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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Difficult Time: What Would Teddy Roosevelt Do?

I am leaving the Internet again for a couple of weeks. I am realizing that I am 1) behind on my reading list, and 2) behind on what I had proposed myself regarding my writing. This is not the time for personal issues and overly-sentimental endeavours.... Teddy Roosevelt would have kicked my ass a long, long time ago. So, as a result, I am returning to the "Inner-net" for the next two or three weeks. Wish me luck.

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Friday, June 12, 2009

Umberto Eco's Cognitive Types and Bach's Suites for Cello Solo

Johann Sebastian Bach's Suites for Cello Solo have been a part of my life since I was 11 years old. These are essential pieces for every cellist. As a cellist, I have played them and enjoyed them over 2/3s of my life. They are never old or boring; I always find some thing new in them when I play them, and also when I listen to the numerous recordings I have by different cellists. So, imagine the surprise I received when upon turning a page in Umberto Eco's "Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition," I discovered that our good Italian semiotist included a chapter on Bach's Suite No. 2 as an example of cognitive types and nuclear content. The issue at stake here is as follows. The simplistic premise of the book itself is "when we say 'cat' how do we know that a 'cat' is a 'cat'." Basically, how does language transfers the meaning (or fails to do so) of 'cat' if we don't have a sample of a cat at hand? When applied to music, Eco makes a wonderful problematization of performance of a piece vs. the written work, and the potential variations within. In his example, Eco writes about a recording of the Suite No. 2 for Cello Solo performed on a recorder flute. The question related to the "difference between the physical phenomenon and its transcription on the stave, on the one hand, and between it and the 'musical idea' on the other. Transcription to the stave certainly represents a (highly conventional) way of rendering the musical idea public. That the procedure is conventional (highly codified) does not eliminate the fact that the sequence of the written notes is motivated by the sequence of the sounds imagined or tried out on an instrument by the composer." Add to this the idea of whether or not a piece that is not executed on an instrument, sang by a singer, etc. or even played in a record exists. That is to say, since the piece is transferred and made public by being printed (much as we print works of literature) it remain static and "dead" until someone picks it up and plays it. But imagine an orchestra conductor picking up an orchestral piece and seeing the entire piece (all instruments) in front of him, as he begins to read the score (much as you are reading this page... with the same facility) does that not constitute bringing the piece to "life?" I suppose that perhaps humming counts, no? At any rate, Eco then takes the argument to another level where he believes that "[i]t is clear that, if the relationship between the sound waves and the grooves of the disc is a case of primary iconism--and if the relation between [the performer's] execution and the notes of the score is already substantiated by multiple interpretative inferences, choices, and accentuations of pertinency--we have then arrived, with the physiognomic type, at an extremely complex process that seems very difficult to take account of." Looking at it from another angle, if a recording of the Bach Suites for Cello Solo performed by say, Mischa Maisky differs from that of Pablo Casals in the way each of them interprets them, then what we have is a version of the piece in execution that is much different from what the composer intended, if it was in fact that he intended anything at all but the phraseology and "message" behind it (which I admit is interpretable as well). I remember having a similar argument with a philosophy professor of mine when I was an undergraduate. I resorted back to my music training (which might have been unfair) and asked whether or not it was the same piece of hundreds of people played the same notes but with a different interpretation (his contention was that there was no variance). I can't remember how we resolved the matter, but he was a gracious old scholar and a lover of classical music. I do remember we ended up meeting at his house where his wife prepared elaborate dinners for three, and afterwards retiring to the salon to listen to his old LP recordings collection. The man had every one from Leonid Kogan to Gaspar Cassado, and numerous difficult to find recordings. Those were happy days, but I digress.

Eco posts another excellent problem. If the Bach Suite for Cello Solo No. 2 is an artistic endeavour that appears differently to everyone, could the Mona Lisa be appreciated similarly? Where do Da Vinci's brushstrokes end, and our appreciation begin? I'd be hard press to think that even a contemporary professional painter would stand in front of the Mona Lisa and say, "oh, sure... but I would have changed the light hits the side of her cheek here..."

I do, however, enjoy reading Eco very much. This is the kind of thing my students tell me to stop thinking about, just to "let it go," or the proverbial "you think too much." How little do they know of the pleasures of the life of the mind.

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

A Sad Farewell to Academia... (Part 02)

(This piece of writing was inspired by ideas taken from Mark Edmundon's essays and the book "Why Read?" and also from Anthony T. Kronman "Education's End: How Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life." This piece of writing in no way represents personal sentiments or allegories to any story related to anyone alive, dead or yet to be born. This is a simple exercise problematizing the condition of the Humanities and the present world conditions of globalization and economic upheaval).

The teaching part of his obligations brought him the most pleasure. In the fall of 1956, finding himself in a world completely devoted to the humanities and to the exploration of the Great Ideas, he felt a little too lucky, guilty in some strange and disturbing way. Yes, most of the answers came to him as a student; now he must make sure to pass them along to the young, fresh minds entrusted to him. Within a few years he had moved along to teaching the upperclassmen courses. He convinced the department head and designed a course on Kant's "The Critique of Pure Reason," a book that represented to him the most pure conception of philosophy. And thus, he taught that course practically every year (with the exception of 1986, 1990-91) and found a footing in the peer-review publishing process with his expertise of Kant's masterpiece. Between the late 1950s and the early 1960s, he taught with his entire heart and soul into his endeavours. The beginning of each term was a magical time for him, and the restlessness each first day offered him was like a brand new ecstasy.... the new lists of students, the expectation of wanting to know how each of his lectures would be received. He worked hard at preparing the best materials for his lectures, and read and re-read the Great Classics in the hopes that every year there would be something new to offer to his students.

