Archive for August, 2020

Caveat: this post is uncharacteristically long and perhaps a bit disjointed. Or perhaps an emerging blogging style is being forged. Be forewarned.

Sam Harris has been the subject of or mentioned in numerous previous blog posts. His podcast Making Sense (formerly, Waking Up), partially behind a paywall but generously offered for free (no questions asked) to those claiming financial hardship, used to be among those I would tune in regularly. Like the Joe Rogan Experience (soon moving to Spotify — does that mean its disappearance from YouTube? — the diversity of guests and reliable intellectual stimulation have been attractive. Calling his podcast Making Sense aligns with my earnest concern over actually making sense of things as the world spins out of control and the epistemological crisis deepens. Yet Harris has been a controversial figure since coming to prominence as a militant atheist. I really want to like what Harris offers, but regrettably, he has lost (most of) my attention. Others reaching the same conclusion have written or vlogged their reasons, e.g., “Why I’m no longer a fan of ….” Do a search.

Having already ranted over specific issues Harris has raised, let me instead register three general complaints. First, once a subject is open for discussion, it’s flogged to death, often without reaching any sort of conclusion, or frankly, helping to make sense. For instance, Harris’ solo discussion (no link) regarding facets of the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, which event sparked still unabated civil unrest, did more to confuse than clarify. It was as though Harris were trying the court case by himself, without a judge, jury, or opposing counsel. My second complaint is that Harris’ verbosity, while impressive in many respects, leads to interviews marred by long-winded, one-sided speeches where the thread is hopelessly lost, blocking an interlocutor from tracking and responding effectively. Whether Harris intends to bury others under an avalanche of argument or does so uncontrollably doesn’t matter. It’s still a Gish gallop. Third is his over-emphasis on hypotheticals and thought experiments. Extrapolation is a useful but limited rhetorical technique, as is distillation. However, treating prospective events as certainties is tantamount to building arguments on poor foundations, namely, abstractions. Much as I admire Harris’ ambition to carve out a space within the public sphere to get paid for thinking and discussing topics of significant political and philosophical currency, he frustrates me enough that I rarely tune in anymore.

In contrast, the Rebel Wisdom channel on YouTube offers considerably more useful content, which includes a series on sensemaking. The face of Rebel Wisdom is documentarian David Fuller, who asks informed questions but avoids positioning himself in the expository center. Quite a change from the too-familiar news-anchor-as-opinion-maker approach taken by most media stars. If there were a blog, I would add it to my blogroll. However, offer of memberships ranging from $5 to $500 per month irks me. Paid-for VIP status too closely resembles selling of empty cachet or Catholic indulgences, especially those with guarantees of “special access.”

I became especially interested in Daniel Schmachtenberger‘s appearances on Rebel Wisdom and his approach to sensemaking. Lots of exciting ideas; clearly the fellow has developed an impressive framework for the dynamics involved. But to make it really useful, as opposed to purely theoretical, formal study akin to taking a philosophy course is needed. Maybe there’s written material available, but without a clear text resource, the prospect of sifting unguided through a growing collection of YouTube videos caused me to retreat (out of frustration? laziness?). At some later point, I learned that Schmachtenberger was a participant among a loose collection of under-the-radar intellectuals (not yet having elevated themselves to thought leaders) working on an alternative to politics-and-civilization-as-usual called Game B (for lack of a better name). A good article about Schmachtenberger and what’s called “The War on Sensemaking” (numerous Internet locations) is found here.

While the Game B gang seems to have imploded over disagreements and impasses (though there may well be Internet subcultures still carrying the torch), its main thrust has been picked up by Bret Weinstein and his DarkHorse Podcast (var.: Dark Horse) co-hosted by his wife Heather Heying. Together, they analyze contemporary political and cultural trends through the twin perspectives of evolutionary biology and game theory. They also live in Portland, Oregon, home to the most radical leftist civil unrest currently under way this summer of 2020. They further warn unambiguously that we Americans are at grave risk of losing the grand melting pot experiment the U.S. represents as the self-anointed leader of the free world and standard-bearer of liberal democratic values sprung from the Enlightenment. What is meant by protesters to succeed the current regime in this proto-revolutionary moment is wildly unclear, but it looks to be decidedly fascist in character. Accordingly, Weinstein and Heying are actively promoting Unity 2020 (var.: Unity2020 and Un1ty2020) to select and nominate an independent U.S. presidential candidate — “Not Trump. Not Biden.” Unless you’re jacked into the Internet and political discussions avidly, it’s quite easy to overlook this emergent political reform. I was vaguely aware of Articles of Unity and its “Plan to Save the Republic” yet still had trouble locating it via Web searches. Weinstein’s penchant (shared with his brother Eric) for coining new terms with flexible spelling is no aid.

