Sunday, August 09, 2015

A Sunday meditation featuring Steven Pinker, a magic rock, the Marx Brothers, T. S. Eliot, Alfred Hitchcock, music videos, Scientology, masturbation and Rupert Murdoch ... and they say the pond isn't in to diversity ...

The pond has been keeping a copy of Steven Pinker's ancient 2002 book The Blank Slate in the toilet for reading (thanks to the kindly soul who dropped it into the street for recycling in best Newtown fashion), and what better subject for a Sunday meditation, nee rant.

The pond was only a couple of pages in to the section on the y'artz and contemplating Pinker's kind offer to help revitalize the humanities and the y'artz, when we came across this passage:

Even in recent decades, many artists were seen in their time as commercial hacks and only later attained artistic respectability. Examples include the Marx Brothers, Alfred Hitchcock, the Beatles, and, if we are to judge by recent museum shows and critical appreciations, even Norman Rockwell. There are dozens of excellent novelists from countries all over the world, and though most television and cinema is dreadful, the best can be very good indeed: Carla on Cheers was wittier than Dorothy Parker, and the plot of Tootsie is cleverer than the plots of any of Shakespeare's cross-dressing comedies.
As for music, though it may be hard for anyone to compete against the best composers from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the past century has been anything but barren. Jazz, Broadway, country, blues, folk, rock, soul, samba, reggae, world music, and contemporary composition have blossomed. Each has produced gifted artists and has introduced new complexities of rhythm, instrumentation, vocal style, and studio production into our total musical experience. Then there are genres that are flourishing as never before, such as animation and industrial design, and still others that have only recently come into existence but have already achieved moments of high accomplishment, such as computer graphics and rock videos (for instance, Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer).

Let's see if the pond can rediscover its old semiotic skills and deconstruct this passage and come to the inevitable conclusion that outside his speciality, Pinker is a bit of a drop-kick middlebrow twit.

Let's face it - anyone who selects Sledgehammer, when they might select an example from Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry or Chris Cunningham, is gormless and clueless, and from what the pond could see, the bunch of moving fruit and vegetables didn't make it into the NME's top 100 music videos here because ... well because it's unutterably naff ...

But let's start with the easy and cheap rhetorical shot that people like the Marx Brothers, Alfred Hitchcock and the Beatles were in their time dismissed as commercial hacks.

Preposterous and silly. Hitchcock was widely admired long before the French auteurists got on to him in the 1950s - the pond has the film reviews to prove it - as was John Ford (no matter how many maudlin, sentimental scenes beside a graveyard in the wild west that he staged, or how many films John Wayne clumped through being John Wayne until he grew into more significant roles, as in The Searchers). And so on and so forth. Fritz Lang, Ernest Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg ... the cult of the director was alive and well in the 1930s.

As for the Beatles, the pond can still remember the fierce arguments that evolved after they went all hippie and intellectual and druggie - it was said that they'd sold out the artistic integrity of the pure pop that launched them into the stratosphere (never mind, the pond liked both phases, until the baleful Paul-ites ruined the band).

As for the Marx brothers, they were beloved by many surrealists. Anyone with half a clue about the y'artz would know this. The pond is indebted to this blog about the anarchist clowns for bringing back its memories of its surrealist studies quickly:

During the 1930s, the Marx Brothers were adored by the surrealists. 
Antonin Artaud, a surrealist writer and thinker had this to say about the Marx Brothers' film Animal Crackers: 
If there is a definite characteristic, a distinct poetic state of mind that can be called surrealism, Animal Crackers participated in that state altogether. 
Philippe Soupalt, who proved to the world he was a surrealist by doing things like walking into cafes and shouting "Everybody switch drinks," or stopping strangers on the street to ask them for the address of Philippe Soupalt, wrote after seeing Horse Feathers: 
The comedy of the Marx Brothers lifts us out of reality by exaggerating our peculiarities and aggravating our habits. The real quality of the Marx Brothers and of this extravagant, excessive comedy remains human. They are exactly like ordinary people and act just as we should act if social regulations did not prevent us from behaving in that way. I believe that , though most films rapidly go out of style, this satiric comedy will make us laugh for a long time to come. (and more thanks to David A Cory here).

