Monthly Archives: September 2011

Political Thought of the Day

Photo by Columbia Tristar/Getty Images

There’s lots of reasons to keep Rick Perry out the “country club,” but Barack Obama, only one.

The Birth of Tragedy AND the Linguistics of Musicology — or Gleefully Problematizing Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche (image courtesy WikiCommons)

Do we sometimes have the tendency to forget that the full title of Nietzsche’s essay that we have under examination this semester is “The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music?” Yet Nietzsche hardly talks about music at all. And when he does speak of music, his observations strike me as highly suspect and far from unimpeachable.

Nietzsche himself, ironically, makes the case against Birth of Tragedy’s concept of music, recognizing in his 1886 introduction that he has mistaken the kitsch and bombast of Wagnerian opera for a glimpse of the Dyonisiac empyrean; that smell of death so unmistakable and overwhelming to Nietzsche on the opening bars of Act III of Die Walküre was in the end nothing more than the Georg Grösz bourgeois seated next to him lighting the cigar he’d brought from his desk at the munitions-works:

It certainly is too bad that I had to obscure and spoil Dionysiac hints with formulas from Schopenhauer, but there is another feature of the book which seems even worse in retrospect: my tendency to sophisticate such insights as I had into the marvelous Greek issue with an alloy of up-do-date matters; my urge to hope where there was nothing left to hope for, all signs pointing unmistakably toward imminent ruin; my foolish prattle, prompted by the latest feats of German music, about the “German temper” – as though that temper had then been on the verge of discovering, or rediscovering itself! … The intervening years have certainly taught me one thing if they have taught me nothing else: to adopt a hopeless and merciless view toward that “German temper,” ditto toward German music, which I now recognize for what it really is: a thorough-going romanticism, the least Greek of all art forms and, over and above that, a drug of the worst sort, especially dangerous to a nation given to hard drinking and one that vaunts intellectual ferment for its power both to intoxicate the mind and to befog it (“A Critical Backward Glance,” ch. VI, pp 12-13)

How much of Nietzsche’s argument can be said to lay on this false premise? Unfortunately, quite a lot. Music was, in the context of Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche’s very “door of perception.” And he gets it so wrong, dismissing with a Wagnerish wave of the hand nearly two centuries of German musical masterpieces beginning with Bach, and yet relying on this vulgar misrepresentation of the metaphysical nature of music to such an extent, that it is really difficult to continue to credit the rest of his argument. (What a pity Nietzsche couldn’t have lived, instead, to hear Mahler.)

Among the great thinkers there is only one who has fully realized the immense discrepancy between the plastic Appollonian art and the Dyonisiac art of music. Independently of Greek religious symbols, Schopenhauer assigned to music a totally different character and origin from all the other arts, because it does not, like all the others, represent appearance, but the will directly. It is the metaphysical complement to everything that is physical in the world; the thing-in-itself where all else is appearance….. Richard Wagner set his seal of approval on this key notion of all esthetics when he wrote in his book on Beethoven that music obeys esthetic principles quite unlike those governing the visual arts and that the category of beauty is altogether inapplicable to it – although a wrongheaded esthetic based on a misguided and decadent art has attempted to make music answer to criteria of beauty proper only to the plastic arts, expecting it to generate pleasure in beautiful forms. Once I had become aware of this antimony I felt strongly moved to explore the nature of Greek tragedy…. For the first time I seemed to possess the key enabling me to inspect the problem of tragedy… (Ch. XVI, pp. 97-98, emphasis in original.)

This is more than German chauvinism or unfortunate anachronism. It is pure poppycock. One can understand why, in his 1886 preface, Nietzsche would like to lay the blame for this nonsense on Schopenhauer. But that hardly explains away the utter violence to our fundamental understanding of music that is done in this single paragraph. To say, in one breath, that music properly should have no form, no beauty, and leads to no pleasure is a triple-whammy of BS that could only be made by someone capable of conflating the mutilated bodies on the fields of Königgrätz with the dying g*ds of Der Ring (or with our thrill at the “killing” of well-fed extras on the set of Apocalypse Now), a categorical error Nietzsche in his own inimitable way tries to make up for, but charmed by his own youthful excesses, can neither fully renounce.

Nietzsche’s confounding statements on music are also and critically so much more fundamentally flawed than his mistaking, via Schopenhauer, Wagnerian excrescence for genius. Nietzsche’s very characterization of “melody” as an a priori phenomenological structure, the example sine qua non of the penetration of the Dyonisiac into our pitifully Appollonian souls, completely misconstrues and insults one of the fundamental truths about music: that it is, very much like language itself, socially constructed, and therefore inalienably material and concrete. Nietzsche, quoting Schopenhauer directly, says:

[Music] resembles geometric figures and numbers, which are the universal forms of all possible objects of experience and applicable to them all a priori, and yet are not abstract but perceptible and thoroughly determinate. All possible efforts, excitements and manifestations of will, all that goes on in the heart of man and that reason includes in the wide, negative concept of feeling, may be expressed by the infinite number of possible melodies, but always in the universality of mere form, without the material … of which melodies reproduce the very soul and essence as it were, without the body (Ch XVI, pp. 98-99).

