“And I said to Mabel, I said, ‘computational aesthetics, super-short. Jürgen Schmidhuber’s Theory Jürgen Schmidhuber, an AI theorist and theoretical computer scientist, has proposed a computational account of aesthetic judgments. In his view, a stimulus is judged to be beautiful or attractive by a subject T to the extent that the stimulus is compressible for T. Schmidhuber’s notion of compressibility is taken from algorithmic information theory, but concerns actual rather than ideal compression: it refers to the actual # of bits in T’s mental representation of the stimulus, bounded and fallible as T may be. Beholden to the limitations of T’s computational resources, two kinds of stimuli should be the most compressible: stimuli with evident internal structure (e.g. fractals or a chessboard), and stimuli with noticeable similarities to stimuli already stored in T’s history (e.g. English words or a the sight of a friend’s face). Experimental psychology supports both a preference for stimuli with internal patterns and a preference for stimuli with a similarity to past stimuli.”
“This makes the pop song an indispensable mirror: The way in which a listener imposes himself upon the text, or transforms the text from generic to specific, shows that listener something about himself. He learns his yearnings, his sadnesses, his loves; he recognizes an emotional life which is otherwise elusive, and solidifies in time an emotional state which is otherwise ephemeral.”
One of the critical ideas I’ve found most interesting of late is a seeming contradiction: Just because it sounds like bad music doesn’t mean it is bad music. “Just because it reads like a bad novel doesn’t mean it’s a bad novel” is also sort of true, but a bit more complicated.
The tenability of the first statement, of course, is the result of specific parameters for what it means to sound bad versus be bad. Specifically, the phrasing of “sounding like bad music” is key: it opens the possibility, when X track sounds like bad music Y, that the sonic trappings and features which X shares with Y music are not in themselves bad; that the “bad music” in question is ineffective or unpleasant for reasons separate from its overlap with track X.
I filled in a long-standing gap in my cultural knowledge recently and watched Lynch’s 2001 noir masterpiece Mulholland Drive. That’s the sensation, right? Where listening to records or watching films in an era of unprecedented access begins to feel a bit like doing homework.
Except Mulholland Drive is, itself, an almost unprecedently interesting film, one capable of arousing sensations in the viewer which he was previously unaware existed.”Uncanny” is used frequently to describe a Lynchean landscape, a place where things are simultaneously banal and extraordinary, both incredibly familiar and unnervingly off.
There’s a scene in the film during which one of its central protagonists, a successful Hollywood director, auditions lead actresses for his screenplay. Shadowy organizations are pulling strings behind the scenes so that the casting decision is essentially out of his hands, but he cycles through the motions regardless, asking several of the actresses to perform different 50s pop hits in a mock-up recording studio. One of these (diegetically) auditioned actresses is played by (real life) Melissa George, singing the rendition of “I’ve Told Every Little Star” shown in the footage below.
- I’ve been writing exclusively in long-form the past twelve months and become exhausted. Simultaneously, my writing has become more self-conscious, self-reflexive, and unwieldy, constant over-qualifications and anxious tangentials interrupting its focus. The list format used here, inspired partly by HTMLGiant’s trademark bullet-point style, is both a way to relieve this long-form burnout and to approach meaningful topics without bulking out this piece in all the wrong places.
- Part of this issue, I think, stems from a fairly universal anxiety over being misunderstood by a hypothetical reader: hyper-clarity, in an attempt to quell this anxiety, can paradoxically lead to bloated writing. It’s a phenomenon the critic A D Jameson demonstrates with his concept of “dictionary expansions” as text-generating. Beckett’s “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new” transforms into “A self-luminous heavenly body shed or cast light, possessing no possible or remaining course or choice, on something of recent origin, production, purchase, etc.; having but lately come or been brought into being…” Hyper-clarity might even be the wrong term, because the latter iteration (“A self-luminous heavenly body…”) is significantly less clear than Beckett’s original. Qualification, hedging, and the addition of nuance can, in moderation, prove invaluable, but when overdone lead quickly to this “bogging down” effect, an inappropriately dense style that’s unenjoyable to read.
A Conversation with Gabriel Duquette and Haley Thurston
Gabriel Duquette is a co-founder of Liposuction (tagline “aesthetics without all the fat”). He started the site with Haley Thurston, who studied art at Yale before contributing to Carcinistion and Ribbonfarm (her more casual art writing can be found at The Sublemon). Both are interested primarily in “retro-engineering” and applying “epistemic hygiene” to matters of taste and aesthetics. They write loosely within the community — and from the intellectual framework — of postrationalism (alongside critics like Sarah Perry and Venkatesh Rao).