And the Brothers were much loved by T. S. Eliot, as staid and conservative a High Anglican ponce as ever got around in the twentieth century. Now Eliot didn't form his affection later in life, long after Groucho had gone to TV, but in the hot thrust of cinema viewing, though it later led to some lovely anecdotes in Groucho's letters.

Again for shorthand's sake, the pond remembers the hoopla via Lee Siegel's story for The New Yorker, The Fraught Friendship of T. S. Eliot and Groucho Marx.

In 1961, T. S. Eliot wrote Groucho Marx a fan letter requesting a photograph of the comic actor and humorist. Groucho enthusiastically complied, and the two continued to correspond until they finally met, in June of 1964, in London, when Groucho and his third wife, Eden, went to the Eliots’ house for dinner.

It's all the more distressing in that Pinker quotes Eliot on the first page of his chapter about the y'artz mourning the way the golden age has passed - which Pinker then proceeds to do for umpteen dull misinformed pages.

Of course what's interesting about the Eliot-Groucho dance is what it revealed about Eliot.

He might have been a grand poet, but in his prime, he was also an A-grade bigot:

The tension between Groucho and Eliot became suddenly palpable when I reread an exchange they had about the two photographs that Groucho had sent. Eliot assured Groucho that one of them now hung on a wall in his office, “with other famous friends such as W. B. Yeats and Paul Valery.” About three and a half months later, Groucho wrote to Eliot to say that he had just read an essay about Eliot, by Stephen Spender, that had appeared in the Times Book Review. In it, Spender described the portraits on the wall in Eliot’s office but, Groucho said, “one name was conspicuous by its absence. I trust this was an oversight on the part of Stephen Spender.” Eliot wrote back two weeks later, saying, “I think that Stephen Spender was only attempting to enumerate oil and water colour pictures and not photographs—I trust so.” 
Could Eliot really have hung a picture of Groucho on a wall next to the two greatest poets of the twentieth century? Was Groucho right to be wary of being condescended to and patronized? Was it disrespectful of him to be so touchy? Was Eliot’s echo—“I trust so”—of Groucho’s stiff, formal language a deliberate dig at Groucho’s affectation or, perhaps, a parody of polite conversation? You begin to suspect that, underneath their respect for each other’s aura of fame, the two men felt an instinctive hostility toward the social type the other represented. Groucho was a pop-culture celebrity, a child of immigrants, an abrasive, compulsively candid Jew. Eliot was a literary mandarin, the confident product of St. Louis Wasp gentry, and an elliptical Catholic royalist given to grave, decorous outbursts of anti-semitism. 
In 1934, Eliot published a book of lectures called “After Strange Gods,” in which this passage appeared: 
The population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely either to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate. What is still more important is unity of religious background, and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable. 
Groucho, a highly cultivated man whose greatest regret in life was that he had become an entertainer rather than a literary man—he published some of his first humor pieces in the inaugural issues of this magazine—could not have been unaware of Eliot’s notorious remarks about Jews. They were loudly denounced in the Times, among other places. So even as he was basking in Eliot’s admiration, he seemed to feel compelled to cause Eliot some discomfort. And Eliot was hardly unaware, in the wake of the Holocaust, of the distress his 1934 remarks had caused. In his book, “T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form,” Anthony Julius writes that after the Second World War Eliot, “while unable to break free of an anti-Semitism that had become part of the processes of his thinking, had ceased to be comfortable with his contempt for Jews.”

And so on, and there's more at The New Yorker, but the point is made - this is pretty basic cultural affairs stuff, and nobody, except someone aiming to do a little cheap rhetorical trick, would have led the way Pinker showed his hand, with a cornball, easy, slam dunk,  commercial hack v. the high arts routine.

