Tag Archives: art

Software Mysteries: Roll over Beethoven, let Satchmo come over!

9 Mar

I spent a fair amount of time in the last decade of the previous century working in the software industry (see this post for example) and reading popular prescriptions for improving America’s management style, many of those inspired by Japan. Somewhere along the line I got the idea that these new organizational ideas were more like an improvising jazz quintet and basketball than like the classical symphony and football. That is to say, that, stylistically, high-tech owes a debt to African-America even if African-Americans are not widely employed in the high tech world.

That’s what my current piece in 3 Quarks Daily is about: Cultural Styles in the 21st Century, or the High Tech Debt to Africa. This is the kind issue I’ve looked at elsewhere as well. Here’s a passage from Cultural Evolution: A Vehicle for Cooperative Interaction Between the Sciences and the Humanities:

During the 1960s the late Alan Lomax (1968) decided to investigate folk song styles against the background of cultural complexity. Lomax and his colleagues prepared a sample of over 3000 songs, representing 233 cultures from 5 continents plus the Pacific islands, and had judges code the songs on features of style — nature of the performing group, relationship between vocal part and instrumental parts, melodic style, rhythmic style, wordiness, tone quality, tempo, and so on. They correlated style traits with measures of social complexity and found that the simpler the society, the simpler its song lyrics. The simplest societies used a great deal of repetition and nonsense syllables. Similarly, the precision of enunciation varies with social complexity; the more complex the society, the more precise the enunciation. The prevalence of solo singers was also associated with complexity. In the simplest societies, everyone sang; no one was given or took a solo role. It is only in more complex societies, with permanent leaders and social stratification, that we see ensembles divided into a soloist and accompanists.

This is an empirical finding. And, while it may seem intuitively obvious that complex cultures create a collective ambiance that favors expressive forms that are different from those of less complex cultures, one would like an explanation for this “fit.” I would expect a robust account of cultural evolution to provide such an explanation.

In a similar vein, John Roberts, Brian Sutton-Smith, and Adam Kendon (1963) were interested in the relationship between child-rearing practices, community size, types of games, and folk tales. In particular, they were interested in what they have called the strategic mode. Strategy plays minor role in games of physical skill, but a dominant role in games such as chess and poker, which also has strong elements of chance. In folk tales, we can examine how the outcome is achieved, whether through physical skill, chance (guessing, casting lots, magic), or strategy (e.g. evaluating a situation, deception, out-witting an opponent). They discovered that games of strategy are likely to co-occur with folktales having a strong strategic element and that both are more likely in politically complex societies (chiefdoms and above).

The general point is simple: Expressive culture, how and what we sing, dance, and tell stories, is not just about entertainment. It pervades our society and all that we do. The cultural requirements of high tech industries are quite different from those of ‘classical’ industrial revolution. The fact that high tech culture evolved in a society pervaded by jazz, rock and roll, and hip-hop is not incidental. It is foundational.


Tim Morton: Chants and the World

6 Aug

From Timothy Morton. The Ecological Thought. Harvard UP 2010, p. 104:

What’s wrong with the “re-enchantment of the world”? There’s nothing wrong with enchantment. It’s the prefix “re-“ that the source of the problem. This prefix assumes that the world was once enchanted, that we have done something to disenchant it, and that we can, and should, get back to where we once belonged. We simply can’t unthink modernity. If there is any enchantment, it lies in the future. The ecological “enchants the world,” if enchantment means exploring the profound and wonderful openness and intimacy of the mesh. What can we make of the new constellation? What art, literature, music, science, and philosophy are suitable to it? Art can contain utopian energy. As Percey Shelley put it, art is a kind of shadow from the future that looms into our present world.

The fact is, enchantment is as more about us than it is about the world. It is WE who are or are not enchanted by the world. But what good does our enchantment do the world?

Not much.

What need does the world have of our enchantment?

Not much.

If there’s disenchantment, that too has more to do with us than the world. If we want to we can get over it. If we can’t, well, no sense it looking to the world. Its got its own problems. It could care less about our disenchantment.

The world, like Old Man River, just keeps rollin’ along. And we can learn to chant anytime we so wish.

Why the Expressive Arts are Essential to the Transition

16 Apr

The expressive arts: music and dance, drawing and painting, calligraphy, sculpture, acting, needlecraft, architecture, and so on. Why they are essential: Because they bind us to one another and to the earth, they transform a place, a locus, into a home.

Before continuing down that path, however, let’s take a look back to the Romantics. It’s important to see how, for all their love of nature and of the expressive arts, they contributed to the ideologies that have ended up alienating us from Nature, and from the expressive arts.

It’s really quite simple. Back at the turn of the 18th into the 19th century, as the industrial revolution took hold, the Romantics venerated Nature, and opposed it to the City and to Industry. Industry was dirty, degrading, and alienating, keeping us from our True Home, nature. The trouble is, by so arguing, the Romantics placed Nature on a Pedestal, and put the Pedestal Over There Somewhere. The Romantics preserved nature by separating it from us. As more and more people moved into the cities, more and more people moved away from Nature. Nature became more and more alien, even as the Romantic Ideal became more and more alluring.

At the same time, the Romantics invested artistic expression in a class of rustics that lived Other There, in Nature, but also in an elite class of Geniuses who, while living among us, were not of us. Music and painting and poetry and dance became the provinces of those august geniuses, on the one hand, and women and children on the other. They were no longer capacities that each and everyone of us had and exercised. And those geniuses, they became the playthings of the industrial rich, perhaps railing against them, but ultimately tied to them as patrons.

