Monday, February 23, 2015

When Updating Opera Means Blandifying It; Or, Why I Hated The COC's Don Giovanni

From the COC production.

Let me start by saying right up front that I have nothing against updating opera productions. Sure -- put your characters in a modern board room. Make it be about the Iraq War. Use business suits. I love it.

However, a lot of updating I've seen lately I have hated. And the reason I've hated it is that, contrary to what is often thought, the effect of some updating is not to make opera more disturbing, relevant, thought-provoking, or edgy, but rather to make it more bland, more mushy, and more irrelevant. 

When someone complains about an updated opera production, the standard line is that they're some kind of traditionalists, who want to be lulled by opera's beauty and tradition, and that presenting them with disturbing contemporary commentary is too jarring for them.

Let me just say: for me that is the opposite of the problem. What I see in some updating is, instead, a kind of gutting of the themes of the opera. (#notallupdating).

The worst updating involves seemingly disconnected "cool" aesthetic choices, minimalist staging, and "interesting" effects like "Oh, the whole thing is happening inside a play inside a nineteenth-century garden!"

Often, I find the effect to be one of distancing the audience from the themes of the opera -- themes that, given opera, are often profoundly disturbing in themselves when the production is straightforward.

For example, I recently saw the COC's production of Don Giovanni. I kind of love Wikipedia's quick synopsis of the opera itself: "Don Giovanni, a young, arrogant, and sexually promiscuous nobleman, abuses and outrages everyone else in the cast, until he encounters something he cannot kill, beat up, dodge, or outwit."

In the recent COC production, several elements of the story were re-imagined. It was set in the 20th century, and the characters' relationships were changed so that everyone in the story who is not part of Don Giovanni's family is part of the same extended family. Don Giovanni is dressed like an ordinary schlump, usually in a ratty overcoat. About his re-imagining, the director says that it's not really about Don G. being a "bad person." Instead:

"The main clash here is between two radically different ideas about how to live a good life ... Don Giovanni here is not a seducer or a playboy; he is an older man, somebody who has experienced heartbreak and disappointment. He comes in with something of the messiah complex, but his utopia of a new kind of community unsettles everybody in the family."

I thought this approach destroyed the opera by undercutting its most interesting and important themes, without being bold enough to suggest other ones. Here are just three examples.

1. Power, money, and coercion.

In the traditional story, Don Giovanni uses his status and money as a nobleman to get what he wants at huge costs to everyone else. Because marriage to a nobleman would transform most people's lives beyond belief, young women -- such as the servant Zerlina -- will go along with him whatever he proposes. By falsely suggesting marriage will result, Don Giovanni is able to coerce and deceive women into having sex with them, even though in the traditional cultural setting, this could ruin their lives.

But in this production, any reflection on how massive wealth inequality impacts social relations is completely lost, since Don G. is just some guy, the family is presented as well to do, and Zerlina isn't a servant at all but rather the daughter of one of the family members.

Disturbing commentary on money, class, and society? Gone.

2. Love, Sex, and the Seductiveness of Evil.

Even if you gut the social commentary, you still have the extremely interesting possibility of presenting the theme related to the drives of lust and affection and how those can point in the opposite direction from the drives of good sense, love, and other nice things. It is utterly bizarre to me how in the massive suburbanization of modern life there's this party line that lust and sex are nice parts of love and go along naturally with it, while meanwhile there's this whole other thing happening with rape and sexual assaults and people in public life being completely undone by their non-monogamy.

In the traditional story, Don Giovanni is a bad guy. But he's an attractive guy. Part of that is his money, sure, but it's also because sometimes, evil is attractive -- that's one of those universal and universally interesting things about the human existence.

But in this production, Don G. isn't "evil," he's just some guy with some other ideas about living, and his charismatic effects are a total mystery. Was I the only person watching and thinking, "Who on earth would be sexually attracted to this slouching, arrogant asshole in a dirty coat?"

If you can't show why he's attractive, you can't even start with themes, because the story doesn't make sense. Plus, if Don G. is just a person with other ideas about "the good life," that suggests the update would present the opera as a reflection on the problems of modern monogamy and the possibility of something else.

You know what? That would have been AMAZING. It would have been an opera about something different, but something actually interesting, relevant, and possibly destabilizing to the audience. But I didn't see anything like that.

3. Unrepentance and Fate.

Everyone who talks about Don Giovanni seems to mention the fact that at the end ghosts appear and give him a chance to repent, and he refuses, and then goes to hell. I love that the opera traditionally has been seen as having comic elements, melodramatic elements, and supernatural elements.

But once you've gotten rid of Don Giovanni being a bad guy, the whole thing with the ghosts and supernatural elements doesn't really make sense. Is he psychologically persecuting himself? If he just has other ideas about "the good life," why would he do that? If the forces against him are that he's being ganged up on, that whole punishment and refusal to repent thing just doesn't make any sense.

Weirdly, with respect to the whole re-imagining the story idea, this Toronto Star review suggests that somehow, as traditionally told, the themes of Don Giovanni wouldn't make sense in our modern world:

"If you come to Don Giovanni to see a swaggering specimen of macho humanity break the hearts of numerous women without impunity, you will be disappointed. In this post-Ghomeshi, post-Cosby, post-Dalhousie Dentistry era, it’s hard to see how an old-school reading of this opera would fly any more."

This is mystifying to me. You're saying the themes of rich and powerful people using their influence to get other people to have sex with them -- sex that ends up being destructive or damaging -- are irrelevant to the modern world? That the stories alluded to show that that theme is passe? If anything it's the opposite. The traditional story is too relevant. It's presenting it straight that would really disturbing, destabilizing, and edgy.

