The Bad, the Ugly, and the Shameless

Aesthetics and ethics. If ever there was a time to rethink these concepts and how they relate, it is now. As it was yesterday, and will be tomorrow (if we’re still here).

One thing baffling about Trumpian anti-culture is its utterly shameless inversion of values — of transforming vice (lying, denigrating, boasting, bullying) into a kind of anti-virtue. But even more striking is the way bad morals, bad taste, and shamelessness are perfectly aligned. The bad taste of gold plated office buildings, golf courses and pageants. A caricature of the nouveau-riche, even though the man is old-riche and has had ample opportunity to better his judgement.

De Efteling (2014)In The Netherlands a little row has occurred these days over a news blog called GeenStijl (roughly translatable as Bad Taste). ‘Tendentious, unfounded and needlessly offensive’ by its own definition, it attempts to convert vice into a kind of anti-virtue without altering its substance. Not so much a channel of free, anti-establishment speech, as a depressingly sordid puddle of racist and sexist abuse.

When this newsblog attacked a critical female journalist by inviting its readers to submit rape fantasies (a call promptly answered), 130 of her colleagues responded with a manifesto that was printed in two national newspapers, calling upon the site’s advertisers to withdraw their sponsorship.

A sensible and fair action. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. It’s just a pity that the action should be female-only, since that tends to confirm the opponent’s stereotypes (‘broom riders’).

Among the (sometimes unwitting) advertisers are McDonald’s, Rabobank, the Dutch Tax Authority and Ministry of Defence, De Efteling, and webshop. De Efteling is a fairytale theme park designed in a kind of neo-Biedermeier style. It is curious that its spokesman should find no major discrepancy between the site’s rapist hooliganism and De Efteling’s own ‘range of ideas’ (gedachtegoed). The Ministry of Defence initially saw no way of recruiting 4000 young males per annum without addressing the site’s typically male young adult audience (arming rapists with Brownings?), but has fortunately revised its position.

My personal dealings are limited to as a book supplier. So I let them know that I intended to suspend my patronage. Their answer: that they had one campaign running, and would reconsider only afterwards. Not good enough.

Bad style, bad taste, bad morals. The scary thing is that with its nearly 2 million unique visitors per month the site is not an obscure and negligible fringe phenomenon. As a branch of media company TMG it is firmly embedded in the right-wing commercial mainstream, which indirectly receives such encouraging support from the White House.

Is the fight against bad morals a fight against bad taste? Is there some common ground of shared — preferably, permanent — values between morality and aesthetics, some kind of ethical-aesthetic imperative? Does the Enlightenment idea of a morally uplifting cultural education, of improvement-through-art still have any validity?

If a pathological lack of shame is the clue to Trumpian politics, general behaviour, and aesthetics, maybe we should recommend a healthy sense of shame and good-natured modesty as ethic-aesthetic counter-attitudes. An old-fashioned virtue that is hard to cultivate in a society which constantly urges individuals to engage in bloated self-promotion.

The Road and the Landscape (2), or: Can Green Be Right?

Flakkee, Zuid-Holland © Lodewijk Muns 2016

Q. What is the first thing you would do once you are free to go outside?
A. I think I would take my own car which I haven’t been able to use for a very long time and would take a ride all by myself and enjoy it.
A child interviewing PVV party leader Geert Wilders, who has been living under close protection for twelve years. Jeugdjournaal (Kids News), Dutch NOS television, 3 March 2017

This is a man who watches the landscape from the road. Freedom equals driving a car. Unsurprisingly, a vehicle tax reduction of 50% is the crowning point nr. 11 of his one-page election ‘programme‘.

The position of this man’s Freedom Party (PVV) in the political spectrum is clear (even though its basic neoliberal austerity is sweetened with welfare goodies). Islam should be banned; the Netherlands should leave the EU; and human-induced climate change is a hoax.

