Monday, April 05, 2021

The function of criticism at the present time, or how not to behave, NBC

 No, this is not a Matthew Arnold fan post. It's about meanness for the sake of meanness on the interwebs.

You may have seen this a few days ago: https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/paul-simon-sold-his-catalog-sony-millions-he-ll-still-ncna1262845

In it, a writer called (checks notes) Jeff Slate* takes the occasion of Paul Simon selling his back catalog (as Dylan and countless others have done, let it be noted) for megabucks to slam Simon for no clear reason: 

  • "Always a ruthless operator, Simon no doubt saw the sale by Dylan to the rival company as a golden opportunity."
  • "It may feel as though he's saying "screw you" to all the folk-loving fans** who grew up with him (who are no doubt listening to his recordings on Spotify — which pays him pennies, of course — in their Audis), but Simon has never worried about what anyone thinks of him. "
  • "That means Young and Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen and, of course, Paul Simon — all giants in their day — will be no more than footnotes, at best, to Dylan and the Beatles, if only because history is a blunt instrument and doesn't have room (at least not in the broadest sense) for subtlety.

    "So, Paul Simon, who is essentially an also-ran '60s icon on a centurial or millennial scale, is making a rational calculation. "

    Wow. I don't hold any particular brief for Paul Simon or know anything about his life, or whether he's a "ruthless operator," or "broke Art Garfunkel's heart," or any of it. 

    I know some of his songs, but I'm not a drunk music bro in a dorm somewhere at 2 a.m. arguing about the relative purity and worth--and worth because purity--of 1960s musicians, so I'll let that relative worth argument lie there.

    The reaction on Twitter was damning, and the ratio, lovely readers, was satisfyingly long. The comments were along these lines: 

    • Jeff who? 
    • Did Simon reject his demo tape, or something? 
    • JFC, what is wrong with this guy?

    My bigger question is this: why did NBC publish a screed like this? What's the point? There's no information in this article. There's no informed music criticism. There's nothing specific at all. There's nothing but what Charles Dickens would have called a bit of spleen.

    Now, 19th-century writers loved to tear up fellow writers; Poe in particularly was known for the savagery of his reviews.  But his reviews had a point, and this  . . . has none except the writer's animus toward Paul Simon. 

    We've gotten used to internet meanness along with items like The New Yorker not knowing the difference between "discreet" and "discrete" in a headline. (I have a screenshot!).  

    And I've seen some snide and pointless swipes even from music critics like NPR's Ken Tucker, aka a Derry Murbles wannabe for you Parks and Rec fans. 

    But Matthew Arnold told us that we could do better, even if no one clicks through.  Do better, NBC. 

    It is of the last importance that English criticism should clearly discern what rule for its course, in order to avail itself of the field now opening to it, and to produce fruit for the future, it ought to take. The rule may be summed up in one word,– disinterestedness. And how is criticism to show disinterestedness? By keeping aloof from what is called “the practical view of things”; by resolutely following the law of its own nature, which is to be a free play of the mind on all subjects which it touches. By steadily refusing to lend itself to any of those ulterior, political, practical considerations about ideas, which plenty of people will be sure to attach to them, which perhaps ought often to be attached to them, which in this country at any rate are certain to be attached to them quite sufficiently, but which criticism has really nothing to do with. Its business is, as I have said, simply to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and by in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas.

    *I wondered at first if this is a pseudonym, given Slate's reputation for full-on snark in most of its articles. 

    **Same argument was made when Dylan went electric at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1965. Get. Over. It.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

What's getting you through this spring? The mental grout theory of coping.

Some things are looking up. They really are. Want proof?

  • People are getting vaccinated (including me, hooray!).
  • The days are getting longer. Sure, they're still cold, gray, and rainy, with snow and hail from time to time, but they are longer.
  • The political hellscape has lifted and things are getting done. Proof: people are picking at each other on Twitter for very minor sins of omission in fights that exist only among the theory bros and other cool kids.
  • Call my Agent is on Netflix and is absolutely fantastic, a sure way to get out of your head for an hour a day. It's French, and it's hilarious (and the subtitles are really good).