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Art and Civil Society in Tokugawa Japan

6 Apr

With an extension to graffiti in late 20th Century

rainbow CEAZE in the industrial zone

I first published this in The Valve back in 2007 under the title “Tokugawa Blogging: Best of 2006.” I’m republishing it here because it relates to the role Transition Teams are playing in moving our societies to a new, more sustainable, and more human way of life.

Back in September of 2006 I was looking through the current issue of Science and saw a book review (requires subscription) entitled “Through Art to Association in Japanese Politics” by one Christena Turner. Given my interest in manga and anime, the title caught my attention. That Science was reviewing a book on such a topic, that really caught my attention. So I read the review, of Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture (Amazon.com) by Eiko Ekegami.

According to Turner, Eikegami argued that

Japanese sociability is characterized by an extensive repertoire of practices for handling the problem of how to interact with strangers. Somewhere between friends and enemies lies the domain of strangers. Somewhere between intimacy and danger lies the domain of civility. “The degree of ‘strangership’ may be an indication of the degree of civility in a given society,” she claims. Civility permits ordinary people to be confident in interactions with those of unknown or different backgrounds, making it possible to form social bonds in the absence of friendship or kinship.

This is important because modern democracies requires a civil realm where individuals can form voluntary associations “outside the realms of both the political institutions of the state and the intimate ties of the family.” Ikegami argued

that networks of people engaged in interactive artistic and cultural pursuits created the bonds of “civility without civil society” that prepared the population of pre-modern Japan for its strikingly rapid transformation into one of the first and most successful modern nations outside of the West. Art created politics when participation in aesthetic networks taught people technologies of association among strangers that eased the transition toward institutions of a modern political economy.

That had me hooked. Not only would this book serve as “deep background” for my interest in manga and anime – “deep” because it’s about a period, roughly 1600 to 1850, well before the emergence of those forms – but it also promised to be a volume that argued for the social value of art on an empirical basis, as opposed to asserting ideals. Since I’d already argued that it was music that made apes into humans, I was eager to read a more empirical, less speculative, argument broadly, if only loosely, consistent with that. Finally, it seemed that Ikegami’s argument might be generally useful in thinking about how social networks function in the larger society.

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Follow the Acorns: Totoro Isn't Gojira, can you find him in YOUR back yard?

16 Mar

Anyone familiar with Japanese popular culture knows that it is haunted by the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ishiro Honda’s Gojira is one seminal example of that haunting. But those evil ghosts are by no means the only spirits animating the Japanese psyche and landscape. In this post I examine the life spirit Hayao Miyazaki has embodied in My Neighborhood Totoro, a story that is rich with a deep sense of locality, locality as humble as an acorn and as exhalted as a mighty camphor. Even as we meditate on Gojira as a cautionary tale about techno-hubris, let us also meditate on Totoro as an affirmation of life.

totoro camphor

My Neighbor Totoro is set in rural Japan in the 1950s. The story centers on two young girls, Mei and Satsuki, and the Totoro. Along with their father, the girls have moved into a rural house that’s near the sanitarium where their mother is hospitalized. As the story opens the three of them are in a small moving truck traveling the final distance to their new home. They arrive, stop the truck, and start moving in.

As you know, the story is set in rural Japan in the 1950s. The story centers on two young girls, Mei and Satsuki, and the Totoro. Along with their father, the girls have moved into a rural house that’s near the sanitarium where their mother is hospitalized. As the story opens the three of them are in a small moving truck traveling the final distance to their new home. They arrive, stop the truck, and start moving in.

About six minutes in – the film is roughly 86 minutes long – Satsuki and Mei notices a huge tree towering over the forest. Their father tells them it’s a camphor tree (that’s it, at the head of the post). We’ll see this tree again; it’s a major motif in the film.

About a minute later – 6:41 – Satsuki notices an acorn on the floor in a room. And another. For the next minute or so she and Mei will chase down acorns. Father suggests they’re evidence of squirrels . . . or rats.

The girls begin to investigate the rear of the house and, upon entering, detect soot sprites, which will have their attention for the next eight minutes or so, to about 16 minutes in. Soot sprites are small fuzzy balls of soot with eyes. There are lots of them, and they seem to have something to do with the acorns. The girls report back to their father, who has been joined by Granny, the old woman who’s been taking are of the house. She’s the one who identifies the little creatures as, yes, soot sprites, and tells the family a bit about them.

We now know that there’s a bit of fantasy in this world, and its visible to children, but not adults – that’s what Granny said.

At this point we’re roughly a fifth of the way through a film named after Totoro and we haven’t seen one, nor even a hint of one. That won’t happen until roughly 29 minutes in, a bit over a third of the way through the film. But I’m getting ahead of the action.

They finish out that first day doing this and that and end up taking a bath, all three of them together – this is, after all, Japan. They laugh vigorously to drive the spirits from the house – and the last of the soot sprites scurry away. The next day they travel to the sanitarium to visit their mother (and the father his wife). On the third day, Satsuki prepares box lunches for the three of them. She heads off to school, father goes into the study, and Mei sets out to play.

By this time we’ve forgotten about the acorns and the soot sprites.

At about 28 minutes in Mei spots an old bucket with its bottom rusted out. She picks it up, looks through the hole, and what does she see? An acorn, that’s what:

totoro acorn spotted thru bucket

One acorn leads to another and before you know she’s got a pocket full. Then she spots a pair of ears sticking up from the grass:

totoro ears

Perhaps they’re rabbit ears. But no, when she sees the whole creature, it’s not a rabbit, it’s not even fully solid. It’s translucent. It can’t be a “real” creature:

totoro translucent

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