If there seems to be a consistency between these principles, it is largely an effect of habituation. In fact, there is no logical contradiction between concerns about the rise of islamic militancy and oppression, about the social and environmental effects of immigration and overpopulation, and about global warming. One may consistently be anti-islamic and anti-fossil.

How green can the right be?

‘Green-right’ is a small niche that in the Netherlands has for some time been filled by fringe parties, unable to overcome the electoral threshold (Groen-Rechts, Partij voor Milieu en Recht, both defunct; Groen Liberale Partij, Nederland Duurzaam, and the cutely named Partij Bonte Koe or Spotted Cow Party). A few dropouts have found an unlikely refuge in Wilders’ PVV. It is a pale shade of green. Pro animal welfare, pro open landscapes, but anti wind energy — which counts as landscape ‘pollution’.

Undeniably, a nostalgic regret for disappearing landscapes may be one of the causes of feeling ‘green’. But though this nostalgia may easily take a nationalist tinge, it is totally at odds with the PVV’s fiercely automobilistic fossil freedom ideology.

A more prominent, but wishful liberal ‘green’ initiative (trusting the market to clean things up) has died as ingloriously in the Netherlands as it has in the UK. There is a fundamental contradiction between environmentalism and capitalism/(neo-)liberalism. Green politics calls for radical changes in production and consumption patterns. Which in turn call for government initiative.

But with an election outcome that favours a coalition encompassing the leftist green and the moderate right it has become an urgent question how far the right can be pulled toward the green side.

Elections, Muddleheadedness and Music

stemming  /’stɛmɪŋ/ (nom. fem.) 1. voting, vote; ballot; 2. ♪ tuning; 3. frame of mind; …

One good thing about the Dutch electoral system is that its low threshold allows so many parties to enter parliament, that absolute majorities are unlikely to arise. Maybe this mechanism has just protected us (the Dutch) from being governed by the nationalist ultraright.

Another effect of the system is that for any crackpot idea you may find a party to represent it, and sometimes several. Take, for example, basic income (a form of social security dispensed to all citizens unconditionally). To be sure, I don’t think this is a crackpot idea. There are strong arguments in its favour, and four parties in parliament at least encourage experiments (PvdA, D66, GroenLinks, Partij voor de Dieren).

And exactly because it should be taken seriously it is a pity that two fringe parties (which failed to win a seat) have made it their nr. 1 priority: the Basic Income Party (Basisinkomenpartij) and the Freethinkers’ Party (Vrijzinnige Partij, VP). “Free thinking”, I’m afraid, is a euphemism for muddleheadedness. Witness the curious paragraph on music in their election programme.

Much of the the trouble and strife in the world, according to the freethinkers, is due to the fact that musicians tune to a “fundamental” (grondtoon) of 440 Hz. This tuning “provokes discord and agression”. If only musicians would attune to a “natural” 432, harmony would spread through society.

The mistakenly so-called “fundamental” is, evidently, the conventional pitch standard (or “concert pitch”), fixed by reference to the A written in the treble clef. Now, the idea that this somewhat arbitrarily established standard is “unnatural” (and therefore unhealthy) is not new. Tracing its origins will send you spiralling down into a netherworld of superstition, pseudoscience, number mysticism and conspiracy theories. Which I disrespectfully decline.

If this proposal deserves to be mentioned at all, ever so briefly, it is because in the press coverage absurdity was raised to the superlative. In a somewhat ironic reportage, De Volkskrant, a leading newspaper, defined the so-called “fundamental” as “the lowest pitch produced by a vibrating source, such as a musical instrument.” (A mistake for which the journal’s editor may be to blame, who evidently relied on Wikipedia). As a result, the Dutch government was called upon to lower the range of musical instruments (to 432 Hz!), preferably in a European collaborative framework.

The fact that this garbled version of a muddleheaded idea has spread across the internet shows the helpless ignorance of the average citizen when faced with even the most basic concepts of music. Fixing the basics (De basis op orde) was the Freethinkers’ Party’s election slogan. Let’s fix the basics of education — giving their due to both music and critical thought.