It is beyond the ken of this short essay to fully refute all the nonsense embedded in this notion, or how broadly this false premise plays itself out in the magnificently silly Wagnerian rhetoric of Birth of Tragedy. But it immediately brought to mind an observation of the Czech Formalist and linguist Roman Jakobson, made in light of his investigation of “the striking parallels between the fundamental problems of phonology and musicology” (Jakobson, 455).

An African native plays a melody on a bamboo flute. A European musician will have great difficulty in reproducing the melody accurately, but when he is finally successful in establishing the pitches, he is convinced that he reproduces the African piece exactly. But the native does not agree… The difference is that for the African the tone color is the essential point, whereas for the European it is the pitches…. The native and the European hear the same sound and mean by it totally different things (Jakobson, 456).

Nietzsche’s construct, via Schopenhauer, of melody and its “universality of mere form” has, in fact, no universal legitimacy. If music can be said to embody a geometry, it must be said to embody multiple, incompatible geometries leading to manifold incompatible “truths,” which manifest only in the most material way. In the case of music, differences in expression and perception are everything. The despised individual reimposes himself at this most critical moment of the argument, through a door of plain musical ignorance. What significance this has for Nietzsche’s arguments regarding tragedy will best be left to other complainants.

Jeb Bush is just another demagogue blowhard

Why is this man an “expert” on education?

Appearing alongside Cory Booker on the “Education Nation” special edition of this morning’s Morning Joe, former governor Bush jumped in when Booker was asked why teachers make less in Newark than they do in affluent school districts.

“Simple,” Bush said. “It’s collective bargaining agreements.”
Now, aside from being ridiculous on its face — really, teachers’ collective bargaining rights are the reason Newark teachers’ salaries are 1/3 as much as Scarsdale teachers? — Local 481 really wants to stick it to its rank and file, eh? — notice the change in meme here. It’s no longer “teacher unions are corrupt” or “teacher unions are too powerful.” No, now it’s “collective bargaining rights” themselves that are the problem. Take away teachers’ collective bargaining rights, and all of a sudden everything’s going to be right with American education?
Alongside Laura Bush’s push for the MBA-ification of school principals, one can see these “reformers” education agenda for what it is: a program for the corporatization of the public school system, with at-will employee teachers, little or no room for job security or workers’ rights, power concentrated at the top, and the bulk of resources committed to “solutions-oriented” third-party vendors like the Educational Testing Service and Microsoft. It’s a program for turning the public school system into another teat in the already grotesque corporate welfare system.
In the aftermath of Ohio and Wisconsin, the Republican showdown with America’s workers and working class is being framed as a great victory. Alongside efforts nationwide to suppress minority and youth voting — oh, please argue that Republican politicians lay awake at night worrying about the “epidemic” of voter fraud — and the Republican agenda for the near future of the United States is achingly clear.
  • No taxes
  • No collective bargaining
  • No voting rights

This reactionary program, adopted wholesale and nationally, should be called what it is: Reactionary. There’s nothing conservative about it. And through one, powerful wing of the so-called “education reform” movement, today’s reactionary Republicans are busy — very busy — making public schools the next front line in their crusade — their very own “children’s crusade” — to preserve and protect the privileges and assets of America’s new have-it classes, against all the rest of us.

What’s Really Wrong With the Schools Quote of the Day

“We … live in an age of seemingly ever-mounting anxiety; and when the adult world is unable to contain and process its own anxieties in a mature way, they inevitably get projected on to children, resulting in countless well-intentioned but often highly inappropriate intrusions into children’s experience that leave children’s true needs misunderstood and neglected.”

Dr Richard House, senior lecturer at Roehampton University’s Research Centre for Therapeutic Education, from the forthcoming book, Too Much, Too Soon.

Full coverage, from the Telegraph, here.

And now a little lesson to any students listening…

High school is, among other things, school. If you have teachers worth a damn, stop worrying about where you fit in and work for them.

Via Andrew Sullivan, Joss Whedon reflects, and collects some celebrity musings on high school. Aspiring teachers might benefit from paying attention to some thoughts expressed here, on what really, really matters to adolescent children, and taking some inspiration for how to help children achieve those personal and intellectual goals.

Dog Bites Man

Yesterday’s New York Times has a story questioning the effectiveness of widely deploying technology in the classroom.

Matt Richtel writes:

In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning…

The spending push comes as schools face tough financial choices. In Kyrene [Kyrene, Arizona the town featured in the story], for example, even as technology spending has grown, the rest of the district’s budget has shrunk, leading to bigger classes and fewer periods of music, art and physical education.

In his lede, Richtel describes the typical day in class:

They’re studying Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” — but not in any traditional way.  In this technology-centric classroom, students are bent over laptops, some blogging or building Facebook pages from the perspective of Shakespeare’s characters. One student compiles a song list from the Internet, picking a tune by the rapper Kanye West to express the emotions of Shakespeare’s lovelorn Silvius.

