Arts and Stocks

The Metropolitan Opera has laid off everyone. McNally Jackson has laid off everyone. Danny Meyer, one of the leaders of the fine dining world, has laid off everyone. Even the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a too-big-to-fail arts organization, is looking at the abyss. And that’s just in New York City, which is behind Europe but ahead of most of North America on the inevitable course of this pandemic.

The arts are too often taken for granted, confused with instruments of politics, mocked as pretentious, or dismissed as vain status symbols. But I believe their institutional health is a constant, hidden measure of the health of our civilization.

A more common, immediate measure of our societal health would be equity and bond markets because that’s where a lot of people literally place their bets. If you’re lucky enough to be sitting on some cash, you might be tempted by recent declines to “buy the dip.” OK, throw in a chunk if it feels right, but keep in mind that you’re betting on an optimistic reset to the healthy economy of 2016 [S&P is ~2400 as of my writing this]. My own tea leaf reading of the swift decapitation of all that is good about civilized life is that the market has not yet priced in the crushing medium-term impact of this event. Give it a month.

Anyhoo, here’s Norm Macdonald:

And here’s the second part:

Do Not Hoard

The purpose of “social distancing” during this pandemic is not to scratch your antisocial itch. It’s to benefit society. Even I know that — and social media platforms, parties, and group meetings of every sort make me anxious.

So if you are buying six months’ worth of toilet paper, frozen vegetables, and chicken then you are missing the point. You are actively making it harder for other people to live in the world. You might as well deep-throat every microphone you see and rub your cough-hands on all of your neighbors’ door handles.

What I’m saying is, don’t go sanctimoniously proclaiming the importance of science-based public health advice only to grab everything off the shelves at your nearest market. You may think you’re living your fantasy scenario of a zombie apocalypse where you’re the one who lived, but plenty of other people will survive and some of us will remember your face.

The Object as Cold Medium

In a recent post, I discussed what the “not-quite-beautiful” could mean in object-oriented ontology (OOO). This was prompted by a passage in Graham Harman’s Art and Objects about Kantian aesthetics. Let’s follow up here with Harman’s take on the concept of the cold medium from Marshall McLuhan’s media theory. But first, a recap of the last post.

Recap: almost beautiful

On the positive side, Harman in Art and Objects puts to rest the possible complaint that his analysis of Kantian formalism ignores nuances that would majorly complicate or even contradict his reading, such as Kant’s sensitivity to the individual object in aesthetic experience.

But the discussion of Kantian charm seems a bit off to me. Charm, a “material” or textural pleasure disconnected from the form of the object, is supposedly an instance of SO-SQ (sensual object paired with sensual qualities) and is almost but not quite beautiful. I made two points.

First, this can’t be right. Charm better matches beauty in the sense of a McLuhanian cold medium (RO-SQ, or real object paired with sensual qualities), as even Harman suggests at the end of Art and Objects.

Second, the almost-beautiful raises an interesting new problem. Since OOO draws a sharp line between the beautiful and the literal (or “banal”), what are we to do with the idea of “something very close to beauty without quite clearing the hurdle?” Surely the almost-beautiful cannot fall under SO-SQ, which is about as not beautiful as experience gets according to OOO.

On that note, I wagered that the almost-beautiful refers to a variant of allure (RO-SQ) with a built-in limitation on its freshness that makes it easy for the object to resolve into something we take for granted. That limitation might be a lack of part-whole depth. (Take natural vs. man-made beauty: the human dimension contributes additional layers of skill, norms and conventions, forerunners, etc., whereas natural beauty seems to depend on layers of knowledge for its sustained experience.) A similar principle, but in reverse, may account for the aesthete who normally hates the color green or violin tones but makes exceptions for remarkable paintings or violin sonatas.

Cold Media

There is obviously more that could be said about the Kant section. I didn’t bring up the sublime, for instance. According to OOO, the formalist structure of the sublime parallels that of beauty. This strikes me as true, yet I wonder if there is more to say about the topic. For instance, it is often the sublime alone in contrast with the beautiful that is deemed to have moral significance for Kant.

But in this post I want to return to the unexpected hero at the end of Art and Objects, the McLuhanian concept of the cold medium (RO-SQ). Harman analyzes it as follows. (1) A cold medium is low in information and thus incites the beholder’s participation. (2) Relations between the elements of a cold medium are somewhat loose. As Harman writes:

given how little information [the medium] provides, it requires that we add our own reveries to the experience of observing it.

[1]

and:

a surfeit of information always entails that the relations between various elements are overdetermined in a way that suppresses their autonomy.

[2]

He also gives some examples of hot vs. cold media:

  • Western post-Renaissance illusionist painting (hot) vs. Byzantine icons, Islamic art, and Chinese landscape painting (cold). Each element of the former “occupies a definite point in depicted three-dimensional space” and so is “completely determined with respect to all other pictorial elements.”
  • Illusionistic painting (hot) vs. 20th-century abstract painting (cold).
  • Novels (hot) vs. myths (cold). Because in a novel, “every word is accounted for in an authoritative text, with no room for change between one reprinting and another.”
  • Film (hot) vs. video art (cold): “we always see Humphrey Bogart the same way in each scene,” hence “there are no autonomous objects in film, but only objects overdetermined in their exact relations with everything else.” But video art tends to have less clear narratives.