*) To a smiley generation this may look like a grin and a black eye. But this is a not a post on faces, but a note on footnotes. A note lacking context, an aside without dialogue.

(Wouldn’t it be wonderful to watch a play of nothing but asides.)

I remember the first time I encountered a footnote, and I remember it, because the fascination I then felt hasn’t gone away. In some children’s book (Dutch, 1930’s, probably, as a child I read a lot of very old stuff), the author explained an unusual word at the bottom of the page. I even think I remember what it was:

*) De motorfiets werd toen, heel zot, “schetenfiets” genoemd.
*) In those days the motorcycle was called, oddly, “farting cycle”.

There may be some involuntary fantasy in this  (I have found no web traces of the word schetenfiets, which however deserves to be remembered — and will be, tagged with this post).

As an aside, as discourse within discourse, the footnote belongs to that broad category of phenomena known as recursive. Or rather, recursion is an abstract feature attributable to a wide range of unrelated phenomena. And as is well known, recursive features hold a (sometimes dangerous) fascination. You may think of Douglas Hofstadter, Noam Chomsky, or (if you’re a musicologist) Heinrich Schenker and Hugo Riemann.[1]

Brackets within brackets within brackets within brackets … which may hold whatever. Footnotes within footnotes within footnotes …

(Wouldn’t it be wonderful to read a book of only footnotes. — No.)

The footnote is an outcast, banished to the bottom of the page. Which is another of its charms. It may say what the main text isn’t allowed to say — a bright, but irrelevant observation; a criticism too argumentative, or a detail too particular to give prominence.

It should not be allowed to expand and take possession of the page, as is common in eighteenth and nineteenth century writing. Long elaborations are better consigned to an appendix (which nowadays may be easily published online). In which case one may add a recursive layer — footnotes within a footnote.[2]

But despite its charms, the footnote mostly serves a dull and humble purpose, that of providing references. Of the three common methods of citation, the first, common in scientific writing, dispenses with footnotes. It assimilates all references (author-date) into the text. This may be efficient, but frequently produces unreadable monstrosities like this:

It has often (Dunce, Dullard and Dolt 2002, Dolt and Dullard 2003, 2005a, Dunce et al. 20007a, b) been assumed that certain things are in certain ways, but more recently (Smart and Sharp 2009, Sharp 2012a, Spruce 2011, Smart, Sharp and Spruce 2015b) it has been argued that they may well be different, or even (Tidy and Bright 2016) nonexistent.

So I can understand why scholars in the humanities, who generally may be more concerned with the literary of rhetorical quality of their prose, prefer to relegate bibliographical data to the foot- or endnote area. Which is fine, as long as those references remain brief and in turn refer to a full bibliography.

Unfortunately, many journals in my field (musicology) still cherish the irrational practice of cramming all bibliographic information into the footnotes, with full citation first time and short titles afterwards (just crawl backwards through the notes to find that title …). In the face of a hugely expanding wealth of sources, this is a waste of space and effort.

And a pity, to bury your spicy asides in dry bibliographical data.

[1]^ See my Music, Language, and the Deceptive Charms of Recursive Grammars (2014).
[2]^ For instance, my Gustav Anton Freiherr von Seckendorff, alias Patrik Peale: A Biographical Note (2016).

Doggy Sentiments

Dog wet and freezing © Lodewijk Muns 2014

I’ve known a man who hated all living things that bore a human imprint — from cultivated landscapes to house plants and pets. An unlivable state of mind, of course, and probably not quite sincere. But understandable: the craving for the wilderness, the feeling that being human is a curse.

We can’t escape from our humanity, and can’t escape from our own imprint upon nature, which in the grand perspective belongs to natural history too. Parks and pastures, cows and horses, cats and dogs can be beautiful, moving or charming, within bounds (excluding lap dogs, daffodils and feral pigeons). Despite the fact that their likableness is largely the product of our own making them to our liking.