Like Rebel Wisdom, Weinstein and Heying, each on their individual Patreon pages, offer multiple levels of membership and access: $2 to $250 per month for him, $5 to $17 per month for her. Why such high divergence, I wonder? I raise paid memberships repeatedly because, while acknowledging the need to fund worthwhile endeavor and to earn a living, there is something tacky and unseemly about enabling concentric inner circles exclusively through paid access — no other apparent qualification needed. More pointedly, an article called “The Corrupting Power Of The Inner Ring” by Rod Dreher at The American Conservative discusses David Brooks’ column about Alan Jacobs’ book How to Think (2017) where Jacobs cites C.S. Lewis’ concept of the inner ring — something to be distrusted. (Sorry about that long string of names.) Also demonstrates how ideas are highly derivative of antecedents found throughout culture and history.

Anyway, the DarkHorse Podcast provides some of the best analysis (not to be confused with news reporting or journalism, neither of which is even remotely successful at sensemaking anymore) to be found among those inserting themselves into the public conversation (if such a thing can be said to exist). Willingness to transform oneself into a pundit and then opine freely about anything and everything is a shared attribute of the people profiled above. (I specifically disclaimed punditry as a goal of mine when launching this blog.) That most of them have embraced podcasting (not blogging — I’m so unhip, committed to a legacy medium that both came and went with surprising celerity) as the primary medium of information exchange is quite contemporary. I surmise it’s silent acknowledgement that Americans (on the whole) no longer read and that text has fallen out of favor compared to speech, especially the eavesdropped conversational type. Podcasting doesn’t complete the information gathering and sensemaking shift from text and newsprint to TV and video begun many decades ago but certainly intensifies it. Podcasting has also demonstrated real money-making potential if one succeeds in attracting a sufficient audience (driving ad revenue) and/or a cadre of subscribers and contributors. Potential for real political engagement is unproven as yet.

Another public intellectual I cited briefly a couple years ago, Thomas Sowell, crossed my browsing path yet again. And yet again, I found myself somewhat credulously led down the primrose path set by his reckless (or savvy?) juxtaposition of facts and details until a seemingly logical conclusion appeared magically without his ever having made it manifest. In the two-year-old interview I watched (no link), Sowell states cause-and-effect (or substitutes one combo for another) confidently while simultaneously exuding false humility. He basically serves up a series of small sells leading to the big sell, except that the small sells don’t combine convincingly unless one is swept unawares into their momentum. But the small sells work individually, and I found myself agreeing repeatedly before having to recognize and refuse the final sale. I also recognize in Sowell’s reliance on facts and numerical data my own adherence to evidence. That’s an epistemological foundation we should all share. Moreover, my willingness to consider Sowell’s remarks is a weak stab at heterodoxy. But as the modern information environment has made abundantly clear, lying with numbers and distortion of facts (or more simply, fake news and narrative spin) are precisely what makes sensemaking so difficult yet critical. For instance, I have echoed Sowell recently in suggesting that inequality and structural violence may be less rooted in snarling, overt racism (at least since the Civil Rights Era) than in simple greed and opportunism while acknowledging that virulent white supremacism does still exit. Yet others insist that everything is political, or racist, or owing to class conflict, or subsumed entirely by biology, chemistry, or physics (or religion). Take your pick of interpretations of reality a/k/a sensemaking. I had halfway expected someone to take me to task for failing to voice the approved radical leftist orthodoxy or try to cancel me for publishing something nominally conservative or Sowellesque. But no one cares what I blog about; I have succeeded in avoiding punditry.

With such a sprawling survey of sensemakers good and bad, successful and unsuccessful (according to me), there is no handy conclusion. Instead, let me point to the launching point for this blog post: my blog post called “Mad World Preamble.” Even before that, I blogged about Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary (2010), drawing particular attention to chap. 12 as his diagnosis of how and when the modern world went mad. Perhaps we have indeed managed to step back from the atomic brink (MAD) only to totter and stumble through a few extra decades as PoMo madness overtook us completely in the latter half of the 20th century; and maybe the madness is not yet the hallucinatory type fully evident at a glance. However, look no further than the two gibbering fools foisted upon the voting public in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. Neither is remotely capable of serving responsibly. Every presidential election in the 21st century has been accompanied by breathless analysis prophesying the implosion of either political party following an electoral loss. Well, they both imploded and can’t field a proper candidate for high office anymore. There is probably no stronger test case for societal and institutional madness than the charade we’re now witnessing. Maybe Unity 2020 is onto something.

