A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Reading the Best of 2015: part one

The Browser has a list of what it suggests are the top 100 online essays of the last year, and is conducting a survey. A handful of them are familiar, but the vast majority are not, so I'm going to attempt to read through them all - and what is more, subject the readers of this blog to my mini-reviews of each and every essay.

For the most part I'll follow the order they appear on the website. However, I'll start with Four and Twenty Bluebeards by Matthew Spellburg, which caught my eye because last month I saw Bluebeard's Castle at the Hungarian State Opera. (I didn't tremendously enjoy it, though having given some of the music a second listen I think that may be more to do with the performance than with the opera itself).

It's a magnificent tribute to Matthew Aucoin that Four and Twenty Bluebeards is still only an Honourable Mention for my "most pretentious essay of the year" award. (What is it with these musicians?) Numerous sections making points which are typically unrelated to the actual opera; musical analysis barely more complicated than that available on the opera's Wikipedia page; bold, sweeping claims made with an air of disdain for the notion of empirical support; and above all, the notion that opera is somehow a humanistic venture of the first importance:
Opera can only teach us to be who we are not, to demand a complete transformation, in which the whole of experience undergoes a great estrangement. Only once we’ve stepped into the circle of transformation—a kind of spiritual transvestitism—can we learn something. Opera says: you must believe this is the way the world is, even though it obviously isn’t like that at all. And this is why it mirrors a culture, the total sum of a society’s reinvention of the world. And this is why it is at once the most complete and most impossible of art forms.
I can't recommend reading this essay.

Geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths in subculture evolution by David Chapman makes similarly grand claims, although is perhaps more justified in doing so. Indeed, the claim which makes me most suspicious is his suggestion that the ideal ratio of Geeks (i.e. content creators and service providers) to MOPs (members of the public) within any subculture is about 1:6. Until this point I had been reading the article mainly as an exercise in abstract reasoning which might turn out to usefully model actual subcultures; the injection of an actual number, but as a conclusion, was very jarring and came across as unsupported and arbitrary

There were a couple of other things which made me sceptical. First, the claim that "subcultures died around about 2000". I could just as easily claim that subcultures exist, and are more common than ever - if perhaps shorter-lived on average. The internet is an incredible tool for creating subcultures, and even if it also accelerates their collapses then so long as they create positive social value - as Chapman thinks they do - I would be very surprised if they were indeed to die out. Perhaps Doge is a less iconic subculture than Prog Rock, and perhaps the role for Chapman's "fanatics" is reduced to providing publicity, but until there are concrete statistics showing a decline I will be highly sceptical of one of Chapman's key theses.

Second, suppose Chapman is right. His solutions are at best vague, and at worst impossible to practise.
“Slightly evil” defense of a subculture requires realism: letting go of eternalist hope and faith in imaginary guarantees that the New Thing will triumph.
Perhaps deliberate creation requires faith in the value of what one is doing. In this case, the option may be between delusion, which leaves subcultures vulnerable to sociopaths, and having no subculture in the first place.

With all that I've said in criticism, though, the piece is worth reading and its insights are worth adding to your mental armoury.

Charles Pierce's The Death of Evan Murray should be filed under "Taboo Tradeoffs". I don't necessarily disagree with the object-level campaign - at the very least, the cost to human lives of American Football seems to render it a poor "choice" for a national sport of choice - but one could just as easily argue that sending children to school will inevitably lead to some dying in car accidents, etc. The answer, in both cases, is that there is a good to be had in children's playing sport and in their being educated. Would it have been so difficult for Pierce to make the extra bit of argument showing that American Football could be replaced by a sport (more baseball or basketball? Soccer?) with lower human cost?

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