There’s much to unpack about this simple presentation of the cold medium. I’ll organize the below discussion according to two observations.

1. Notice how Harman combines his two points about cold media. The low definition aspect entails the anti-holistic aspect of loose informational relations. While I don’t quite agree within a OOO context, I do think there is something to associating some quantitatively low definition objects with non-literal experiences. Just not all of them. Indeed, the “bare” vs. “ornate” contrast of McLuhan’s cold and hot media contains an interesting ambiguity.

2. The examples are supposed to illustrate inherently low-information or high-information media. It would have made Harman’s job easier to give examples within those media: individual cold or hot films, novels, or illusionistic paintings. Calling film itself “hot” may strike some people as misguided, but may also be defensible given certain qualifications. Let’s start with this second point.

Inherently cold or hot media

One of the places where Harman raises the problem of inherently cold or hot media is a 2012 article called “Some Paradoxes of McLuhan’s Tetrad.” If a medium is inherently cold or hot, he writes, then this “seems to leave no room for heating” or change of any sort.

His reaction to the claim is unexpected. I thought his point would either be to deny that low/high definition is built in to media or my preferred solution, to argue that there is no paradox in saying low/high definition is both inherent and flexible. Specifically, the relation between the formative parts of an object (e.g., beholder plus television) can be initially cold or hot but unstable and thus changeable. Taking the temperature of a medium is difficult and fallible work, and change never happens automatically.

But in the article, Harman accepts the notion that a built-in heat level means content cannot be heated or cooled. His solution to the paradox is that aspects of media “other than their content that still belong to the figural realm” can change, such as the number of available channels on TV. I always wondered about this explanation, though, and for a couple reasons.

One issue is that assigning unchanging high/low information density to a medium’s content risks running afoul of “flat ontology,” or the principle in OOO that ontological categories are not literal knowledge categories. (Harman calls the violation of flat ontology the Taxonomic Fallacy.) That is, could we say “cold medium” is a bucket containing certain kinds of media like television and video games but not other kinds like podcasts and novels? Perhaps, but it is difficult to dive into such assertions when we are comparing the apples of one culture with the oranges of another or bracketing relevant historical transformations of media. And the taxonomic issue becomes more pressing when we also want to say that every object is a medium and every medium is born cold, as Harman has at least implied about social objects.

Another issue is that I’m not sure what the ontological difference is between content and non-content if both categories “belong to the figural realm.” I’m also not sure what it means that content cannot change in information density while non-content can. Here’s a guess: part of what’s going on might be Harman’s apparent if elliptical commitment to the principle that “inherent” qualities cannot change but objects can enter or exit relations. (I won’t get into it here, but I don’t think it’s either/or: we can maintain that real qualities are changeable and metaphysically explain this occurrence as a movement of sub-components. In any case, it is a bigger problem to claim essence doesn’t change, since that would give in to a “bundle of qualities” interpretation of the real object.)

To clarify matters, let’s consider what it means in OOO terms to say that content, such as a TV show, cannot heat or cool. For this to be true, the TV show must be identified with the larger television medium rather than encountered as a medium in its own right, since the latter would in principle be capable of heating or cooling. Any given TV show would simply present an image of “television.” In other words, we would encounter the larger television medium as a banal object that is fully commensurate with its qualities, which is surely different than the organizing background that McLuhan and Harman intend by “medium.”

Nowadays Harman would likely agree that the content of a medium is itself a medium, which can change in information density. In Art and Objects, for example, he champions “the multifariousness of surface content” and “individualized backgrounds for every element in the work” (p. 177). So even when we assume content does not automatically cool or heat, the claim that it cannot cool or heat is more likely wrong than right. But there is another sense of “inherent” heat that remains consistent with OOO. Namely, the medium of television has real qualities that determine the information density of relations on its interior. The way I encounter television has its own background reality that is irreducible to myself or the television.

Alright, with the above comments in mind, let’s return to the issue of inherently hot or cold media. Let me reiterate my view.

  • Coldness or heat may be “inherent” to the television medium in the sense of real qualities;
  • Content is a medium in its own right;
  • The low/high information state can change, though not constantly or according to some universal law.

Much of this interpretation just refers to the mutual autonomy of wholes and parts, a basic principle of OOO. The larger medium is cold or hot somewhat independently of its parts. And elements of the television medium – shows, networks, streaming services, OLED screens – may all be media. Some TV shows are clearly “hotter” than others in terms of both information quantity (Harman’s first point about cold media) and relational determinacy (his second point). Take information quantity [1]: a quickly edited chase scene yanks you through ever-changing environments and barrages you with dramatic micro-arcs of near-misses and triumphs; but then you are staring in fascinated anticipation or bored confusion at a two and a half minute shot of someone sweeping the floor. Or take relational determinacy [2]: one minute you’re watching a standard-issue documentary about science or politics with dull, predictable rhetorical beats; but then you’re watching a profoundly weird “bedtime story” by Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim.

