consciousness that makes it maddeningly intractable. But I think this is the premise that needs to be attacked, because it makes the problem seem more unsolvable than it is.

Consider the problem another way. When I’m under anesthesia, it appears (to the best of my recollection) that “my” consciousness disappears. Maybe my body or parts of it are still “conscious” in a way, but whatever constitutes consciousness in this state is wildly different from what constitutes it when I am awake, in sheer virtue of it seeming not to be “mine.” There’s always the hypothetical possibility, of course, that my memory was turned off during that time and yet I still endured all that screaming pain consciously. (The very real experience of some people who are paralyzed but not rendered unconscious and insensate by anesthesia has always struck terror in my heart.) But it seems reasonable to say that I was truly not conscious during that time.

Two points follow. The first is to say that Strawson’s definition of consciousness must apply to me while I am under the knife and anesthetized (or, for that matter, when I am dead). This destigmatizes the word “consciousness” from what we associate as human experience. The second is to ask whether consciousness is necessarily experiential. Consciousness obviously is a prerequisite for experience, but without the brain and nervous system, we have to ask what’s left of consciousness: either a destigmatized notion of “experience,” or no experience at all. In this sense, Strawson’s argument is a complement to David Chalmers’s panpsychism, which famously maintained that thermostats can be conscious because they function analogously to connectionist networks. Strawson’s argument is wholly different, but the crux of the dilemma is the same.

All I can say is that having removed the domesticated notions of “experience” and “consciousness,” the anti-emergence claim should no longer seem horribly nonintuitive. Unfortunately, though, I think the converse applies as well: there no longer seems to be an intuitive argument for the anti-emergence claim. And thus the problem transforms itself into the functionalist vs. Searlian arguments of years ago–is consciousness everywhere, or just in some sorts of matter?–but in a form I happen to consider more compelling and universal, since it no longer argues from cognitive capacities and knowledge, but from raw experience.

[There remains the problem of “mineness,” which I’ll try to get to at some later date.]

Brendel on Furtwängler

Lean, bent slightly backwards, and with an elongated neck, Furtwängler in front of an orchestra gave the impression of overlooking vast spaces. His beat had very little in common with that of present-day conductors. In stretches of pianissimo it could be minute and extremely precise; elsewhere, outstretched arms undulated downwards in total physical relaxation, so that the orchestra had to guess where the beat should be. The sounds thus produced could be of an elemental intensity that I have not experienced since. The image of ‘Jupiter tonans’ was what came to me then: Furtwängler’s thunder was always preceded by lightning-shaped movements, which made the orchestra play considerably after the beat (if there was a beat), and induced double-basses and cellos to prepare the ground for the sonorities by discreetly anticipating their entry. Arthur Nikisch, according to Furtwängler, was the only conductor who presented a thoroughly unforced appearance; Furtwängler regarded himself, in this respect, as Nikisch’s pupil, and believed that any contraction of muscle on the part of the conductor would show up in the sound of the orchestra as if reproduced on a photographic plate.

Furtwängler’s technique, though seemingly unfocused and impractical, was in fact well considered. Not only did it help to anticipate the quality of sonorities and the delay of an important beat: it also foreshadowed changes of atmosphere or the gradual modification of tempo. And this leads us to Furtwängler’s particular strength: he was the great connector, the grand master of transition. What makes Furtwängler’s transitions so memorable? They are moulded with the greatest care, yet one cannot isolate them. They are not patchwork, inserted to link two ideas of a different nature. They grow out of something and lead into something. They are areas of transformation. If we observe them minutely, we notice that, at first almost imperceptibly, they start to affect the tempo, usually a great deal earlier than is the case with other conductors, until their impact finally makes itself felt. Even where I disagree with the amplitude of Furtwängler’s tempo modifications — as in the first movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony — I do not know what to admire more: the urgency of his feeling or the acuteness of his control.

Alfred Brendel, “Furtwängler”

What I wonder, after reading this, is whether the controlled/uncontrolled dichotomy is the wrong one to apply to modern conductors vs. Weingartner, Mengelberg, Stokowski, early Celibidache, etc. I would say that Furtwängler was completely in control of what effect free bowing would have, for example, and could marshal that in a less nitpicky way to shape the larger structure of a piece. Such practices have just fallen out of style, unfortunately; the vocabulary has become more limited.

ANTIFESTO

No art without art, no text without text.

  1. No mention of institutional affiliation.
  2. No discussion of the publishing industry.
  3. No discussion of academia or academic careers.
  4. No attacks on critical theory.
  5. No arguments with or over print media.
  6. No blog triumphalism.
  7. No “literary” vs. “non-literary” classifications.
  8. No arguments from authority.
  9. No false objectivity.
  10. No aping of academic prose styles.
  11. No aping of popular prose styles.
  12. No smugness.
  13. No discussion of this manifesto.

[Thanks to EW for the title and JBF for the runner-up.]

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