Here are Wikipedia’s bestselling musical artists of all time (top 5). Interesting to note that the band with the all-time most sales had a much shorter active period than the others.
Category Archives: Cultural History
Zeno’s paradox revisited
Sitting in Tokyo over an innocent bowl of sake, my philosopher friend from London brought up Zeno’s paradox. Damn philosophers. Always something. He knows more about ancient Greek philosophy than I do, but let me have a go at it from the poet’s side of the field.
I guess Zeno’s paradox (5th century BC) comes in various forms, but I think of it in terms of space. Paradoxically, mathematically, motion is impossible. To move from point A to point B, we have to cross midpoint C. But to move from point A to midpoint C, we have to cross midpoint D. Etc. But since simple geometry tells us that there are an infinite number of points between any two points, we can never get to the nearest midpoint.
Or forget about midpoints. In order to move we must cross an adjacent point. But there are an infinite number of points between us and any adjacent point. In today’s computer programming lingo, we’d have to execute an infinite number of tasks before reaching the adjacent point, which is impossible.
There are only two conclusions I can draw from the paradox. Either it shows us that motion is truly impossible or it shows us the limits of logic – that logic can solve a lot of local problems but there are points at which it fails as a conduit of knowledge and results in an absurdity.
My tipsy interlocutor pointed out that the paradox works along a time axis as well. The idea of a linear flow of time is equally impossible, as we’d have to move past the adjacent moment, which is impossible. However, conceptualizing it along a time axis opened a different tangent of thought for me.
My more devoted readers will note that I’ve looked at the following William Faulkner quote HERE as a way of theorizing time:
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past” (Requiem for a Nun, 1951).
Pondering the Faulkner quote led me to consider that our conventional way of looking at time – with the past as a thread disappearing into some distant place that no longer exists – is actually counterintuitive. Doesn’t it make more sense to see the past as something very much still with us, but at a depth, providing the real-time substructure of the present, just as the rings of a tree do not disappear as years go by but rather continue to provide the real-time substructure of the tree? In the same way, the “past” is not gone, but is right here, at a depth, providing in real time all the folds and substructure without which the present would collapse.
So if Zeno’s paradox suggests that we cannot move along a linear path of time, does the tree ring model of time show us a way out of the paradox? On the one hand, it seems to do so, as it shows we can conceptualize the manifold of time without requiring a linear flow. On the other hand, we still need some kind of wiggle room, as time, though not extending backward into some now-absent past, does recede to the center (of the tree) or the depth (on which the present stands). Would Zeno be able to grant us so much without giving up his precious paradox? To untie this further knot in the fabric, we need a to add a third category to space and time. And here it comes …
Kant, in the Critique of Judgment (1790), speaks of the dynamical and mathematical sublime, and makes a rigorous case for the power of human reason as the sublime human faculty. In the mathematical sublime, for example, we might look up on a starry night and imagine how many stars are up there. The imagination, however, can only stretch so far and is overwhelmed by the sheer numbers in the scenario at hand. Reason, however, can step in and calculate numbers beyond what the imagination can fathom (estimating that there are something like 1024 stars in the universe). It is reason that inspires the highest awe in Kant.
Now let’s use Zeno to turn Kant on his head. Reason leads you down the rabbit hole of Zeno’s paradox, and there you get stuck. No motion. But where reason folds into absurdity, imagination steps in and liberates us. We imagine ourselves in motion. We imagine ourselves moving through time. And if reason can’t back that up, that’s reason’s problem. And if the flow of our experience into the future is an imagined flow, so much the better. Without imagination, perhaps Zeno’s paradox would hold. Reason is trapped in what is; and what is, is fixed. The world as a static object of knowledge. But imagination is the one faculty that allows us to project and manifest all manner of possible futures. Imagination creates destiny, and imagination is what moves us toward that destiny.
So philosophers and scientists, keep up the good work but go to the back of the bus. Poets, artists, and mythmakers, move forward.