In any case, changing the channel to a hot or cold TV show does not decide whether TV is a hot or cold medium. That decision remains a difficult matter. I cannot be convinced that a large-scale cultural medium – an entire art form or technology – is cold or hot based on the relational determination of some of its most obvious elements. Such overdetermined relations are often beside the point since they can just correspond with the conventions of the medium. While it is possible that illusionistic Western painting reached a point of maximum decadence by the late nineteenth century, was it always “hot” in this way? Myths may be extremely hot in their telling (see Homer’s Odyssey), and only by subtracting information and identifying them with their barest narrative beats can we call them cold. On the flip side, an “authoritative text” such as a novel or philosophy book can be a cold medium replete with elisions and innuendos that demand the reader’s participation to fill in the blanks: see Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle. The larger historical “novel medium” is particularly ambiguous. On one hand, it seems to have been cooling off over the past decade through a declining number of well-published titles and a consolidating publishing industry. But on the other hand the novel medium has been heating up through its near-dogmatic entanglement with hot-button politics, a system that rewards ho-hum schlock with constant press coverage and bestseller status (see American Dirt) and prevents important cultural touchstones from even being published (see Woody Allen’s memoir).

None of this is to say I think calling a larger medium hot or cold is wrong from a OOO standpoint. But doing so responsibly is difficult work that asks us to compare apples with apples and attend to relevant scale and context. Otherwise we risk asserting knowledge of real qualities based on knee-jerk reactions and first appearances.

Low Definition and Anti-Holism / Quantity and Quality

Remember, Harman says a cold medium is both quantitatively “low definition” and qualitatively underdetermined in such a way that draws on the beholder’s input. McLuhan himself is happy to conflate both meanings. For him, a medium tends toward a state of information-equilibrium between data provided by the (non-human) object and data provided by the (human) user. As he puts it in Understanding Media (ch. 2):

High definition is the state of being well filled with data. A photograph is, visually, ‘high definition.’ A cartoon is ‘low definition,’ simply because very little visual information is provided. … On the other hand, hot media do not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience.

The situation is different for OOO. “Completion by the audience” depends on loose qualitative relations on the interior of the medium. Metaphors are exemplary “cold media” given the non-literal relations of the paired terms. Importantly, inciting participation for OOO does not depend on a quantitative lack of data. A highly defined photographed face leaves no room for argument about the face itself, but what about a photograph of a dozen faces in strange positions? The quantitatively cold medium of animation can heat up through significantly faster editing, as in the wonderful case of Satoshi Kon, even as it is possible for the relations between quickly absorbed literal sketches to have a haunting, hilarious, or disturbing ambiguity in the manner of a metaphor (again, see Satoshi Kon). And how about that “hot” tower imagined by Mark Foster Gage for Billionaires’ Row in Manhattan?

(Hardly/definitely a cold medium!)

In other words, the sheer quantity of data is beside the point. What matters is the formal structure of that data, specifically, how strictly or loosely defined its relations are, i.e., how holistic or anti-holistic the medium is.

The informational heat of a medium is thus at least partly a separate issue from its anti-holistic effectiveness at inciting participation. Indeed, heating itself can arouse the beholder’s involvement depending on the nature of the relations among the new elements. In Weird Realism (2012), Harman describes a “cubistic technique” that follows such a principle, such as when H. P. Lovecraft populates his fictional objects with features “that are nearly impossible to unify into a single entity.” This half-hidden coalition of discrete components (RO-SQ) is very different from the clean literal continuum (SO-SQ) that Harman associates with the technique in Weird Realism. McLuhan gives us another term for this remarkable technique: enhancement. Taking this point a bit further, higher definition can lead to overheating at one level, thus motivating the beholder/user to pull back and take in the medium all at once. This is McLuhan’s reversal, according to which “data overload equals pattern recognition” (Laws of Media, 107).

The Law of New York

When a police officer around here doesn’t feel like helping you, they have been trained for generations to speak these words:

Welcome to New York.

Some residents of the city will, like abused older siblings, turn around and apply the same “you don’t get it” logic to other people. Did that guy just knock you down? Welcome to New York! Hey lady, did I just knowingly get in your cab? What did you expect? It’s New York!

Complaints aside, I actually think this is one of the most efficient tests of character currently available to mankind. Normally, it takes complex interactions to separate mensches from assholes. But here, people raise the alarm about themselves in just four words.

Of course, the tool is still tempered by context. Sometimes, for instance, the sentiment is uttered with ironic dejection at the end of a sad anecdote, like: “You win some, you lose some, innat right Harry?” or “Ah well, it is what it is.”

Dirtbags vs. Amanda Marcotte

I admit I like Bernie Sanders just fine: he has rare vision and is not nearly as crazy or extreme as people try to portray him as being. Yet I also don’t really care for the so-called “Dirtbag Left” podcasters like Chapo Trap House (who support Sanders). A big part of it is just their style, taken from boring comedy troll podcasts where everyone’s giggling like the weasels in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It’s ADHD conversation, filled with constant interruption, never getting into any depth with otherwise strongly worded opinions. And they often take the worst of Trump’s America and flip it into leftism.