Everyone knows that intellectuals loved the Brothers and they were distinguished artistes:

As for Carla being funnier than Dorothy Parker or Tootsie cleverer than Bill, that's just an opinion, which says as much about the opinion-maker as it does about the insight on offer.

Refer back to clueless and gormless, opinions that make a flash in the pan seem deep .. and let no man stand in the way of the pond's affection for the real Dorothy Parker ...

As for what Pinker offers on music, what does he mean when he scribbles "it may be hard for anyone to compete against the best composers from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries".

What does he might? It might be hard for composers ranging from the lyrical Vaughan Williams to the spiky Shostakovich, Prokofiev and many other composers too tedious to list here?

And what is he blathering about when he says that the most important part of the new musical experience is that it introduces new complexities, including studio production?

As if a 24 track tape recorder or a digital machine is the be all and end all of a "new musical experience", as opposed to sitting a few metres away from someone singing and playing without benefit of any artificial assistance or recording...

And then there's his abuse and misuse of the word "genre", applying it to animation and industrial design.

Animation is a technique - analogue and digital. Industrial design is ... well it's a bloody technique too, or a practice, and you can indulge in any number of stylistic tricks or flourishes within the practice, incorporating all sorts of genre elements. If you want to invent a pop art Cube and call it a Mac, feel free, just don't expect it to work for long ... (ah, where did we put that cooling thingie?)

Genre, if Pinker had been able to do a Greg Hunt, is better understood as:

... any category of literature or other forms of art or entertainment, e.g. music, whether written or spoken, audial or visual, based on some set of stylistic criteria. Genres are formed by conventions that change over time as new genres are invented and the use of old ones are discontinued. Often, works fit into multiple genres by way of borrowing and recombining these conventions. 
Genre began as an absolute classification system for ancient Greek literature. Poetry, prose and performance had a specific and calculated style that related to the theme of the story. Speech patterns for comedy would not be appropriate for tragedy, and even actors were restricted to their genre under the assumption that a type of person could tell one type of story best. In later periods genres proliferated and developed in response to changes in audiences and creators. Genre became a dynamic tool to help the public make sense out of unpredictable art. Because art is often a response to a social state, in that people write/paint/sing/dance about what they know about, the use of genre as a tool must be able to adapt to changing meanings. In fact as far back as ancient Greece, new art forms were emerging that called for the evolution of genre, for example the tragicomedy. 
Genre suffers from the same ills of any classification system. Genre is to be reassessed and scrutinized, and to weigh works on their unique merit. It has been suggested that genres resonate with people because of the familiarity, the shorthand communication, as well as the tendency of genres to shift with public mores and to reflect the zeitgeist. While the genre of storytelling has been relegated as a lesser form of art because of the heavily borrowed nature of the conventions, admiration has grown. Proponents argue that the genius of an effective genre piece is in the variation, recombination, and evolution of the codes. (Greg Hunt it here Steve).

Put it this way. Animation can embrace all sorts of genres - westerns, 'tweener romcoms, sci-fi, manga (itself a generalist term for many genres), and any of the rest of the genre-laden shows that litter the multi-channels ...

You can see why the pond was in despair. That was just a couple of Pinkerish pars, and the rest of the chapter sees the goose Pinker try to deconstruct, assault and decry modernism and post-modernism with a flurry of matching cliches, making wild generalisations and offering ill-informed opinions that suggest he's not much more than an old-fashioned fuddy duddy who likes to retire to the study in his cardigan, sniff a port or three, listen to a little Mozart and moan about how the y'artz has gone to the dogs. Kissing cousin of George Brandis, so to speak.

Memo to evolutionary biologists, experimental psychologists, cognitive scientists, and such like, if you're going to step out of your scientific comfort zone and scribble on how the humanities and y'artz might be fixed up, for the long absent lord's sake, do a little homework.

Instead of blathering about what others should have done or shouldn't have done, why not have a go yourself? You might discover it's not as easy as you think ... why you might end up a commercial hack, but with luck, the cognoscente will discover you and then all will be well ...