“In art and dream may you proceed with abandon” (Patti Smith)
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination encircles the world” (Albert Einstein)
“Artists are here to disturb the peace” (James Baldwin)
Now for my real poetry, click the book cover below.
mountain lantern light
breaking through bamboo and ice
a thousand angels
A musical digression
Anyone who reads this blog knows I travel a lot. Nine countries so far this year, five of them via hitchhiking. It came up the other day – how people often get rooted to a place, how they come to feel trapped in a place, even though – or partly because – they love it. Fine line between rooted and trapped. I don’t have the answer. But since the conversation turned to music, I’ll ramble through a musical tangent.
First and most obviously, we thought of the Eagles song, “Hotel California,” with the title as a thinly veiled metaphor for California itself. When you’re out in the desert looking for relief, it’s a place of glamour and glitz that pulls you in. Lovely women and sweet summer sweat, pretty boys and pink champagne. You think it will satisfy all your desires. When you finally realize that the place “can’t kill the beast” of desire, that it’s a surreal dream with a dark underbelly, it’s too late. You are a prisoner of your own lifestyle, unable to escape.
For a great outlaw country expression of trying to escape that Golden State metropolis, see “L.A. freeway” by Guy Clark, who hung around Austin a lot when I lived and worked in the music clubs there during the Stevie Ray Vaughan era. Jerry Jeff Walker (who would also pop into our Austin music clubs back then) recorded the Guy Clark song HERE on his self-titled album before Clark released it himself.
And now back to the Eagles song. Here’s the last verse.
Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
“Relax,” said the night man
“We are programmed to receive
You can check out any time you like
But you can never leave”
Let me arbitrarily use that to segue to this fantastic live version of “Can’t Find My Way Home,” with Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood joining back up on stage, along with some next-generation stars like Derek Trucks, many years after they released the song on the Blind Faith album. At the 10-second mark, when Clapton taps the button with his foot, those of us who have been around a while go on alert for the signature sound of Clapton’s guitar (which comes at the 20-second mark) 😊
So if like Clapton and Winwood you can’t find your way home, if you just can’t shake that “warm smell of colitas” that has befuddled Eagles listeners for decades, just sit back and watch the best ever pop culture appropriation of “Hotel California” in this scene from “The Big Lebowkski”.
Hotel California, The Eagles
L.A. Freeway, Guy Clark
Voodoo Chile, Stevie Ray Vaughan
L.A. Freeway, Jerry Jeff Walker
Can’t Find My Way Home, Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood
Hotel California soundtrack scene in The Big Lebowski (dir. Coen Brothers)
Product Links (click image for link)
On this day in 2016
From Kant to Chomsky (with a plug for Fr–d)
h/t Matt McManus on Noam Chomsky’s Theory of Human Nature (04/16/20), from which much of this is taken
Descartes famously argued that all our empirical knowledge may be an illusion, so it can never provide a basis for absolute certainty. By contrast, we can be certain that we are thinking (“I think, therefore I am”), and so glean some certainty about the nature of cognition.
Kant goes a step further. True, all empirical knowledge may be an illusion, but there is a universal structure to the human mind by which we all perceive the empirical world in more or less the same way. E.g., all human beings see the world in terms of space and time. And since we see the world in the same way, we can gain knowledge that would be accepted by anyone. However, this doesn’t mean we gain knowledge of the world “in itself.” Our knowledge is only of the world as it appears to those structures of the mind (what Kant calls the “phenomenal world”). The world of actual things may or may not match the phenomena we experience, but we’ll never know.
Chomsky applies this toggle from empiricism to Kant to linguistics. McManus mentions how Chomsky’s linguistic theory (beginning in the late 1950s) pushed against such behaviorists as B. F. Skinner. Skinner and the behaviorists assume, like the old empiricists, that the mind is initially a blank slate, and only learns things like language from the experience of being taught. To Chomsky, this behaviorist/empiricist approach falters if we look at language acquisition. If we accept the blank slate premise, he argued, it leads to the conclusion that if one left a rock, a tomato and a baby with a family in London each of them would be equally likely to learn English, since each of them would experience being exposed to that language. The reason that a baby can pick up a language—even several languages—very quickly is that her mind is a priori capable of learning a human dialect. This language faculty also explains why human languages have many deep similarities. Not only do we largely perceive the world in the same way, as Kant points out, but our language faculty generates universal grammars, and much of Chomsky’s linguistic theory is about unraveling those universal grammars.