Why do we (or most of us) like dogs? — Because they have been bred to live with us and milk our sentiments. It’s not their fault if large-eyed and furry they may look like a Disneyfied version of themselves. We should, I suppose, admire nature’s adaptability to us and try to improve our own adaptability to nature.

Stories about smart dogs following hikers are common enough. I’ll add my own to the lot, for sentimental reasons.

In August 2014, hiking the Tour du Queyras in the French Alps, we passed the hamlet Les Fonds. A hairy, brown and white spotted dog (bouvier, I guess), followed us from the village. Pleasant company, remaining close without being obtrusive. We thought he shouldn’t be allowed to wander too far from home, though, and when we left the main track we decided to send him back (Allez à la maison). He obeyed — after some insistence, looking back several times (Are you serious?). We were serious, at least my partner was, and I half heartedly concurred. As he must have noticed — for 15 minutes later I felt a warm and wet touch upon my thigh, and there he was again, slyly wagging his tail (See, you can’t get rid of me so easily). Allez again, more sternly.

Dog in fog © Lodewijk Muns 2014A near-vertical rock with iron footholds looked undoable for a dog, so we were sure we had got rid of our amiable stalker. With the sun setting and a fog coming up, we pitched our tent and started cooking dinner. Out of the forest appeared our dog again (wagging: Look how smart I am to have found you!). He didn’t risk coming closer, though, and at a safe distance of some 200 m he watched our bed time preparations, his snout slowly vanishing in the darkening fog.

After a cold night we found him crouching wet and freezing in a hollow right behind our tent. Realizing, finally, that we had no choice but to accept his company, we shared our bread and sausages. We continued our hike with Malrif — as we had now baptized him, after the local topography — as our guide. At one somewhat steep and uncomfortable ascent Malrif was at the top first, watching attentively, and it seemed, with genuine concern, for each of us to make it safely.

In the afternoon we met a family heading for Les Fonds. With regret we asked them to take Malrif back. No regret on his side though — he walked as happily with them as with us, and didn’t look back.

Bred to milk our sentiments — and hurt them.

The Road Seen from the Landscape, and the Landscape Seen from the Road

The landscape, seen from the road:
traversed, fleetingly observed in passing through
a twodimensional screen
suspended along the line of forward motion.

The road, seen from the landscape:
an obstacle that breaks a whole into disconnected pieces
a broad and colourless track of solidified speed
overflowing with noise and gas exhaust.

The road, seen from the road:
something to leave behind.

The landscape, seen from the landscape:
something to be in.

Can sanity be expected from the man
who watches the world day by day
from behind the glass of his limousine?

May I Share My Earworm?

Voilà: my new Philosophy & Music videoclip, which should warm you up to my three lecture course on music — how it moves us, why it matters.

Don’t forget to turn on the sound. Unless you’re allergic to earworms: the music I made to go with it has been playing in my mind for two weeks, barely going to rest at night.

Memorability is an essential feature of what we tend to call a “good tune” (not, of course, of good music). Memorability and “catchiness”, which implies memorability, but also something seemingly contradictory — the feeling that it is new, yet familiar — the déjà-ouï.

Certainly music may be both. Often the familiarity will derive from some background pattern (primarily harmonic), the novelty from foreground features — typically, melodic. Most of the world’s music is based on prefab patterns. The scope for creating new melodies to a given harmonic pattern is not infinite. So, an appealing, potentially popular tune will never be 100% new, or even 50%, I would say, though there is no way of measuring musical novelty.

And the catchier it sounds — the stronger the feeling that it has a right to be there (as I feel it, from the maker’s perspective) — the greater the risk that actually it has already been there. You may carefully and deliberately craft your tune from scratch, changing a note here and there, but still have no guarantee that the unpredicted and unpredictable end result (voilá) won’t happen to be a duplicate of something that has been out there all along.

But that’s no reason to silence the worm.