Mr Pinker has been banished from the pond's bathroom. It's not worth the stress at what can be stressful times ... but at least this day the pond has lanced another vexatious piece of disputation and enjoyed a break for the reptiles.

Now for a pivot, and just so the pond can offer a peace pipe to Pinker this meditative Sunday, here's what dropped into the letter box this weekend:

Amazing scenes. That's how cheeky the scientologists are getting, brazen, shameless hussies that they are ...

Independent learning methods? That's what they call L. Ron Hubbard's thoughts? Yes, there's his name down on the left hand side in the small print ...

Blathering about literary and numeracy and pocketing the poodle's cash (and Gillard's largesse before that). And they wonder why the school system is in crisis as they open up the funding floodgates to all sorts of odd cults, and not just the PM's well-established cult or the angry Sydney Anglicans so they can pursue their vendetta against women and gays ...

Speaking of cults, the pond was also delighted to read the Graudian's story about the Mormon stone, here:

I am a rock! I might even be an island ...

And the pond was delighted to receive a very special link from a reader,

The name sort of gives a clue as to the topic ...

And finally, to strike a secular note, the pond was delighted to receive another link, this one to a site which as its name implies is interested in the free flow of information:

Starting a few hours ago the online live feed of Sky News stopped working. Not because of a technical issue, but due to a copyright complaint from fellow news network Fox News, which is also owned by Rupert Murdoch. 
As a result, visitors to the Sky News Live stream page, which is hosted by YouTube, are now welcomed by the following message. 
“This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Fox News Network, LLC.”

Delightful. Wonderful. What a hoot.

It might be resolved of course by the time this post goes to air, but the pond can dream of how this might apply to all Murdochian publications, especially given the way the free and easy way his tabloids deal with intellectual property rights (At least the pond doesn't attempt to make money out of the work of others):

Could it ever happen? Murdochian la la land is unavailable. Sorry about that ...


  1. Morning DP, Steven Pinker may not know much about art but he knows what he likes. But then again, as cognitive scientist how can he be really sure that he knows that he knows what he likes,and that his likes are not just a blind unfolding of his evolutionary pre-programming?

  2. Speaking of writers who are total twits, you might enjoy this on those deep and meaningful authors who write books that could all be called Fond Memoires of Vagina.

    Starts like this.

    "A person like me has to be careful when he goes to the bookstore. He can’t just slop books into his cart and glide over to the register, he has to do his research. Because it is very easy to get burned. Like the time I borrowed Phillip Roth’s The Humbling from the library. I spent the next few weeks making retching noises and trying to get through erotic descriptions that were so terrible they were on the short list for the 2009 Bad Sex in Fiction Award, sex scenes that made me want to buy a tube of lipstick, scrawl IT ALL MEANS NOTHING on the bathroom mirror, and wander the streets in silent agony.

    "This is my characteristic response to a certain type of book I’ve run into many times over the years, a book which I refer to as Fond Memories of Vagina. The plot is always the same: “I am a writer in the twilight of my years, bored with life and my sexual powers. Oh, wait: pussy. I shall attain some. I am reinvigorated! Thanks, pussy!”

    "This bores me and makes my entire lower half numb......"


    1. He inserted his male attachment into the female adapter, and watched his progress bar creep across the screen. The green line’s smooth rationality was undercut by the capricious time estimates that were careening wildly across the spectrum of likely endpoints. Five hours. Three minutes. Twelve minutes. A day. He thought of organized sports, for some reason.

      Then, at last, the apex! The timer was counting down reliably from thirty seconds, the bar was filled with vigor. He hastened to his appointed destination, only to be distracted by a notification window (ERROR 739: FEMALE ORGASM NOT FOUND.) He felt his baud rate begin to slip. In a panic, he closed the window and pushed it from his mind. And then there it was: le petit écran bleu de la mort. He defragmented into a million bits of solitary pleasure.


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