But one thing I've noticed is that every spring, I seem to do a deep dive into something that takes me a complete world away from work. For some people it might be knitting, or yoga, or skiing, or whatever else gives you a brain vacation. The main principles are that it has to (1) be engaging enough to completely flood your brain with something other than work and (2) it has to have little to no utility in any kind of work life. 

The way I think of it is this: the work and daily tasks in your life are like rocks living in your brain. Some of the rocks are huge; some have sharp, irregular edges that bang into you when you're trying to fall asleep; but all of them are there and won't go away, although they change shape and configuration from time to time.

If all you have in your mental inventory is a set of boulders weighing you down and grating against each other, it's going to get you down. What you need is some grout, or smooth mental filler, that you can use to keep those rocks from moving around too much when you need to get some rest and relaxation.

Now, some movies, television shows, podcasts, books, and the like can do this (see: Call My Agent), but you might also need more mental grout than this.

This could be anything, like, say, a deep dive into the films of Orson Welles. Or learning an embarrassing amount about Bonnie and Clyde. Mad Men. Or who really killed the Princes in the Tower. Doesn't matter if you're not an expert on whatever it is; in fact, that's preferable, because then you can learn more. My mental grout this spring is a band, but it could have been anything. It's whatever puts you back to sleep when anxieties awaken you at 3 a.m.

After a time, you might shift the composition of the mental grout to something else, but the point is that it exists, not what it consists of.

Do you have some mental grout that's helping you get through everything? What is it?

Monday, March 15, 2021

Conferences: Might as well face it, you're addicted to sloth

What usually happens in the spring? Pay attention to conference calls for papers. Go to meetings on campus. Prep class. Grade papers. Try to write. Put in grant applications that you don't have a chance of getting. Drive, drive, drive, in all senses.

This spring has been . . . different. Even though I can see that all the people moaning on Twitter about how  Covid has sapped their productivity are in fact publishing up a storm, promoting themselves, doing Zoom lectures, on and on and on and on, I somehow . . . don't care. That is, I like and promote their work, but as for me? No FOMO here. 

 I recently had to add up all the conferences at which I was going to attend and present--and pay for; no conference money was going to be forthcoming from Northern Clime--and I thought I must have been crazy to agree to it all.  Farhad Manjoo had a recent opinion piece in the NYT--"Do you really need to fly?"--and posed the question that all conference-goers have asked themselves: do we really need to hurl ourselves across the country or across continents to read a paper aloud for 20 minutes, or, best case, give a 50-minute keynote? Couldn't we do this through Zoom? 

Yes, the point of conferences is really the conversations that we have in the hallways or session Q & A or, for you sociable types, cocktail parties or dinner. But couldn't some of this be done virtually?

Manjoo says that things are going to change, that we're going to see that this level of travel is nuts and that a lot can be done virtually. However, I think it's an arms race thing that may change, but only slowly. Unless the big conferences embrace some version of virtual conferences, it's going to create a two-tiered system, sort of like the way that (regrettably) online publications a few years ago were seen as inferior. "Is it a monograph that will count or an online publication?" we heard. "Both?" we said, but did the tenure and promotion committees agree? Do they agree now? 

Somehow we've got this Theodore Roosevelt strenuous-life attitude about travel as inherent virtue, however miserable the travel and wrong-headed it might be. Sure, it's a conference, but is it a real conference if it's not in person? Sure, the archive has all those materials digitized beautifully, but is it really research if you didn't go to the archive, spending money, taking time, and risking the inevitable misery of catching a cold to do so? If you didn't suffer (and yes, in a privileged academic way; this does not compare with real suffering) to get to the archive in person, how do you know it's real scholarship? If you didn't eat the stale bagels and buy the $6 granola bar and drink the scalding coffee from the official Hell Caterer to the Conference World and feel anxious about every minute of the conference, did you really get the full experience? 