This 9-year-old blog post continues to attract attention. I suspect the reason behind sustained interest is use of the term structural violence, which sits adjacent to voguish use of the term structural racism. Existence of permanent, institutionalized violence administered procedurally rather than through blunt, behavioral force (arguably still force but obfuscated through layers of bureaucracy) seems pretty plain to most observers. Typical analyses cite patriarchy and white supremacism as principal motivators, and those elements are certainly present throughout American history right up to today. I offer a simpler explanation: greed. Thus, most (though not all) institutionalized violence can be chalked up to class warfare, with the ownership class and its minions openly exacting tribute and stealing everyone’s future. Basically, all resources (material, labor, tax dollars, debt, etc.) can be attached, and those best positioned to bend administrative operations to their will — while pretending to help commoners — stand to gain immensely.

It doesn’t much matter anymore whose resources are involved (pick your oppressed demographic). Any pool is good enough to drain. But because this particular type of violence has become structural, after gathering the demographic data, it’s an easy misdirection to spin the narrative according to divergent group results (e.g., housing, educational opportunity, incarceration rates) where such enduring structures have been erected. While there is certainly some historical truth to that version of the story, the largest inanimate resource pools are not readily divisible that way. For instance, trillions of dollars currently being created out of nothingness to prop up Wall Street (read: the ownership class) redound upon the entire U.S. tax base. It’s not demographically focused (besides the beneficiaries, obviously) but is quite literally looting the treasury. Much the same can be said of subscriber and customer bases of commercial behemoths such as Walmart, Amazon, McDonald’s, and Netflix. Those dollars are widely sourced. One can observe, too, that the ownership class eschews such pedestrian fare. Elites avoiding common American experience is reflected as well in the U.S. armed services, where (depending on whom one believes: see here and here) participation (especially enlisted men and women) skews toward the working class. Consider numerous recent U.S. presidents (and their offspring) who manage to skip out on prospective military service.

What’s surprising, perhaps, is that it’s taken so long for this entrenched state of affairs (structural violence visited on all of us not wealthy enough to be supranational) to be recognized and acted upon by the masses. The Occupy Movement was a recent nonviolent suggestion that we, the 99%, have had quite enough of this shit. Or course, it got brutally shut down and dispersed. A couple days ago, a caravan of looters descended upon the so-called Magnificent Mile in Chicago, the site of numerous flagship stores of luxury brands and general retailers. I don’t approve of such criminal activity any more than the ownership class looting the treasury. But it’s not hard to imagine that, in the minds of some of the Chicago looters at least, their livelihoods and futures have been actively stolen from them. “Look, over there! In that window! Resources for the benefit of rich people. They’ve been stealing from us for generations. Now let’s steal from them.” The big difference is that designer handbags, electronics, and liquor hauled away from breached storefronts is relatively minor compared to structural violence of which we’ve become more acutely aware recently. Put another way, complaining about these looters while ignoring those looters is like complaining about someone pulling your hair while someone else is severing your legs with a chainsaw, leaving you permanently disabled (if not dead). They’re not even remotely in the same world of harm.

The Anton Bruckner symphony cycle recorded by the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan (the Wing Cycle to some collectors) has long been known to me and cherished. Based on Amazon reviews noting remastered and improved sound over previous releases of the same recorded performances, I decided the relatively low cost was worth trying out Blu-ray Audio, my first such disc. Although the entire cycle fits on a single Blu-ray Audio disc, nine CDs are included in the box. Duplication seems unnecessary, but the inclusion of both may be desirable for some listeners. Pleasingly, original cover art (the aforementioned wing) from the LPs appears on the 2020 rerelease. Shamefully, like another recent set of Bruckner symphonies, DG put the conductor’s name above the composer’s. This practice ought to stop. This review is about comparing versions/media in addition to reviewing the performances. Caveat: a superior stereo system is a prerequisite. If listening on some device not intended for high fidelity (phone, computer, etc.), save your dollars and find the recordings on a streaming service. Both CD and Blu-ray players in my system are connected to the preamp via digital cables to use the better DAC in the preamp rather than those in the players.

