I’ve been observing radio silence for the past few days, mostly just from distraction and preoccupation. It felt nice; I concentrate hard on what I write in public, and telling myself to just let it rest for a while came as a pleasant break. We drove down to Baltimore in our rented car (Margaret keeps marveling that when she steps on the accelerator, the car moves forward; when did they invent that?) to support our Godson Liam as he began the process toward Confirmation. That gave us a chance to visit with Steve and Melinda and Brendan, too, and that trip was great. Pippa stayed with friends, and Sunday evening sang with the Trinity choir at St Mary the Virgin in NYC (she was impressed that her dad isn’t the only one with all that bowing and incense stuff).
Then back in Princeton, I extracted the rest of my lectionary essays from the stygian recesses of my homiletical imagination. That’s a paltry advance toward my goals for International Biblical Studies Writing Month, but it’s something. Now I move on ahead toward my book project, composing a summary of my hermeneutical outlook as a first chapter that will serve also as the basis of a readable article for the Yale Div alumni/ae magazine. I still have two days to pump out more word count.
Speaking of my hermeneutics, while I was away Frank cited an interview with Dr. Helena Cronin of the London School of Economics, in which she speaks of “Post-modernism and its stable-mates — they’re obviously all complete balderdash, not to be taken seriously intellectually.” Frank wanted my input on this, since I’m a poster middle-aged professor for postmodern thought. My first response is that anyone who refers to somebody else’s scholarship as “complete balderdash, not to be taken seriously” isn’t interested in grown-up intellectual conversation, although perhaps Dr. Cronin’s remarks reflect a more subtle sort of critical open-mindedness than I’m accustomed to dealing with.
Frank has commenters who responded with more celerity than I, who do a good job of showing some problems in Dr. Cronin’s position. Let’s just touch on a few pertinent weak spots in the (admittedly casual) position she sketches. First, postmodernism and relativism are not the same thing. Some postmodern thinkers do tend in that direction, but not all, and I doubt she advances the cause of intellectual clarity by conflating the positions. (By the way, I don’t recall ever meeting or reading the works of a true relativist except, perhaps, among some undergraduates.) Second, however ardently Dr. Cronin wants to believe that “science” is immune to the sorts of interrogation that postmodern theorists bring to bear, she omits mention of the political inflection of scientific discourse — arguments over teaching “intelligent design” in public schools are, like it or not, political arguments, and when people enter the public sphere to claim that “my kind of scholarship should be represented as true, and theirs as false,” they’re making a political case. When postmodern theorists point out that the discourses of science entangle inescapably with rhetoric and all its attendant ambiguities, they don’t mean “nothing is true, everything is permitted” (or they shouldn’t); they mean “no one enters the domain of persuasive discourse impervious to the complexities and ambiguities of rhetoric, and if somebody claims to stand above the fray on the high ground of impartial truth, they’re exercising a particularly dangerous kind of (deceptive) rhetoric.” The hysterical anxiety with which people want to cling to unquestionable factuality has more to do with their own uncertyainties than with the status of facts or reality.
I was hoping to come to a smooth segue to the topics of music and digital media, but that didn’t come round, so I’ll exert brute force to turn to another topic that came up while my blog was lying fallow. First, yesterday Margaret pointed out to me a Fresh Air interview with Mick Jones and Tony James, in which they suggested that sharing files was a quite sensible way of distributing music — it builds listenership and increases the pool of fans who might go further to buy an album, a ticket, a t-shirt, or some other artist-support merchandise. “[T]he group’s approach to the internet has gained them widespread popularity. James and Jones began making their songs available on their web site as free downloads in the summer of 2004, and encouraged their fans to record them when they played live and pass those around as well.” That’s terrific, three cheers to them and a poke in the eye to Paul McGuinness for loutish greed. Then John emailed me to point out that one of them also said that “ Getting only a few tracks of an album from iTunes and then playing them in the wrong order is like buying the Mona Lisa but only getting the eyeball, because that’s the most famous part” (that’s quoting my email from John; I don’t know if it’s exactly what the speaker said). Now, this figure gets a couple of things wrong. First, it works only if every album constitutes a Mona Lisa (or “only for albums that attain the status of masterworks”). If Carbon/Silicon (James and Jones’ new group) releases a load of steaming offal as an album, with but one track of scintillating brilliance, then no ethic of wholeness will oblige me to listen to the drivel in order to enjoy the one good cut. Moreover, as I’ve said before, it has always been thus: orchestras perform portions drawn from larger works, singers perform arias without enacting the whole opera, and (paradigmatically for this case) radio publicized rock performances on a single-cut basis, without playing the whole shebang every time. Let the one who has not released a single or a greatest-hits compilation cast the first stone. So the Mona Lisa comparison just doesn’t fly; sorry.
Besides, just last week I acknowledged the whole-album merits of a several records. I’m not opposed to people assembling coherent album-length works. I just don’t agree that if a musician or a record company decides that X performances belong together in an arbitrary-length whole, I as a listener stand under an obligation to listen to that set of performances all together, in the order they decreed.
Finally, Steve Martin rocks. He pulls back the curtain on some of the intense ratiocination that can inform composition (of any sort, though specifically here in comedy), illustrating and demonstrating that there can be a lot more at work in self-expression than “being funny” (or “sounding good” or “looking nice”). I just wish he would make another good movie, or perform another brilliant stand-up routine, or whatever, again.