The conversations, ideas, and networking do make conferences worthwhile, not to mention they're pretty much required if you want to be an active scholar in most fields. And I'm not stupid enough to confess the relief from the constant travel that this year has given me, not when everyone everywhere is proclaiming in-person conferences as an absolute good, like chocolate chip cookies or clean air. But this year has given a sense of what life might be like without quite so many of them, and the grass on the other side of the fence (whispers) is a little greener than I thought it would be.

Either that, or I'm addicted to sloth. 

Monday, February 15, 2021

Snow and writing

 The snow is snowing all around,

It falls on field and tree,

It falls on all our parkas here

And on the ships at sea.

    With apologies to Robert Louis Stevenson

Snow isn't news for a lot of us; it's certainly not for those of us here in Northern Clime. I feel bad for those of you in usually warm places, though, who are now going through this without the benefit of the equipment (plows, etc.) of northern places. 

If I kept a gratitude journal, there would be one overriding theme in it this year, and especially when the snow comes: teaching online instead of in person. While none of us are happy about the reason, thank you, powers that be, for letting us teach online during COVID. Thank you.

Let me clarify the reason for that gratitude: teaching online means that I'm not risking my life on scary, ill-plowed two-lane roads to get to campus in bad weather. Our campus has declared maybe two snow days in the many years I've been there, so yes, we have to show up. For one of those days, I finally struggled to campus after 2.5 hours of white-knuckle driving only to have them close campus. Yes, I had to turn around and drive home. One time they closed the highway while I was still on it 30 miles from home, and I had to drive on the old highway, the one that you can still drive on but that they abandoned because it was too steep & scary. I made it, but it was, as the young folk say, a mood. So, gratitude. 

Here's one post I wrote back then: https://notofgeneralinterest.blogspot.com/2008/01/on-not-stopping-by-woods-on-snowy.html

 That also brings me to writing, which I have time to do now that it's snowing and we're online. After the election, a weight fell off my shoulders, although like most anyone who watched the news, I assumed there would be violence on January 6. After that, after the impeachment despite its outcome, there's a feeling that the grownups are in charge again and our brains can turn to stuff we can actually do something about, like writing.

The new plan, which is bearing some minor fruit, is to do this:

  • Write by hand before putting it into type. This is new, because I've been able to touch type since I was maybe 15 years old and have always composed by typing. It was typewriters back then and computers starting in 1986, but always typing. But writing by hand now feels less stressful than the blank page, and there's less possibility of distraction from the interwebs.
  • Keep strict track of time. This involves not just pomodoros but writing down the times and what I'm doing.
  • Keep piling stuff in the main document and not worry about whether it's terrible or not until a few days have passed. Yesterday I looked: yes, some was terrible, but some was okay, and all of it is more than I would have written otherwise. 

Hope you are all safe and warm!

 



Sunday, February 07, 2021

Random bullets of settling in to 2021: Things are looking up!

  •  Happy New Year!
  • Who had armed takeover of the Capitol by violent white supremacist Trump worshippers & Trump's impeachment on their 2021 bingo card? Sadly, Spouse and I kind of did, but it was still horrifying.
  • But we have a new and competent administration now, and there are vaccines, and said competent administration is getting those vaccines to us and cleaning up the mess of 4 years of misrule as swiftly as possible.
  • Everyone is now promoting their Substack on Twitter. Substack, I learned, is a newsletter format that lets you subscribe for a fee to read the thoughts of people you would like to follow. So: a blog, but not free.
  • How's your imagination doing, now that we're still in lockdown? Mine is running toward thinking about some of the antique furniture I've recently received after my mother's house was sold. Now, this furniture isn't old by European or British standards, but it's old by mine. I'm thinking especially of a little burled maple table that would have been made in the 1830s-1840s in, probably, Connecticut or Rhode Island. It's a plain little table, nothing fancy, but every time I walk by it, I wonder what its original owners would have thought of where it is, what it's seeing, so to speak, and otherwise imagining myself back into its original time and place. 
  • Classes are going well remotely. Writing is going poorly, but maybe inspiration or the will to work will hit now that things are looking up.