A not-quite-coherent ramble on a few disparate ideas that I suspect should be related. I haven’t connected all of the dots satisfactorily yet, and maybe there’s not much too it after all. I haven’t decided.
Publishing it anyway!
When I write, I might sometimes play a certain kind of music to change my state of mind. Often it’s sort of ambient, warm, buzzy kind of music- lately it’s been Kurt Vile, Real Estate, and King Krule. I listen to it not just because I enjoy it in some sense – of course I do, but I enjoy a lot of music- but I also get lulled into a state where I’m not even paying attention to the music really. It’s just sort of in the air.
It’s not quite a science but there are obviously sets of music that I like but that are not appropriate for my writing mood. Some music is better for getting me pumped up to go running. Other music demands to be the focus of my attention when it plays, for lyrical or sonic reasons. Some music is useful for eliciting memories of some era or activity. For me, fuzzy/absent/over-simple lyrics are usually good for the writing atmosphere.
New Agers (a group I’ve been trying to dig into for Weird Politics reasons, but they remain so far too unreadable to take seriously) seem to talk a lot about vibrations or patterns. There is a nugget of sense in this idea of pattern-seeking/pattern-matching in music, in humor, and maybe in play in general. All three (again, humor, music, game-playing) are play-related at the very least in our semantic understanding of them (we play music; we play around).
From this analysis on Huizinga: “To ‘get’ a punch line is not to carry out a rule-based derivation from a set of premises. It is more like grasping a gestalt. The person who understands the joke is able to see a holistic web of relations between the elements of the joke.” Huizinga never turns to scientific or functionalist interpretations of play. He is interested in why people play from the point of view of the people, not to determine the functional benefits of play.
Daniel Dennett co-wrote Inside Jokes (with Reginald B Adams Jr and Matthew M. Hurley), which attempts what they call an “evolutionary/neurocomputational” model of humor. Opposite Huizinga, Dennet et al. are not looking to survey all that is funny. Their question is functional: why might we find things funny at all? The question is about human minds, not funny things. By contrast, Huizinga is not interested in human minds at all, he’s interested in the activity.
Dennet et al. argue that humor stems from a reward that the brain is “bribed” with for undergoing the tenuous work of “debugging” cognitive mis-leaps that it made in its heuristic-laden urgency to provide quick and continuous models of the world around it. “Insight Porn“, “aha!” moments, and joke-telling are all practiced skills in creating and conveying patterns that people can figure out and receive a small high out of, as they realize the semantic or dramatic error. Same with riddles, or stories with good closure, I’d contend. I’d also expect that part (though not all) of the magic of music is in pattern expression and recognition (other reasons: information, social cohesion, social or personal mood-alteration).
From Inside Jokes:
Our brains are engaged full time in real-time (risky) heuristic search, generating presumptions about what will be experienced next in every domain. This time-pressured, unsupervised generation process has necessarily lenient standards and introduces content– not all of which can be properly checked for truth– into our mental spaces. If left unexamined, the inevitable errors in these vestibules of consciousness would ultimately continue on to contaminate our world knowledge store. So there has to be a policy of double-checking these candidate beliefs and surmisings, and the discovery and resolution of these at breakneck speed is maintained by a powerful reward system– the feeling of humor; mirth–that must support this activity in competition with all the other things you could be thinking about.
Creating and conveying these jokes/songs/etc are useful for creating meaning (ex. Conspiracy Theories, refactored or metaphorized ideas, teaching in general), creating groups (see: Huizinga’s “Play-Communities”, TIMN’s “tribes” as I’ve been using it, specific example: cults), and changing behaviors. Some music is meant primarily as low-light high-bass high-energy club music. Some music is slow, pensive, somber funeral music. There are moods and cues for behavior change for a particular audience in mind.
Jokes, music, and games can help to behaviorally synchronize members of a would-be tribe. They are also usually designed to be spread and remembered, making them easy conveyors of information. ABC’s are often taught by song. Many songs and stories are radical indictments of political or social situations that couldn’t otherwise be spoken of in polite company, because the singers/readers are not ‘speaking as themselves’ when they recall it.
Listening to comedians talk shop to each other (for example, on Marc Maron’s excellent podcast “WTF with Marc Maron”), you get this odd idea of the art as it’s practiced, the sense of different tribes of comedians separated by place and time and tier; the vocabularies of ‘chemistry’ or ‘tinkering’ or ‘tempo’ or of concepts like “the backroom comedian” (the “comedian’s comedian”, the guy doing cutting edge stuff that most audiences don’t love but that other comedians have an affinity for). People are funny in different ways, depending on their preferred deliveries, their shared knowledge with their audience, and the audience’s perception of their persona (again with the Aristotelian rhetoric trifecta). Different comedy scenes have their own scenius that even the Greats return to, to get back in tune and to try new material out in the stand up scene.
The same meaning-building/tribe-building rhetorical formula can be applied to music: there are tastes to be acquired, different audiences and knowledge bases in mind, different delivery traditions to tap into or innovate on, and this odd sense of “musician’s musicians”, who are too weird for the mainstream but fascinating to other practitioners. Since everyone listens to music, it’s more obvious that music seems to come from particular scenes. Different places are hotbeds of certain music- some scenes are born and die; others are quickly mainstreamed or appropriated by very different cultures from the birth-scene. Maybe there is enough cross-cultural connection that the music or other artifacts have approximately the same effect on non-target populations (and maybe after some fine-tuning, a scene’s sellouts/evangelists can keep some elements of their roots and adapt elements familiar to their new intended audience).
Many art movements are spawned by scenes where ideas mixed and inspired expressions in various distinct fields: Rococo in Paris is based on an idea (or a reaction, anyway), and is expressed in architecture and painting and theatre and literature. The early hip hop scene in south Bronx is expressed in rap (lyricism), turntabling (record manipulation), breaking (dance/performance), and graffiti (visual). The same convergence of tribes, their shared meanings/values/environs and were originally responsible for the different forms of the same scene/movement. Most would agree that the artifact most remembered and appropriated from the Rococo scene is the ornate cream-colored architecture and decoration; the eminent aspect of the hip hop scene is mostly rap itself. These aspects have been divorced from their birth-scenes and re-appropriated.
I have scattered notes here and there about scenius that I’d like to consolidate and publish in my own language here, sometime.