As with Kant’s theory, this position implies an upside and a downside. The upside is that human beings are capable of understanding one another, and even translating their various languages between each other. The downside is that we are still operating exclusively in the phenomenal world, as our mutual understanding, including cross-cultural communication, is based on the universal structures of how our minds process the world, not on any direct experience of the world “out there.”
I will go the extra step here and align Chomsky in this way with Freud. (As my loyal readers know, I am always eager to shore up Freud’s place in the history of ideas over and against his pitiful detractors, albeit with an occasional concession to those detractors.) What Chomsky rejects in the field of linguistics, Freud rejects in the field of psychology. The behaviorists shunned Freudian psychoanalysis, shunned talking about the internal structure of the mind as if there were something in there anterior to our experience of the world. As in Chomsky the mind has an a priori structure that facilitates language acquisition, so in Freud the mind has an a priori structure that facilitates similarities in development of the psyche across human populations. Whether you see that structure in terms of primitive drives along with mechanisms that develop to inhibit those drives, or as a gradient structure moving from the conscious mind down deeper and deeper into unconscious layers of motivation, Freud’s psychology and Chomsky’s linguistics both defy the “blank slate” theory by positing some internal structure, something intrinsic about the human mind, what Kant might call subjective universals that shape how humans process the world, irrespective of the range of individual human experiences.
In neither Freud’s case nor Chomsky’s, it seems to me, does this leave us with an either/or dilemma. Chomsky’s theory might well elucidate the universal grammars that provide the a priori capacity for language acquisition without demeaning the contribution of behaviorist methods on the other side. Likewise, behaviorist psychology might well provide a stimulus-response model that works quite well as a mechanical operation for changing behaviors, but I see no reason (other than that academics must endlessly produce us vs them models and show the superiority of their side over the other as a way of securing tenure) that this should preclude psychoanalytic investigations of the internal structures of the mind that might underwrite human possibilities, human creativity, and human pathways of dysfunction more generally.
Critical Race Theory Flip Flops
Let’s face it. I skip much of the pulp (non-) fiction on cultural politics in today’s media, but I’ll occasionally find a bit in The Atlantic worth reading. This one by Conor Friedersdorf, e.g., shows how “outrage entrepreneurs on either side” of hot-button issues like racism sometimes dance each other round until they swap places. Maybe I like this one because I have argued the same in this fine blog, sometimes humorously, as in my entry on Jonathan Swift and the Arc of Liberalism, sometimes more pedantically, as in my entry on Buckling and Curling in the US Political Spectrum. In any event, if you skip the Atlantic link, you can at least link to my previous entries for more entertaining, equally informative, and much shorter elucidations of Left and Right dancing around in their little (we can hope) death spiral 😊
Conor Friedersdorf article here
 The Atlantic is one of the few media outlets that has not zipped itself into an ideological straitjacket in the past few years. It leans left and includes new (woke) progressive voices like Ibram X. Kendi, but also includes regular contributors such as former George W. Bush speechwriter, David Frum, and anti-woke liberals such as John McWhorter.
 A note on terminology: I am sometimes criticized for using the word “woke,” as if that aligns me with a conservative rhetoric. Although the term was at first amply used as a badge of honor for left-leaning politicians like my own New Orleans mayor, Mitch Landrieu, it is true that the right has seized the narrative and largely turned “woke” into a slur. In my case, I have always identified as progressive, not conservative, but for clarity today I need to distinguish between “progressive” as rooted in the 1960s radicalism of MLK and the hippies (which favors free speech and less racialization in our value judgments about people) and “woke progressive” (the identity politics sort, which favors stifling dissent and emphasizing race in value judgments about people and interactions). Thus, I use the term to distinguish two very different versions of progressivism which are often conflated because they carry the same “progressive” tag.
What happened in 1967?
Something happened between 5/1967 and 11/1967. Click through to YouTube to see these two clips of Eric Clapton and Cream. Musically, they are equivalent and on the same page. The blues guitar had entered the psychedelic age. That doesn’t change from the May clip to the November clip. But the visual self-presentation is different. In the May clip, Clapton doesn’t seem to know what to do with that hair, how to dress, how to present himself. In the November clip, he is totally comfortable in his own skin, the casual hippie style has settled into place.