Even worse, though, are self-described “liberal feminists” like Amanda Marcotte. In a NYTimes article about Chapo Trap House, Marcotte is quoted as saying the podcasters

have tapped that male privilege of intimidating people into assuming you’re cool … It reminds me of when we pretended that ‘Jackass’ was funny back in the day, just so dudes wouldn’t bully you about not liking it.

Amanda Marcotte

The Times writer Nellie Bowles presents Marcotte’s seemingly unmotivated insanity as expert opinion, even though this is the person who called Sanders supporters a “He-Man woman-haters club,” thus encouraging all those idiots on your Facebook feed to blame Trump’s 2016 win on Sanders. If we’re going to talk about polarization, Marcotte is one of the people to blame, not a thoughtful witness.

The article does (far too gently) indicate in parentheses that Marcotte has some kind of personal beef with Chapo Trap House.

But just to be clear: if you ever pretended Jackass was funny back in the day, that’s 100% on you.

Trader Joe

Joe Coulombe, founder of Trader Joe’s, has passed away.

I grew up in California, but the closest TJ’s was more than triple the distance of our standard local grocery store (Alpha Beta, rebranded to Ralphs). So my dad would only go there for special runs: nuts, chocolate, wine, olive oil. It was just him, too — my mom never went there before or after they divorced.

My old memory of TJ’s turned out to be largely accurate for the version that opened in my neighborhood in NYC: a human touch everywhere, silly but inviting packaging, friendly staff in Hawaiian shirts, unique (and tasty) branded products.

One of the things I did not remember about Trader Joe’s, and this is a testament to what they do right, was their minimal selection and good prices. You want canned whole tomatoes? They give you one curated choice, not a bunch of bullshit that you have to test, compare, and try to remember. As for the cost controls, you always feel like TJ’s is playing fair. You can just get your shopping done and even have a little fun browsing if it isn’t too crowded.

What’s important are those talking green chickens in the background.

My younger brother never went when he was a kid and has never lived near one as an adult. Yet the store is common enough that he and his wife believe they have a sense of what it’s all about. When they visited and I mentioned liking the products, service, and good prices, they scoffed. “Maybe it’s cheap for New York, but it’s hardly inexpensive!” I see that as the best compliment: it still has the aura and idiosyncratic style of a fancy specialty market. Customers feel like they’re in on a secret.

I’m happy to hear about the company’s disciplined, organic growth rather than worried about some bottom-line-driven selling out. While certain people such as Elizabeth Holmes, Jeff Bezos, Gwyneth Paltro, and Donald Trump can make it seem like the modern world has been handed over to grifters, shameless market manipulators, and frauds, Trader Joe’s offers us the good case for capitalism.

Harman on Kant – Taste and Charm

Among its many virtues, Graham Harman’s latest book Art and Objects gives new, step-by-step readings of authors like Immanuel Kant and Michael Fried and unique analyses of dadaism and surrealism in visual art. I’ll just talk about the Kant portion here. In the past, Harman has brought up Kant to introduce formalism or to discuss the thing-in-itself concept in relation to his own philosophical program, object-oriented ontology (OOO). His broad take has left him open to the complaint that he ignores certain nuances that subvert his reading of Kant.

I admire Harman’s concise but thorough answer to such complaints (pp. 34-47). Yet I think he also raises significant new questions about how private preference (“the agreeable”) and charm (the not-quite beautiful) fit into OOO aesthetics. So I’ll discuss the positives in part 1 and the negatives in part 2.

Part 1 of 2: KANTIAN TASTE in FIVE POINTS

I realize Kant divides his discussion of taste into four “moments,” but I’ve organized this a little differently.

1. Overall, aesthetic judgment or “taste” is disinterested, meaning uncontaminated by ulterior concerns and personal desires. Harman draws attention to Kant’s suspicion of Rousseau-style appeals to socio-political context, for example. The ramifications of the thing’s existence for me or anyone else are irrelevant to aesthetic judgment. While Harman approves of this view, it should be noted that he disputes the implication that ethical, social, political (etc.) factors are always and automatically irrelevant to taste: indeed, “human interests” may be components of the object and contribute to its aesthetic success or failure (p. 177).

2. Taste is universal and subjective. It is a subjective feeling of pleasure or displeasure, but not in the familiar sense of “merely subjective.” Private preference, i.e. the agreeable, is actually an example of un-Kantian “interestedness.” Kant tends to associate the agreeable with qualities he believes are formless. For instance, the mere fact that something contains the color green is, on its own, little more than a basis for “material” as opposed to pure “formal” judgment.

A modern Kantian film critic would not mind it when someone says “violent movies make me queasy,” as long as it’s clear that this is merely their personal sense of the disagreeable. But our Kantian does mind it when someone bases their judgment of Goodfellas or Pulp Fiction on their personal attitude instead of on a carefully honed sense of taste to which they attach public significance.

