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Tuesday, June 17, 2008 -- 8:38 pm

Just started Obeyesekere's The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific, and feel like I'm walking into the debate halfway through. I'm also not entirely persuaded, yet, that anywhere near enough data could have survived over two and a half centuries to conduct a proper inquiry of Cook's psychology and the psychological dynamics of his encounter with the Hawai'ian natives that resulted in his death. I'll certainly give Obeyesekere a fair hearing, and maybe try to track down the book he spends so much time arguing with, but at the very least it looks like an interesting read.

One thing, though, resonates with me right away. I was never entirely comfortable with the notion that the Aztecs and Mayans thought Cortes and his ilk, pale-skinned and astride unfamiliar beasts, were ghosts or gods. I remember thinking: could they really be so naive? Obeyesekere seems to be making precisely the same point, although his focus is on the native Hawai'ians. From what I can tell so far, his argument is that, far from the Aztecs, Mayans, and Hawai'ians actually mistaking the European explorers for gods, this was instead a European cultural projection generated by tendencies of self-aggrandizement (perhaps), contempt for non-European societies they didn't understand, and various miscommunications founded, perhaps, on somewhat different frames of reference. Further, no matter how ideological and ritualistic a society may be, or be perceived to be, there will always be people who are willing and able to put aside orthodoxy in favor of what Obeyesekere calls "practical rationality" -- trying out beliefs that may be unorthodox but nevertheless have proved to be effective or at least worth trying out. Some people, by the same token, may find themselves shackled by their own ineffective preconceptions; the point is that these limitations are likely to be attributable only to individuals, not to society as a whole. The larger-scale ramifications of these two tendencies very well may be a political issue, but you can't deduce individual behavior from generalized familiarity with the society to which they belong. (And now I have mangled Obeyesekere's anticipated thesis beyond all recognition.)

The conclusion I expect to follow from this is that the natives did not really believe the Europeans were gods, but recognized them to be human beings, albeit startling or frightening ones, and sooner or later overcame their initial surprise to interact with them in all the interesting and complicated ways that human beings typically interact, not in the ways the human beings presumably interact with gods.

There's also a more general lesson to remember from this (despite not having read the book yet), which reminds me of several of my forays into countries with starkly different cultures. There's a widespread tendency to assume that people belonging to another culture are all of a certain, hard-to-define type, with uniform commitments to and understandings of prevailing norms and values. Simply not so. It's more reliable, I've found, to assume that people are simply people the world over, and just follow different rules for getting things done.

One other point I thought was curious is that there's been a curious inversion. Americans and Europeans no longer think that the other cultures of the world, however isolated, regard them as gods. But when we think of extra-terrestrials, and imagine potential encounters with them, that's almost exactly what most people think. This makes me wonder precisely how the world would respond when we made contact -- would people be lining up to worship them, or what? It would be a bitter irony indeed if we ended up buying into our own marketing. On the other hand, it's also probable, that we ourselves are much savvier and less naive than I give us credit for and that, whatever the aliens' mythmaking tendencies, we will adopt a relatively pragmatic approach to these first encounters.

Finally, I like to collect and understand not only different strategies for understanding and interacting with the world, and different snippets of insight into the mechanics of the human mind, but various techniques for unpacking, deconstructing, and breaking through the fundamental but unnoticed assumptions we tend to make about the world. This tendency of "mythmaking" would appear to be an important one, about which a lot of questions need to be asked, including whether there's a fundamental difference in kind between private and public mythmaking, its political implications, and so on. This tendency also needs to be reconciled against the notion of "practical rationality" that Obeyesekere purportedly borrows from Weber, and such various findings of political psychology as that people don't join social movements because of the ideology, but because they identify socially and personally with other members. The functional and causal role of ideology in our lives is very much at risk of being overstated.

Monday, June 16, 2008 -- 11:23 pm

For some reason, the vast majority of people in our society don't seem to understand that it is not enough to declare something to be a rule of behavior, either by legislation, policy, or contract: if you want regular and ongoing compliance, you need to structure incentives so that people, naturally motivated to act in their own self-interest, will see something in it for them to do as you require. Appeals to altruism, loyalty, hope, trust, and the like are well and good, but they are rarely successful on a wide scale when there are competing concerns and obligations. So why is that people think that if you just declare something to be a new rule, the masses will go along with it?