As for his time outside the classroom, he devoted his time to office hours and conferences with students (along with mentoring the college's debate team). His entire life was his work, but he never considered the work as work--there was a heightened and rapturous meaning to his life which he could never put down in writing, or express verbally. Year in and year out... all he did was live for the Great Ideas, for his students, and the College.

Of course there were many difficult times along the way. He saw how the country imploded within itself; how changes in morality influenced people's cynicism rather than help them think critically about their actions. For all of this, the late 1960s were a catastrophe as far as he was concerned. True, the Civil Rights Movement had made momentous advances towards the equal treatment of all people, but he also knew how politicians and activists alike also manipulated the language and meaning to fit their agendas. This he would think of not as a cynic, but as a rational and logical being. The late 1960s were also a time for him to go back to the basics. For as many illogical and borderline ridiculous there are in Plato's Dialogues concerning the State, he could pick accordingly those ideas that transcended time; ideas universal enough to help him make sense of the "Age of Aquarius." What he had to re-learn (and he did this the hard way) was the power of the people to speak, to voice opinions and dictate the course of government. He never had a problem with this in principle, but what he saw in the late 1960s was a revolution without an aim, a flautist without a flute. The public demonstrations did achieve much, but he felt that compared with what the students could achieve by other means, the chants and the rallies seem devoid of meaning. He lectured on the virtues of citizenship, and had to struggle against the student revolutionaries which constantly interrupted him accusing him of teaching only bourgeoisie studies rather than the proletariat ideas that were needed in the world. And he did try to engage those students revolutionaries in a healthy discussion, but logical reasoning and empiricism had no place in their argument. He was patient, kind, compassionate, but still he could not get through to them. Perhaps Bob Dylan said it best when he sang about the times changing. That much he had to admit to. The fact that his students had become so blind to their own interest and self-satisfaction in their activism to ignore how Plato and even Aristotle was applicable to what was going on in the nation as a whole cemented the idea for him that most students were doing what they were doing without fully understanding the meaning behind their actions. All the hedonism going around on campus also bothered him, but he truly felt helpless to influence his students toward a different direction.
Between the 1970s and 1980s, he dedicated himself to his teaching again without being too obsessed with the idea of what was going on in the world. Both Vietnam and Nixon were now part of the past, and what he most wanted was to look forward to every semester with the same love of learning that had carried him since coming back from the war. He did not differentiate between his personal life and his academic life, and, as a result, his emotional health suffered greatly. Without intending to, he had become the old bachelor scholar, set in his way, irreparable in some things, more than willing to adapt to others, etc. But his teaching continued to grow, as each generation brought into the classroom more and more demands for answers; answers that only true philosophy, in its most pure state, could bring to them. There was a thirst, he decided, for the Great Ideas, and generally students cooperated by bringing into the classroom a healthy dose of debate and even contradiction. His goal was more of facilitator rather than plain lecturer. What he wanted the most was to keep the students' interest alive, to contribute to their own thinking process. Most especially, the course on Immanuel Kant offered him the most material to work with in this respect. Kant's "Categorical Imperative" provided the best (in his opinion) base to depart from, a premise not unlike a first word, a given truth from which all other discoveries in the classroom could emerge. Of course, his long years of experience now could help him understand that the young mind is quickly given to generalities and relativist ideas, and his task was to show, not tell, how seeking a deeper understanding could transform the lives of his students. Glorious was a word he usually mused with in his mind after every single classroom discussion. But little did he know the world was about to change, and he would be out of place even in the place he loved the most: his classroom.
During the 1990s, he contemplated retirement but held fast to the idea that retirement was an alien word to him, not a possibility but a redundant proposition. He had no idea of what to do other than teach--he was a teacher, and the classroom was the only place for him. Despite his age he was still very energetic and active. For the most part, students' evaluations were generous and full of praise, but the negative ones were increasing year by year. What touched him the most was the students' who went out of their way to explain that it was not him personally, but that the ideas and the core of the courses was too dated, not applicable anymore, not useful outside the classroom, or even in daily life. The progress of the decade began to take shape and technology's relentless race had led the entire world to the "Information Super-Highway." To him this was a ridiculous proposition. We have had "information super-highways" since antiquity... they are called libraries. He never considered himself a Luddite, proposing that education was best done only with books and notebooks, but the over technologization of the world in such a short period of time worried him greatly. This was not because he was beginning to see how "dated" his work was, but because no one (it appeared to him) was studying or taking account of how technology was changing every one's behavior and interests. This worried him the most because he considered it too close to indoctrination.
He faced the fact with dignity and even alacrity. Change was happening too fast for him to understand it, but it seemed his students did, and that's all that mattered to him. Teaching changed over the last few years faster than it ever had before. Long gone were the days of full or even over-flowing classes. Nowadays, students in courses highly technologized could listen or even few their courses online from their dorm rooms. There were always, of course, hard working and dedicated students, idealists in the best definition of the word, that loved philosophy, literature, art and the Great Ideas with a purity he remembered from his own early days. With those students he was generous beyond compare, but even that could not stop the course of events, events that happened now at the speed of light. More and more, his courses were cancelled due to lack of enrollment. The few students who continued a set interest in philosophy began to visit him first in his office, and then later at his own home. They were still in love with the Great Ideas. They still wanted to explore their own minds in a way technology could not satisfy. And so he began to welcome students into his home, where between pastries and tea, and Beethoven playing smoothly in the background, the best philosophy teaching he had ever done took place.

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