In short, taste is public and intolerant rather than private and tolerant. It ought to hold good for everyone, which is true of Kant’s ethics as well. Proper aesthetic judgment refers back to a “common feeling.” Notice, however, that Kant does not say “common concept“…

3. Taste is irreducible to literal concepts. As Harman points out, the non-conceptual aspect of taste is counterintuitive: “While it is obvious that the agreeable has no concept [because it is private], the beautiful is universal but still has no concept” (p. 37). I usually assume universal aspects of human experience can be easily transmitted with language or something like it. Yet taste for Kant is unavailable to generalizations and a priori principles. (By the way, Kant’s term “universal communicability” just means “true for everyone.”)

Hence, the beautiful is something to be lingered on rather than solved or replaced with true descriptions. Our Kantian film critic might not mind it when an otherwise trustworthy aesthete has trouble articulating their love-hate relationship with Martin Scorsese’s work. But they will bristle at the lazy armchair dogmatist who insists they know precisely why Goodfellas is great and how future movies may also be great (“it’s a more accurate portrayal of gangsters than other gangster movies!”).

4. Taste is based on a singular experience. When I extend my judgment of one rose to all roses, I’m no longer engaged in aesthetic judgment. This helps to explain the apparent paradox of an experience that is both universal and non-conceptual. Personal preferences and concepts are both general, whereas singular experiences resist conceptualization even if we intuit that everyone ought to agree about them.

Sure enough, there is something uber-Kantian about the strait-laced film-goer who generally abhors film violence but deems Casino to be of unrivaled good taste, and not just because other people say so or because Joe Pesci is awesome.

This is also where some people might dismiss Harman’s claim that Kant is too subject-oriented. After all, aesthetic experience for Kant depends on a specific object, or more precisely a specific relation between subject and object (“subjective purposiveness”). Yet Harman answers this demand for nuance with point #5.

5. Taste is not really about the object. As Harman observes (p. 37) Kant repeatedly states in the third Critique that people who treat beauty as “a characteristic of the object” are wrong. Rather, aesthetic judgment “refers the object’s presentation merely to the subject,” meaning “the entire sphere of judging persons.”

The function of the object for Kantian taste is as follows: the object is an occasion for a subjective feeling. (Same goes for the sublime.) Now, remember that beauty is distinct from concepts. This non-conceptual beauty may be prompted by a singular experience, but it properly belongs to the sphere of judging persons, not to the reality of the object or the entity formed by the combination of the beholder and the object. Beauty is about our feeling for the purposive form of the object. It is about the subject.

Another way of putting this is to compare Kant’s model with the OOO model, according to which a real object pairs with sensual qualities (RO-SQ). Kant and Harman seem to agree that aesthetic experience fuses specific profiles of objects with an irreducible reality. And in a way, they also agree that the RO position is filled by the human subject, since according to Harman a beholder must step in to execute the missing reality of the aesthetic object. But the structures are different. In one [=Kant] a subject responds with pleasure to the object. In the other [=Harman] a subject substitutes their own reality for that of the object as it unifies its severed qualities.

I count two major differences. (1) The object-quality tension is key for OOO. Harman might (?) disagree with me in Part 2, below, but I do not yet see the object-quality tension as a core part of Kant’s aesthetics. (2) OOO treats the beholder as an ingredient of the basic aesthetic unit. This unit is the attachment or indirect RO-RO relation. The only relevant reality for Kant is on the subject side of the fence, whereas an attachment is irreducible to the beholder on its interior.

Part 2 of 2: CHARM

Harman discusses charm (p. 39) at the end of the section on Kantian beauty, right after some “loose ends.” Charm is supposed to connect back to OOO by hinting at Kant’s awareness of the theme of objects in tension with their qualities (SO-SQ). While I certainly see a connection between Kant’s examples of charm and the low-information “cold media” that Harman emphasizes at the very end of the book, I nevertheless find this section disconcerting. To me, the topic of charm better fits the earlier discussion of the agreeable vs. the beautiful (pp. 35-36). Nevertheless, it is helpful to understand charm in terms of qualities (as opposed to beautiful form, which might involve something more like object-quality tension). The topic of charm also implicitly raises interesting questions about how the “agreeable” and the “almost beautiful” fit in with OOO aesthetics.

For Kant, charm refers to a beautiful view of an object as opposed to a beautiful object. Instead of responding to the content of the experience, we indulge in the daydreams prompted by its texture. (Harman cites Kant’s examples of flames in a hearth and a rippling brook from the end of his discussion of beauty.) As I understand it, charm arises from an inessential aspect of an experience that is not proper to the beauty of that experience but nevertheless engages our mind as it “entertains itself.” For instance, part of the charm of a barn door might be the glow from the rising sun, the dance of dust particles in the slightly chilly air, the nostalgic hue of the wooden slats.