Does intentionality matter? Critical consequentialism put to the ultimate test: David Cooper Moore’s “The Scary, Misunderstood Power of a ‘Teen Mom’ Star’s Album” discusses Farrah Abraham’s infamous pop record My Teenage Dream Ended:
It’s tempting to consider My Teenage Dream Ended alongside other reality TV star vanity albums, like Paris Hilton’s excellent (and unfairly derided) dance-pop album Paris from 2006 or projects by Heidi Montag, Brooke Hogan, and Kim Kardashian that range from uneven to inept.
But the album also begs comparisons to a different set of niche celebrities— “outsider” artists.
On the I Love Music message board, music obsessives imagined the album as outsider art in the mold of cult favorite Jandek or indie press darling Ariel Pink. Other curious listeners noted similarities to briefly trendy “witch house” music, a self-consciously lo-fi subgenre of electronic dance music. In the Village Voice, music editor Maura Johnston compared Abraham to witch-house group Salem:”If [‘Rock Bottom’] had been serviced to certain music outlets under a different artist name and by a particularly influential publicist, you’d probably be reading bland praise of its ‘electro influences’ right now.”
Phil Freeman wrote about the album as a “brilliantly baffling and alienating” experimental work in his io9 review. Freeman hedged his references to Peaches, Laurie Anderson, and Le Tigre with a disclaimer that his loftiest claim was sarcastic: “Abraham has taken a form — the therapeutic/confessional pop song-seemingly inextricably bound by cliché and, through the imaginative use of technology, broken it free and dragged it into the future.”
“If I think of somebody telling a story, I see a group of people huddled together, and around them a vast space, quite frightening.” — John Berger
It’s probably important to start off by quickly distinguishing between a “story” and “literature,” at least in a way that is, if not universally true, at least instrumentally valuable. Literary works often include one or more stories — did, almost always, until the twentieth century — which are used as starting points to launch all sorts of philosophical investigations into language, morals, structure, society, politics, and human behavior. Storytelling meanwhile (which will be the focus of this essay) refers to that tradition passed down from campfires and Aesop and early human history, where plot is the dominant element and engagement the primary end. Parable can occur too but is secondary, something that happens along the way or is woven in the with the narrative. The relationship between storytelling and literature then, at least as conceived here, is a spectrum between plot-driven and idea-driven texts, where the each tradition prioritizes one end more than the other. Some might simplify the narrative end of “engagement” to “entertainment,” but this strikes me as reductive — the Berger quote above illustrates a way in which engaging storytelling builds almost an abstract shelter for early man, an inner space in which structure engenders a desirable sensation of safety, predictability, and teleological meaning far removed from some “frightening,” meaningless, and ostensibly chaotic outer world.
Good storytelling is certainly an art, and all art forms develop principles or rules which, when followed, improve an artist’s odds of making a meaningful product. Art is consequentialist in this way — it isn’t an adherence to the rules itself which makes good art, it’s just that certain techniques, approaches, or decisions lend themselves to higher rates of artistic success. Chekhov’s Gun is one such narrative principle, a piece of advice popularized by the playwright Anton Chekhov, which counsels that all notable objects or details in a story should somehow contribute to its plot: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” This is arguably part of a larger principle of compressed or economic storytelling, where every event, character — basically every word and paragraph — goes to work in some meaningful, valuable, and irreplaceable way in developing a narrative or else keeping the reader engaged. In a broad sense, even elements like character development are merely means towards shuttling the reader from the first to last page of a story:
Camera Obscura’s breakthrough Let’s Get Out of This Country was released ten years ago this June. Had I known of the record at the time, it would likely have been relegated to the category of guilty pleasure: something to be listened to but not shared; something enjoyable but not worthy. Rock music, especially after a nineties-alt makeover, was still seen as one of the few genres worthy of critical seriousness. Let’s Get Out of This Country was a hybrid pop record low on existential angst, with a penchant for cute sentimentality in place of masculine affect.
Except it’s currently 2016, the so-called poptimist war waged and won, and some part of me still feels the same way as I would have then: reticent to endorse this album, conscious of social judgments against it. It is, today, entirely acceptable within circles of music snobbery to commend the merits of Beyoncé, Britney, and Bieber; positive reviews by traditional tastemakers from Rolling Stone to Pitchfork asserts as much. Cheesiness, cheeriness, and the cliché (if ironically attended to) are in vogue, and fandom of pop acts serves as a signifier of democratic discernment, of unbiased and open-minded opinions. As Lindsay Zoladz writes in her self-introduction as music editor to Vulture,
“I’ve recently started to suspect that bragging about cultural omnivorousness has become its own form of snobbery, and that the new face of music-nerd elitism is not the High Fidelity bro but instead the Twitter user who would very much like you to applaud him for listening to Ke$ha and Sunn O))) and Florida Georgia Line and Gucci Mane and …”