Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Suggested reading: Green colonialism, the mysteries of taste, and music as conversation

Another in the occasional series of my favorite recent articles, posts, etc. from around the web:

1. Fossil fuel sacrifice zones and "green colonialism"

Edward Said
Edward Said

Naomi Klein writes in the LRB about how the insights of the late Palestinian critic Edward Said may offer a way to combat both environmental and cultural destruction:
People do tend to get cynical when their lives are treated as less important than flowers and reptiles. And yet there is so much of Said's intellectual legacy that both illuminates and clarifies the underlying causes of the global ecological crisis, so much that points to ways we might respond that are far more inclusive than current campaign models: ways that don't ask suffering people to shelve their concerns about war, poverty and systemic racism and first 'save the world'—but instead demonstrate how all these crises are interconnected, and how the solutions could be too. In short, Said may have had no time for tree-huggers, but tree-huggers must urgently make time for Said—and for a great many other anti-imperialist, postcolonial thinkers—because without that knowledge, there is no way to understand how we ended up in this dangerous place, or to grasp the transformations required to get us out. [1]

2. What are the odds we are living in a computer simulation?

Early virtual reality

Vanishingly small, of course, but that doesn't stop Jonathan Rothman from asking the question in the New Yorker. While it might bring some comfort to those in the developed Western economies most responsible for the exploitation of people and nature to believe that our experience is only virtual, it says a great deal about our current valorization of tech culture that ideas this pointless are taken seriously.
The simulation argument begins by noticing several present-day trends in technology, such as the development of virtual reality and the mapping of the human brain...The argument ends by proposing that we are, in fact, digital beings living in a vast computer simulation created by our far-future descendants. Many people have imagined this scenario over the years, of course, usually while high. But recently, a number of philosophers, futurists, science-fiction writers, and technologists—people who share a near-religious faith in technological progress—have come to believe that the simulation argument is not just plausible, but inescapable. [2]
Of course, this "inescapable" argument conveniently absolves those who adopt it from any moral responsibility. It's akin to using the arguments of "effective altruism" to justify doing nothing to assist anyone currently alive. But besides the obvious self-interest of those who make it, this argument must be invalid for another reason: would any super-intelligent being create a world that included the Eurovision Song Contest, The Bachelor, and monster truck rallies?

3. The mysteries of taste

Thumbs-up Like icon

But someone out there must like popular entertainment, or it wouldn't be popular. Taste has always been fraught, functioning as both a marker of our personal uniqueness and a signal of our social status (or at least the status to which we aspire), as argued in Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Harvard University Press, 1984).

In Bookforum (subscription required), Jacob Silverman reviews Tom Vanderbilt's You May Also Like (Knopf, 2016), which examines "algorithmic taste formation." The new technologies of purchasing and viewing make possible a fine-grained analysis of our habits and preferences, and those of millions of other consumers. The point is not only to predict and profit from our future preferences, but to shape them in the interests of those doing the predicting: [3]
The finer (and marketing-driven) critical distinctions that propel products to the top of a Pandora playlist or Netflix queue may raise questions about the ethics of design and the consequences of large tech and media companies' (and their automated systems) being able to dictate consumption, if not taste, on such a massive scale. Vanderbilt almost tackles this issue head-on when he observes that Netflix "is not in business to turn you into a cineaste. It wants to keep you signed up with Netflix. It is like a casino using clever math to keep you on the machines." [4]

4. Chamber music as conversation

Joseph Haydn playing a string quartet
Heliogravure by Franz Hanfstaengl (detail), 1907, after Julius Schmid, Haydn Quartet, c. 1905–6 (painting now lost).
Vienna City Museum
Taste is a highly complex phenomenon, however, and as anyone who has looked at their Netflix or Amazon recommendations quickly realizes, algorithms still have a hard time keeping up with us. As Zadie Smith describes in her New Yorker essay "Some Notes on Attunement," we occasionally have conversion experiences: we can find ourselves suddenly receptive to things that had previously inspired indifference or even outright aversion. This has been my experience with chamber music; after many years of avoiding it, I am finally beginning to appreciate its beauties (thank you, Joseph Haydn and Quatuor Mosaïques).

On her blog, Jessica Duchen interviews musician and writer Edward Klorman about his new book Mozart's Music of Friends: Social Interplay in the Chamber Works (Cambridge University Press, 2016). Klorman describes the interplay of the instruments in chamber music as a conversation:
Chamber music is fundamentally a music not just for friends but of friends. Its natural habitat is the drawing room, where it was played among friends in intimate settings, but even when it is played in large halls, the music reflects its sociable ethos through the way the musical parts interact with one another. We become friends just by playing or listening to it together. [5]
Here is one such conversation among friends: Mozart's Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in F major for string trio, performed by Rémy Baudet, violin, Staas Swierstra, viola, and Rainer Zipperling, cello:



Klorman has put together a website, http://mozartsmusicoffriends.com/, as both a standalone resource and as a supplement to the book. It's unfortunate that Cambridge University Press has priced this book at a level that will sharply restrict its audience (although a substantial discount is available by purchasing through Klorman's site); it deserves a wide readership.

Update 21 June 2016: Edward Said, of course, was a noted writer on music as well as a literary critic and social theorist. To bring this post full circle, in 2013 I wrote about Said's LRB essay "Thoughts on Late Style," Beethoven's late string quartets, and Yaron Zilberman's film A Late Quartet (2012); see "A Late Quartet."



  1. Naomi Klein: "Let Them Drown: The Violence of Othering in a Warming World." London Review of Books, Vol. 38 No. 11, 2 June 2016
  2. Joshua Rothman, "What are the odds we are living in a computer simulation?" New Yorker, 9 June 2016
  3. And that we are incredibly suggestible has been demonstrated again and again. The latest evidence is from a UCSF study that showed that all it takes to influence physicians to prescribe expensive brand-name drugs instead of equally effective but cheaper generics is a free lunch costing the drug company between $12 and $18: see "Drug Company Lunches Have Big Payoffs," New York Times, 20 June 2016
  4. Jacob Silverman, "All-Consuming Interests: A critical look at the brave new world of algorithmic taste formation," Bookforum, June/July/August 2016
  5. Jessica Duchen, "Civilisation is...Mozart's chamber music," JDCMB | Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog, 18 June 2016

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