So what happened between May and November of 1967 that might have signalled hippie/psychedelic culture finding its comfort zone? The release of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s album at the very end of May, just two weeks after Cream’s gig at the Beat Club in the top clip? Or their worldwide live release of “All You Need Is Love” a few weeks after that? The explosion of hippiedom in the San Francisco Summer of Love from June to August? Maybe. Then again, this may all be my own quirky reading of the two clips. But I hope you enjoyed the little trip down memory lane to the music scene of 1967, which imho pivoted away from Elvis/Sinatra days and carved out a new sonic landscape that still bears fruit today 🙂
* * * Click covers for links * * *
Best a capella
Why the Beatles
I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico lately, and some of my younger friends there have asked why there is such a mystique surrounding the Beatles. So here are my thoughts, especially for my younger friends who know something big was happening at the time but crave more context on the Beatlemania that swept the world in the 1960s.
They only released 12 studio albums over 7 years, but in shaping the modern (post-Elvis) era of music, no other band comes close. 11 of those 12 albums reached #1 on the charts (and the 12th peaked at #2). Nearly every song on every album was a hit. When I look today at Rolling Stone magazine’s list of top 100 Beatles songs, I can sing at least 85 of them right now off the top of my head, and so can many people without even realizing it. No other band has seeped into the popular imagination in quite that way. As an indication of their dominance, even the last song on the Rolling Stone list, #100, reached #1 on the singles charts. During some years, they were releasing hit songs so fast that they were taking up all the spots (e.g., there was at least one week in the mid-1960s when Beatles songs held all of the five top spots on the Billboard singles chart). Keith Richards, who was there at the 1960s epicenter as lead guitarist for the Rolling Stones, once said that there would be no Rolling Stones without the Beatles, because “they kicked the door in” for the Stones and everyone else to follow. (You can see Keith, Mick Jagger, and others in a couple of the later Beatles clips below, as they were usually hanging around for the taping.)
Ozzy Osbourne, whose Satanic antics with his late 60s proto-metal band, Black Sabbath, earned him the nickname “The Prince of Darkness,” was once talking to one of the Sex Pistols in the mid-70s London punk scene. The Sex Pistol (I forget which one) said he didn’t like the Beatles. Ozzy’s response was typical Ozzy: “There’s something fucking wrong with you,” was all he said. But he later added: “For a musician in 1970s London, saying you don’t like the Beatles is like saying you don’t like oxygen.”
The revolutionary work of the Beatles – culturally and musically – is less clear now than it was then, partly (1) because they shaped the sound of music so much to their own image that they now sound like just “one of those 1960s bands,” and (2) their own evolution from beautiful pop love songs to psychedelic rock and experimental sounds, though rapid, was steady enough that no one point seems revolutionary (although some would focus on the 1967 release of the Sgt Pepper’s album as that point). So yes, there were many great bands in the mid-60s to mid-70s reshaping the sonic universe of music, and some of them you might like more than the Beatles, but most of them looked back at the Beatles as the groundbreakers.
Here are a few songs in historical order:
(If it helps measure historical impact, note that even what I’ve listed as “late” Beatles came before the emergence of Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin or the Woodstock festival.)
Early Beatles (1964) https://vimeo.com/241059239
Middle Beatles (1966) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYvkICbTZIQ
Late Beatles (1967): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usNsCeOV4GM
And bonus songs/videos from 1967-68:
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (1967) https://vimeo.com/249451145
All You Need Is Love (1967) https://vimeo.com/214047758
Revolution (1968) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFckPkukF7g
Click covers below for links.
Interesting facts. The 2.4 million stone blocks used for the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza weigh an average of 2.5 tons each. Built around 2560 BC, this pyramid was (at 481 feet) the tallest man-made structure in the world for almost 4000 years until Lincoln Cathedral was finished in 1311 AD. It contains “more masonry than all the medieval cathedrals, churches and chapels built in Europe added together” (Wilson, 1996, p. 6).