The good thing about charm in Kant’s account is its one aspect of beauty, namely, the way it encourages “free play” of the imagination. But this free play is not linked to the formal beauty of the object. Indeed, the bad thing about charm (for Kant) is its adjacency to the agreeable. That is, charm takes us outside the sphere of autonomous beauty even if it produces related pleasures.

In Harman’s view, Kantian charm illustrates SO-SQ, the tension between a sensual object and its sensual qualities. “Kant gets it right: the constant arousal of a difference between the phenomenal object and its qualities is something very close to beauty without quite clearing the hurdle” (p. 39).

I have two problems with this description. First, I would question its accuracy. Second, even if we accept Harman’s reading of charm as SO-SQ, I would question the validity of the idea that it is “close to beauty.”

First, I don’t think charm matches SO-SQ. Kant is getting at a pleasure that is unmoored from the specific object. In my view, this better suits a special variant of allure (RO-SQ) that minimizes whatever style the underlying SO contributes, thus linking the “qualities” term almost directly to the beholder. Hypnotism and maybe certain kinds of drug use would be examples. Kant cites material “ingredients” of formal beauty like colors and individual violin tones. This should already be an interesting bridge between Kant and OOO, since so-called “material” charm is, for Harman, not without form.

Don’t just take my word for it. Harman himself adopts the RO-SQ interpretation when he returns to the fireplace example at the end of Art and Objects. His fifth conclusion about “weird formalism” (OOO aesthetics) focuses on the McLuhan concept of cold media. The fire is a low-information medium that is hypnotic precisely because of its pure play on the beholder’s “theatrical” investment of their own reality: “it requires that we add our own reveries to the experience of observing it” (p. 178).

In other words, by Harman’s account elsewhere in the book, Kantian charm should be an example of RO-SQ, not SO-SQ. Furthermore, Kant’s emphatic association of charm with the agreeable is a missed opportunity to put this whole class of aesthetic experience in deeper conversation with OOO. As it stands, Harman provides minimal commentary when he summarizes the difference between beauty and the agreeable. What little he does offer tacitly raises more questions. Specifically, he agrees with Kant that the agreeable is not beautiful, but rejects the doctrine of disinterestedness. As he puts it, “personal interests of every sort must be excluded from aesthetic judgment” but it is “impossible for disinterestedness to count as the aesthetic demeanor par excellence” (p. 35). This implies that personal preference is sometimes but not always superfluous to aesthetic experience. OK, when? Is there such a thing as an object-oriented aesthete who normally feels squeamish at the sight of physical violence in movies but judges Casino or A Clockwork Orange to be truly tasteful? In other words, how does the beholder overcome their prejudices about particular colors, violin tones, etc., in order to more fully invest their being in the aesthetic experience? How do we distinguish the agreeable from the rank-ordering of loves that Harman discusses in Dante’s Broken Hammer?

My second reason for questioning Harman’s interpretation of Kantian charm is that it gives too much credit to SO-SQ. Let me point out my favorite statement in the book, which draws a nice thick line: “I do not see how any literal object (SO-SQ) can possibly count as art” (p. 91). Though I think I see why Kant believes charm is close to beauty (free play of the imagination), I am less sure I understand closeness to beauty in a OOO context. Harman is usually pretty strict about separating banality from allure. For his earlier SO-SQ interpretation to be consistent, he would have to strongly agree with Kant’s conclusion that charm is superfluous to aesthetic judgment. But for his later RO-SQ interpretation to be consistent, he would have to describe charm not as merely “close to beauty” but as the nameless ingenuousness at the very core of beauty.

All of that said, here’s my best guess. My intuition is that “almost beautiful” – “material” or “empirical” pleasure in Kantian terms – would mean the experience of underwhelming part-whole depth, in which an alluring object quickly falls back into SO-SQ. Wallpaper or a violin tone may be almost beautiful because it lacks the internal strata that invite my involvement with it as a medium. The tone’s subtly varying texture in tension with its unity may draw me to it (RO-SQ, not to be confused with its literal cohesion or SO-SQ), but it lacks the tensely linked layers that I usually find in beautiful things and I lose interest.

We add depth to near-beautiful things in one of two ways: either we treat them as qualities in tense relation to another object, or we turn them into background media in their own right. For example, some aspect of the tone might be exaggerated (e.g., lasting a very long time) or the tone might be placed in an environment that is already primed for an aesthetic experience (e.g., Joshua Bell playing it for a rapt audience after announcing a title). These are roughly analogous to the strategies and risks taken by surrealism and Dada (p. 162).

Adventures in coffee pour-over

In an earlier post, I rhapsodized about the comforts of coffee-making rituals. This broke the spell and I began experimenting with different tools and methods. Specifically pour-over:

  • I began weighing the water while pouring to control coffee/water ratio. 16:1 (usually measured in grams) is standard for American style coffee, and 15 to 17 gives the “strong-to-weak” band within a normal continuum.
  • I started to compare coffees from different roasters on identical grind settings.
  • I got a Hario v60 pour-over cone.

The first thing I learned is that it’s really hard to pour from a normal water kettle into a V60 without a big sloppy mess. You need the kettle with the long slim spout. And as long as you’re doing that, you might as well get a kettle that tells you the temperature of the water.