My comparison involves four releases of the cycle: (1) original LPs from the 1970s and 80s, (2) 1990 CDs, (3) 2020 CDs, and (4) the sole 2020 Blu-ray Audio disc. All are the same works and same performances. Direct A/B/C/D comparisons are difficult, and I didn’t listen to every version of each, which would have required far too many hours. Rather, I focused on two representative movements well established in my ear: the 2nd movt. (Adagio) of the 5th and the 4th movt. (Finale) of the 8th. Because every recording has its own unique characteristics borne out of the era (typically divided by decade), the engineering team, and the producer, it’s normal for me to attempt to “hear through” all the particulars of a recording to the actual performance. For a recording to be badly flawed or unlistenable is fairly exceptional, and I still tend to make mental adjustments to accommodate what I’m hearing. Similar perceptual adjustments in the visual spectrum known as “white balance” reflect how outdoor lighting and color shift as the sun transits across the sky. Accordingly, there is probably no such thing as authentic or natural sound as one’s perceptual apparatus adjusts automatically, accommodating itself to what is heard to fit circumstance. That said, it’s obvious that some recorded media and listening environments are superior to others.

Easy part first: comparison of (2), (3), and (4) revealed only minor differences at best. A tendency toward bright, treble-heavy equalization was not ameliorated with (3) or (4) as other reviewers suggested remastering had accomplished. With the 4th and 9th symphonies especially, sustained timpani rolls often mask the orchestra and were not appreciably rebalanced or improved. For ease or due to laziness, I tend to cue CDs before any other media. The Blu-ray disc offers substantially the same sound but lumps all the tracks together in one extended, numbered sequence (no track titles). Selecting a particular track is a minor inconvenience and requires the TV screen be on, at least initially. Given that, CDs will likely continue to be the first medium I reach for. Perceptual accommodation may also account for my inability to detect much difference among any of the CDs and/or Blu-ray Audio. However, no surprise to audiophiles and despite their drawbacks, LPs proved to be the warmest, most pleasing sound. A huge amount of gain (volume) was needed to bring the LPs up to the sound level of other media, which overcame surface noise handily. Of course, LPs wear and become distorted over time, and quality of the playback equipment matters quite a lot. But for focused listening sessions, LPs win the media challenge handily.

Hard part second: these performances are remarkable for two principal reasons, namely, consistently excellent (even definitive, some say) interpretations and uniformly sumptuous orchestral sound. Karajan is renowned for his three Beethoven symphony cycles and how he grasps and communicates structure far better than most. The quality is subtle but unmistakable, and the same is true with Bruckner. Like Wagner, Bruckner performance style has developed into a cult of slow in two aspects: passages best realized at surprisingly slow tempos (difficult to maintain and control) and the stately pace at which symphonic form and discussion unfolds. Many individual movements top 20 min. in duration. The Berlin Philharmonic handles them exceptionally well, meaning without apparent impatience or hurry. The Adagio of the 5th is one such example, where the slow introduction exhibits breadth and beauty of tone and critical evenness of pulse (pizzicati in the low strings). Although quite slow, the intro holds one’s attention without flagging, meandering, or luring listeners away toward more obvious excitements. The string tutti that follows immediately is among several passages in Karajan’s recorded oeuvre that overcompensates (for what is unclear) in glorious fashion. My LP is decidedly worn from repeat playing of this movement. No other recording of the 5th (to my knowledge) dares to approach Berlin’s volume and intensity in these first few minutes. Similarly, the Finale of the 8th barrels in with a declamatory tutti that has never sounded better. Everything about this movement works to the credit of the Berlin Philharmonic, especially when the orchestra slots into an ideal combination of tempo and balance at 5:45. This particular passage rarely fails to inspire me, but no other recording captures quite the same authority. Similarly, the gorgeous Wagner tuba solo in the Adagio of the 8th and the rolling, swinging momentum of the Scherzo of the 8th, through many iterations of the same basic motif, are achievements unmatched by other recordings. Further observations could be made throughout the cycle, specifying moments that remain unparalleled.

Overall, none of the symphonies in the Wing Cycle is weak. Each possesses Karajan’s characteristic, dignified approach. Worth noting is that numerous flubs and misalignments are left in, which some critics assess as sloppiness — a quintessential characteristic often mentioned regarding Karajan recordings. To note counters, these represent unforgivable errors to be covered by retakes and/or editing. However, this human quality, audibly distinct from the overproduced and heartlessly punctilious perfection of many modern recordings (especially multitrack, quantized recordings found in pop and rock music), does not detract. Rather, a certain verisimilitude is presented, just like live performance. Truly being in the moment means accepting minor flaws to preserve the larger musical flow. Maybe this is how Karajan embodies a structural vision of the works, obliterated in other recorded performances by piecing together too many disparate parts. Hard to say.