There are moments, listening to my fellow ed school enrollees, when it seems their enthusiasm is reserved for anything but reading and writing. And technology is the flavor of the week. A student turns in a short paper full of spelling and grammar errors and gets a C. He puts the same text up in front of the class as a PowerPoint presentation accompanied by a couple of pieces of pirated clip art — I’ve seen this happen — and he’s a brilliant “visual learner.”

Last semester, seniors at the school where I was tutoring and observing were reading Shakespeare’s Richard III. The provided book had facing page “translations” of the Elizabethan English. When I asked, I discovered that not a single student — even the best students — was actually reading the play in the original.  All this talk about the so-called benefits of technology in the classroom is just another crutch, potentially as destructive as those facing-page translations. Here we are, faced with a rich, possibly difficult text, and rather than actually read, discuss and analyze together as a class — which has always presented a challenge to teachers in crowded classrooms. a problem only exacerbated when major budget dollars are expended on technology — let’s all get out our smartphones! Let’s spend some class time searching through our iTunes for a sad song! Let’s draw some comics! Let’s break up into small groups and search for pictures of the British Midlands! And when we’re all done, we can project your work on our cool, new Smartboard! Ridiculous.

Look. I have nothing against technology. Every student should have access to free or cheap broadband Internet, preferably at home as well as at a library. And I’m completely agnostic as to platform — hey that Smartphone’s great! I certainly believe classrooms benefit from having Internet access the same way they benefit from having dictionaries and other correct reference materials.

But count me in the camp that sees Smartphones and WiFi as the bane of a teacher’s existence. Ever try to get a student to stop texting? It’s like trying to get a treat back from your dog. Every student has a smartphone with them, even if they don’t have a pen. Getting them to look up from their screens is a Sisyphian task. Texting and Internet browsing, believe me, is no less distracting in the classroom than it is while driving — and injunctions against equally useless.

“In a nutshell,” personally, I do see this as almost a dog-bites-man style proposition. Students are having trouble reading and writing? Let’s give them the Internet and let them figure it out on their own! And keeping them in front of those screens, we can get rid of some more teachers! Does that make sense to you? Give me ten students, ten books, ten sheets of paper and ten pens, and by the end of the year I’ll put you and your $25,000 “smartboard” to shame.

Grading the Digital School

In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores

Published: September 3, 2011

Inside Ed School

The American “education system,” not just the public school system, is a total mess. Public school systems are being systematically de-funded, while the cost of attending private schools or universities rises faster even than health care. There is an ideological war of all against all pertaining to how to fix American education in which some occasionally gain the upper hand and impose their ideologies wholesale across entire school systems, as has happened most recently in Washington, DC and Atlanta, Georgia, and as the disastrous effects reveal themselves, are abandoned wholesale for some other program. Children should be taught only grammar — or no grammar at all. They should learn to read through phonics only, or by sight only. And we continue to deceive ourselves that people with little, or seriously stunted, intellectual curiosity will — if exposed to enough numbing instruction in the pseudo-psychology of pedagogy, the subtleties of classroom discipline and the latest neo-Fordist time management techniques — become marvelous teachers who miraculously cultivate in children and adolescents (who, let’s admit, left to their own “devices” (so to speak) would rather be toying with their cell phones and genitals) a lifelong devotion to learning and the pursuit of the good bourgeois life.

So why bother? I suppose because I care. I suppose because, even with my limited “training,” I’ve seen the light go on in a previously uninterested teen’s eyes. Not a miracle, but the same light that one sees in the midst of a good, fascinating conversation, which, at this time and in lieu of some more sophisticated “theory,” I personally take as the ground of all real and successful education. And because I’m a blowhard and an auto-didact, enjoy a receptive (if captive) audience as much as anybody, and because I believe that the canon of American literature (as it evolves) not only must be saved, but only can save us.

So I hope to share some insights and absurdities here — inasmuch as teacher education is a substantial part of the ongoing debate about education qua education — from my own ongoing experiences in Ed School. We’ll see how this project proceeds as papers come due and client work piles up over the course of the next few months.

“America is in Decline” — if you don’t believe me, will you believe Harold Bloom?

“Twenty-first century America is in a state of decline. It is scary to reread the final volume of Gibbon these days because the fate of the Roman Empire seems an outline that the imperial presidency of George W. Bush retraced and that continues even now. We have approached bankruptcy, fought wars we cannot pay for, and defrauded our urban and rural poor. Our troops include felons, and mercenaries of many nations are among our ‘contractors,’ fighting on their own rules or none at all. Dark influences from the American past congregate among us still. It we are a democracy, what are we to make of the palpable elements of plutocracy, oligarchy, and mounting theocracy that rule our state? How do we address the self-inflicted catastrophes that devastate our natural environment? So large is our malaise that no single writer can encompass it. We have no Emerson or Whitman among us. An institutionalized counterculture condemns individuality as archaic and deprecates intellectual values, even in the universities.”

– Harold Bloom, The Anatomy of Influence (2011).