I scoured YouTube for tips about technique and soon discovered that the Arbitrary Ritual Effect has sunk its claws deep into the souls of baristas and barista-adjacent youtubers. Here are some tips.

Video #1 (Sang Ho Park). Video #2 (James Hoffmann). Video #3 (Scott Rao). Video #4 (Ben Turiano). Video #5 (George Howell).

  • Ideal grind size: medium course? medium? medium fine? Yes.
  • Grind it fresh. Use a burr grinder. You want the most even grind possible and to minimize fine powder. [There are further distinctions here, but professional grade “flat” grinders are super expensive]
  • Rinse out the filter first. Folks offer two different reasons: to get rid of paper taste, and to pre-heat the brewer. Everyone prefers white filters.
  • Create a “well” in the middle of the grounds by pressing in with your finger… …or shake/tap the filter to even out the grounds.
  • Water temperature: various ranges between 195-205° F (or 90-96°C). Lighter roasts get hotter water. Darker roasts get cooler water, presumably to extract less of the burned flavor. Sang Ho Park goes so far as to suggest super-low temp for dark (as low as 185° F or 85°C).
  • Pour 2:1 (…or 3:1) to “bloom” your coffee for 30 seconds or so. The idea is that the CO2 gas gets bubbled out so that the extraction happens evenly. e.g., 20g coffee = 40g water bloom. The sooner the bubbles stop appearing, good job you Master Barista.
  • Swirl your bloom… or stir your bloom …or just wait.
  • Your first pour should be X percent of the final brew weight. One person aims for 30% (e.g. 150g water out of a 500g pour). Another 60%. And so on.
  • HOW you pour: this is the true source of magic, apparently. For some people this is about keeping the temperature stable. For others it’s about disturbing the coffee bed just the right amount to ensure an even extraction. Scott Rao says it’s bad to raise and lower the kettle. James Hoffmann raises and lowers the kettle. George Howell uses a “start-stop” method. Sang Ho Park does a very long slow pour after the bloom and first pour.
  • Swirl or stir your filled cone. Or not. James Hoffmann specifically says to stir once counterclockwise and once clockwise [!].
  • Some people have noted that it’s a bad omen if there are coffee grounds stuck to the filter wall after you’re done.
  • It’s also bad for the leftover coffee grounds to fail to form a flat bed at the end. For some of these guys, an uneven coffee bed means some areas are over-extracted and others under-extracted.

MY OWN EXPERIENCE AND CONCLUSIONS

  1. GRIND SIZE.
    This is weirder than the videos suggest. The same grind settings on a Baratza Virtuoso lead to completely different brew times depending on the roaster. One roasting company’s coffee in my experience takes up to a full minute longer than another’s on the same grind settings. The roaster seems aware of this issue, explicitly instructing me to use a courser grind setting than I’m used to.
  2. RINSING THE FILTER WITH HOT WATER.
    This makes a big difference for getting rid of the paper taste. But I don’t think it does anything for the eventual brewing temperature, especially compared to the choice between plastic and ceramic for your filter cone, which itself seems to have little meaningful effect. (Plastic gets the most votes.)
  3. SHOULD YOU TAP THE DRY COFFEE GROUNDS or MAKE AN IMPRESSION IN THE MIDDLE?
    No. You don’t need to do either of these. I mean, feel free to tap the cone before pouring any water in if you want your setup to look nice, but it’s otherwise just a superstitious ritual. The initial pour will create an impression in the grounds anyway in addition to disturbing them.
  4. TEMPERATURE.
    I have tended to prefer it on the hot side. The water quickly drops several degrees anyway when you first pour, and the temp dips down whenever you pause. I lean closer to 205°F when I’m dealing with a high quality coffee and 195°F for over-roasted or crappy coffee. By the way, you can tell coffee is over-roasted when you get a whiff of burned tire or when a friend or family member whose taste you don’t trust tells you it’s “good and strong.”
  5. BLOOM.
    Right, so blooming might make a difference but IMHO the jury is still out. Whatever the specific explanation happens to be (the CO2 bubbles prevent water contact or promote the formation of uneven “tunnels”), the ultimate reasoning is that a failure to bloom leads to uneven extraction. When I tried making coffee without the bloom, some grounds floated up into the crema early on before eventually getting poured back down. To me it’s slightly more acidic, but I haven’t done a rigorous test to see if there’s a genuine difference. For all I know, the sheer fact that coffee creates crema in hot water led to the formation of rituals around it.
  6. SHOULD YOU SWIRL OR STIR THE BLOOM?
    No. I mean, it won’t hurt unless you accidentally stab the filter. But this is a waste of time: if you add a little more water in the first place (try a 2.5 ratio) and make sure you pour over the grounds evenly, then you guarantee the “evenness” you’re looking for in a proper bloom. And if you pour the water at all, it’s going to stir the coffee for you.
  7. POURING TECHNIQUE.
    This is the big one. There are two factors people try to control with pouring: (1) temperature and (2) even contact with water. And nobody agrees about how to do it. Three pours? Six? One slow stream? 30% first? 60%? 40%? It’s gotten really weird. I dunno.
  8. GROUNDS STICKING TO THE SIDE.
    Like point #1, this seems to depend as much on the coffee roast as it does on your technique, and I’m not convinced it’s a bad/good thing. The one technique that truly makes a difference here is pouring on the side to try to wash off the grounds. This also washes the finer into the middle of your brewing coffee and leads to some over-extracted yuckiness.
  9. FLAT BED.
    If this is so important to you, just give the filter cone a circular shake halfway through the process. I haven’t noticed a taste difference one way or another, but it looks purdy when the water vanishes below a perfectly flat coffee bed.
  10. TIMING.
    One of the main points of confusion is about total brew time. Some places suggest 2 – 3 minutes. Sang Ho Park accurately notes that brews for one person will have less brew time than larger batches. The timing window is obviously relative to the batch size. Furthermore, the timing is affected by when you start your timer. Do you start before water touches the coffee, during, or immediately after?