Digressing somewhat, three orchestras dominate the field when it comes to recordings of Bruckner symphonies: the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO), the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (VPO), and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO). The BPO and VPO are similar in approach and sound and are well represented in their respective discographies. (The VPO lacks a unified cycle under one conductor.) However, the CSO achieves its fairly unique results with this repertoire through an unusually high level of technical mastery — both individually and in aggregate — and through sheer, overwhelming, even outrageous volume and focus in the tuttis, led by the storied CSO brass section. Critics may complain of brass players swamping the orchestra and turning the whole endeavor into a wind symphony, such an overweening approach being better suited to overt hysterics of Russian symphonists such as Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. That judgment is rather reductive, considering how Bruckner scored his orchestral works with ample time devoted to each section of the orchestra. As performer and brass player, the blazing thrills delivered by the CSO (in its heyday) have an extraordinary pull on my musical sensibilities.

The CSO’s two cycles under Barenboim and Solti are less consistently good than the Wing Cycle, but when individual entries are good, they’re very good indeed. For instance, the opening horn solo of the 4th (CSO under Barenboim) is perfection, as is the amazing modulating chorale undergirded by the tuba later in the movement. The main climax of the Adagio of the 4th (still CSO under Barenboim) is probably the most exuberant, shattering symphonic climax I’ve ever heard (Shosti 7 under Bernstein may exceed it but only by virtue of the double brass section). Solti’s highlights are the extended coda of the Finale of the 5th, the coda of the 1st movt. of the 9th, and nearly the whole of the 6th for its raw power and precision. Lots of other recordings I could mention, including Giulini’s two remarkable 9ths (frankly terrifying with the CSO but more cosmic with the VPO). The only orchestras that match the CSO for power and intensity are the BPO and VPO. However, European orchestras perform differently together and seldom display the same technical brilliance or volume of American orchestras. Instead, they sound more soulful. These characteristics are impossible to quantify, like the sound of LPs vs. CDs, but are readily apparent upon hearing. Further, both are valid approaches, able to satisfy musical tastes and objectives differently.

The previous version of this blog post was about flora and fauna dying off and/or being driven to endangerment and extinction by direct and indirect effects of human activity, and on the flip side, collective human inactivity to stop or forestall the worst effects. Indeed, removal and rollback of environmental restrictions and regulations hasten the ongoing ecocide. This version is about three more things disappearing right before our eyes like some sort of macabre magic act: American jobs, American businesses, and civil society.

Job losses stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic and government-mandated shut-downs and quarantines have been reported ad nauseum, as have mounting deaths. No need to cite the numbers. To call this disappearance of people from the streets and workplaces sickening is a redundancy. Despite an immediate Federal response (by the Fed) to prop up the stock market (a literal entity) but not main street (a figurative entity), businesses both large and small are now performing this same disappearing act. Again, no need to cite the numbers, which are worsening continuously. It’s impossible to predict what will be left after this destructive phase runs its course. I don’t expect it to be creative destruction (also the name of the defunct group blog where I got my start blogging). In the meantime, however, plenty of price gougers, vultures, scammers, and opportunists seek to exploit new capitalist dynamics. As the unemployed and disenfranchised are further reduced to penury, many have taken to the streets to demand change. While the inciting incident was yet another unarmed black man killed by police in the course of his arrest, the wider context of unrest in the streets is the utterly preposterous level of wealth and income inequality. Two short-lived sovereign zones in Seattle and Portland (declared and undeclared, respectively) attest to a lack of confidence in state authority and fraying rule of law. Federal law enforcement officers disappearing protesters from the street speaks volumes regarding how the citizenry is regarded by politicians. The looming wave of evictions, foreclosures, and bankruptcies also promise to overwhelm civil society and prove the illegitimacy of our current government.

The connection between one set of disappearing acts and the next should be obvious, as we humans rely upon the natural world for our very survival. The modern industrial world, especially in those societies organized around capitalism, has been at war with nature (ecocide), extracting far more than necessary for a balanced, respectable life. Instead, wanton accumulation and self-aggrandizement (read: ballin’) are commonplace, at least for those who can. In the process, we’ve made ourselves vulnerable to even modest perturbations of this hypercomplex style of social organization. Well, surprise! The war on nature is no longer taking place over there, socially distanced, out of sight and out of mind; the war has come home. Nature struck back, blindly demanding a return to equilibrium. The disappearing act turns out to be part of a much larger balancing act. However, processes we humans initiated make impossible any such return except perhaps over evolutionary time. For the foreseeable future, the only paved path is toward unfathomable loss.