Sunday, June 15, 2008 -- 7:38 am

There's really something quite exasperating about reading non-musician scientists who've decided to write about music. (Nature has an ongoing series of such articles lately.) I by no means object to the scientific study of music appreciation, but I find it baffling (like so much in life, I guess) that they're determined to look at music appreciation as a neurophysiological process rather than simply as a cognitive one. Maybe they get hung up on the fact that people seem to be able to enjoy music without being musicians themselves, or having the vocabulary or analytical skills to articulate what it is they like or don't like about particular pieces, and therefore assume that music enjoyment must happen at some deeper, inarticulate level. Or maybe they deliberately or accidentally have adopted the view, popular since David Hume, that nothing intellectual could possibly stir the emotions. Or maybe this tendency is a holdover from the behaviorist perspective that an approach isn't sufficiently "scientific" enough unless it tries to reduce things to an overly literal mechanical process. But behaviorism has, last I checked, been thoroughly discredited as an explanation for such cognitive activities as language use, and in fact all but a tiny subset of human behavior. Why is it still a credible approach to understanding music?

I'm not going to insult these apparently hard-working people by presuming to deconstruct their motives. Maybe there is some small kernel of truth to the notion, say, that exposure to organized (or at least non-random) sounds in early infancy primes connections between the hearing and coordination centers of the brain, or that pitches that are particularly close together excite neural firings resulting in the thrill (or unease) of dissonance. But such an approach does nothing to explain why musical styles change over time (no one will ever again write in precisely Mozart's, Bach's, or Beethoven's style, for example), or why the same piece of music could inspire chills at one point in an individual's life, but nausea at another. And a rigid, neurological conception of dissonance is inferior to, for example, Schoenberg's conception of dissonance as points in the overtone series that we haven't yet incorporated into our musical thinking, or his insight that much of the western conception of harmony is attributable to the historical accident of the notation used to record it. Schoenberg has at least reconciled his theory with the last thousand years of Western music -- actual data -- but most of what I've read by scientists has tended to ignore it.

Sunday, June 15, 2008 -- 6:54 am

Recently I was in an artist supply store buying some replacement stone carving tools. The radio was playing, as usual in such establishments, and as is equally common, I found myself sorting out the harmonies while paying no attention whatsoever to the lyrics, whatever they may have been. The music wasn't quite to my taste, but I couldn't say it was crap -- it was competently executed and, perhaps more importantly, it was clear that some intelligent thought had gone into selection of the pitches, rhythms, and harmonies; there was a lot of originality and very little in the way of cliches. Not just for one song, but for a variety of songs by a number of different artists. I surmised that this store, like so many others, subscribed to some kind of satellite radio service for its soundtrack.

What got me (and likely no one else) agitated, however, was that I'm forced to listen to quite a bit of satellite radio at the gym, at the grocery store, and elsewhere that is uniformly crap, and quite tediously and repetitively so. So it seems that the purveyors are segregating content on the basis of relative crappiness, which is interesting in itself, but then the vast majority of listeners are then going out and deliberately choosing to listen to crap, rather than non-crap.

There are various responses one could make to this. One is that this behavior is hardly unusual -- if you look at the results of presidential election campaigns in the U.S., for example, some of the preferences people express, and the opinions they come up with, are downright baffling. The same is true if you talk about the mass behavior of markets, or desecration of the environment, or other social trends, such as what people tend to think of the work of particular filmmakers. I've never found popular branding to be terribly reliable, but it appears that filmmakers who take risks can end up being blacklisted by the press and public in ways I really don't understand. I would tend to agree with that assessment of the folly of crowds, but that isn't a reason not to embark on a furious rampage. Another response is to say that my comments simple raise the question of what is and isn't crap, and that it's all too likely that my tastes and opinions on this matter, like so many others, are, using an intersubjectivity-based notion of truth, simply wrong. My response is to readily accept that I will probably never be able to persuade you of what is and isn't crap, where you already disagree, but it doesn't follow from that concession that I'm wrong, or that there is no right or wrong of the matter. However, and this is often a situation I find myself in, I'm prepared to pinpoint and articulate precisely what it is about each piece of music that I feel contributes to its crappiness or non-crappiness, and those principled reasons, though they might be somewhat abstract, have a general consistency from one piece to the next. Principled reasons may, of course, be either correct or incorrect, but they deserve at least the courtesy of examination in this often vacuous discourse. I think it also helps that these principles find some endorsement, not so much in the current neurophysiological vogue of music studies (more on that later), but in commentaries and practice of successful composers like Schoenberg and Stravinsky.

Name-dropping and citations never won an argument, either, of course. And although I dimly remember reading about so-called "statistical proofs" of math theorems while I was in college, and other ways of assessing the truth of an argument based solely on its external features (other than the usual mechanisms of formal logic, of course), I think the article was the usual cursory magazine summary without any meat to it. Recent web-searches on the subject have generally come up empty. These days, a zero-knowledge proof generally refers to a particular set of problems in cryptography and information security, rather than in logic or epistemology. The danger of relying too heavily on such methods is falling into the old trap of a priori reasoning; but it could be that our intellectual community is still so nervous (consciously or not) about repeating the mistakes of the middle ages and enlightenment that they're overlooking fruitful grounds for research. We'll have to see.

Sunday, June 15, 2008 -- 6:43 am

I've taken down the syntactic template page for retooling.