Job (almost) done! Plus: 25k extra words on Wolfendale

I’ve finished a solid draft of my dissertation on object-oriented ontology and musicology, and my fingers are crossed for an April defense, though I’d defend tomorrow if the powers that be would let me get it to my final readers sooner.

Incidentally, my work on this project has also yielded another, mostly unrelated (and much less interesting) piece of writing.

The dissertation is four long chapters, plus an introduction and short summary conclusion. Chapter 1 is a primer on OOO, and Chapters 2, 3, and 4 are specific applications to music theory (Robert Gjerdingen’s schema theory), music history (the late-life education of ragtime performer and songwriter Eubie Blake), and music criticism (criticism of Louis Andriessen’s 1976 concert piece De Staat).

One of the amazing things for me — though it’ll hardly shock anyone — is how much of it I threw out or completely restructured and rewrote. The applied chapters surprised me at times: for instance, I changed my mind about the basic argument in the Eubie Blake chapter when I was nearly done writing a draft. The primer went through multiple rewrites. And after I composed two drafts of a chapter that was supposed to set up how I would apply OOO, I ended up discarding it entirely. (I did manage to integrate some ideas into other chapters, but it was a psychological setback.)

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the process was how the philosophical ideas got more difficult as I got closer to them. In one sense, I should celebrate this difficulty as a sign of depth.

But there was another, more onerous grind that had nothing to do with depth.

A case in point. In the scrapped method chapter, I wanted to incorporate some possible shortcomings of OOO’s prospects for musicology. By far the hardest background reading for that part was Peter Wolfendale’s article and book about Harman.

So whenever I got stuck on whatever I was supposed to be doing, I would slowly go through Wolfendale’s argument in the article, point by point, and critically summarize it for myself. My intuition was that I would eventually understand it and manage to condense Wolfendale’s critical contributions into a paragraph or two. I was also prompted to spend real time with Heidegger and Husserl, not to mention Harman’s early writings (Tool-Being and Guerrilla Metaphysics).

But after a certain point, I realized I wasn’t learning anything from Wolfendale. Not only did I disagree, but something seemed off about his rhetoric, as if he was doing certain things on purpose that would normally emerge from unsystematic accidents. Nevertheless, the Sunk Cost Fallacy was strong. I kept returning to that mini-project to feel like I was making progress, and it blew up into my go-to procrastination vehicle for a summer. I ended up with over 25,000 words that, seen from above, might look like little more than an elaborate, carefully researched, slow-motion “wtf” gesture.

This not-quite-finished monster is obviously not coming anywhere near my dissertation, not even as some kind of massive appendix. Its tiny audience would be those who have read both Wolfendale and Harman and are not yet convinced — but can be convinced — that Wolfendale has missed the mark. Indeed, I think he takes missing the mark to an almost unethical level.

If you’re still with me, I’m linking to the essay again below. It’s in three large parts, and I got seriously fatigued after trying to reach the end and clean up bits and pieces of it. So I’m calling it unfinished.

Wolfendale Contra Harman — LINK.

I do think my criticisms are on point, or at least more carefully considered than what Wolfendale published. And as I mention above, I learned a lot about Heidegger along the way. But the fact that I can’t even bring myself to continue editing this thing should also be revealing. Indeed, it may best be categorized as reference material that critically tracks through Wolfendale’s essay. And in the mode of unfinished online reference material, I may occasionally go back to edit a line here or there.

In any case, here’s hoping it’s useful!

37.7 grams or: Use the Force

You might think the problem with precision and consistency in coffee-making is a thoroughly modern issue, what with the rise of nth-wave baristas and single origin heirloom cultivars at the retail level. Then again, Beethoven counted his beans. Sixty? Maybe. Modern baristas might accuse him of inaccuracy since beans vary so much in density and volume. But if you get the same roast level from the same types of beans, it’s not nearly as imprecise as you might think. The differences slowly average out. I bet the gradual balance Beethoven achieved must have been pretty satisfying.

Continue reading “37.7 grams or: Use the Force”