It's not the traditional opera that's somehow a safe bet, a mushy, comfortable, inert bit of aesthetic fun. It's the update.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Sustainable City Living FTW, Or, Pod-Life, I Has It

Yesterday morning I woke up and learned it was -11F. That's, like, I don't know, some way-below -zero temperature in Celsius. I've adopted many of my new country's habits but for some reasons Celsius, no can do. 

I learned how cold it was cold from my iPhone. Because there is no way I would have known otherwise. Because I enjoy the special condition I think of as "life in the pod" -- the pod being my condo apartment, which, being surrounded on five of six sides by other apartments, isolates me from almost everything going on in the outside world.

For some reason people have a lot of negative associations with living in small spaces, one person on top of the other, but I don't know what is wrong with these people because I think it's the best. The small space means I don't accumulate a ton of stuff. It's easy and convenient to clean. If there are problems, there's always someone to call.

And most of all, the pod is always comfortable and cozy, in one of the most eco-friendly ways around. On the coldest day of a Toronto winter, I can, honest to god, turn off my heat for the whole day, and when I come back at five, the temperature is hovering around 70. Even keeping the place toasty, the heater only comes on rarely.

There's something so life-affirming to me about how in this context, being right up close with other people, having lots of them right around you, actually enables you to live a more comfortable life, a life that would be unsustainable otherwise. It's just like public transportation. Other people, instead of being in your way, are part of your path to happiness.

Sometimes I encounter the idea that there's something antithetical about big city living, on the one hand, and environmentalism or being into the protection of nature, on the other, but nothing could be further from the truth. Because if the people are all crowded in together into small spaces, then there's way more space where there are no people messing everything up. It's spreading out and sprawl that destroys the environment.

Even the recreational activities of urban life may be more environmentally sustainable. Just the other day the New York Times had a story about how recreational activities like hiking, camping, and back-country skiing are seriously damaging to the environment. Money quote:

"Impacts from outdoor recreation and tourism are the fourth-leading reason that species are listed by the federal government as threatened or endangered..."

If only all those people could be herded into an art museum!

Anyway, all this means that when I see environmentalists protesting urban development, I want to say, you got the wrong end of the stick, guys. You should be herding everyone into big tall buildings, where can share the footprint, share the heating bill, create demand for public transportation, and hang out in coffee shops. Giant wilderness spots and the animals who live in them -- they'll be left alone in peace.

For me, the icing on the cake in terms of the eco-friendliness of urban living is the fact that, contrary to what you may have thought, elevators are among the most energy-efficient means of travel around. As the New Yorker explained in an article years ago, that's because of counter-weights. Once you put the counter-weight on, the energy required to move people up and down is actually pretty small.

When you're feelingl down about the human condition, think about that for a few minutes. What a wonderful display of human ingenuity and cooperation! Engineers came up with counter-weights, architects and builders put them into nice big buildings, and people like me use them to get to our apartments -- after we've taken our energy efficient subway or bus ride home, of course.

TL;DR: city living FTW.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Why The "Politics of Envy" Is A Stupid And Evil Idea

From 2011. I can only think it's gotten worse. Source: The Atlantic.

 Nothing pisses me off quite like hearing that being mad about rising income inequality and thinking something should be done about it means embracing a "politics of envy." What a cynical and manipulative piece of bullshit.

The phrase, I take it, is meant to suggest that if you think it's problematic that some people work hard and have huge vacation homes, while other people work hard and have unpredictable shifts at McDonald's. you're somehow suggesting that the latter people envy the former. If you're poor and you can't afford healthy food for your kids, and you're mad that someone else just bought a new yacht -- well GEE -- that's one of the seven deadly sins dude! Just say no!

The reason it's such a bullshitty idea is that the issue of inequality isn't about desires or longings or "coveting" or whatever but just about justice and fairness. You can see how ridiculous the expression is when you try to apply it to other contexts where it seems more obvious that fairness and justice are the issues.

Let's start with sports, where for some reasons people who can't wrap their heads around distributive justice seem to have a finely developed sense of fairness and right and wrong. Suppose you had a sporting competition and one team showed up with some wildly successful device that allowed them to win every time: special jumping tools for the basketball players, or sticks with magnets -- or, just say for instance, specially deflated footballs.

People would be outraged. Not fair! Cheating! Even if -- unlike the deflategate case -- there wasn't a rule specifically about these objects, you can believe people would fall all over themselves to make a rule about it. "Unfair!" "Not a fair competition!" would be the rallying cry. OK. Would you say that the eternally losing teams had a "politics of envy" toward the always winning team? No, I didn't think so.

Next, what about that whole high-frequency trading kerfuffle? Basically, the idea here is that in certain circumstances it's possible to exploit tiny differences in the speeds of information transfer to get an advantage in some finance markets. In his book Flash Boys, Michael Lewis's describes people actually moving their desks from one end of a room to another to gain an advantage.

Large advantages to those with fast connections is widely considered unfair. Not by everyone, but certainly by a lot of people, including investors and industry professionals. Now what if you approached those investors and industry professionals and said, "Unfair? Oh -- that's a politics of envy. Just because some people can finagle things with higher speeds -- you just envy their awesome computer power dude! Chill it with the deadly sins already and just embrace losing!"

Finally, think about discrimination. Suppose suddenly it became widely agreed that to address the wrongs of the past, there was going to be radical preferential treatment agains straight white men. Straight white men would always be last to be considered on any list for anything. What do you think would be the general response? "Oh -- all those white guys begging for coins while the rest of us prosper? That's just a politics of envy." Yeah, right. It's hard to imagine a world in which "unjust and unfair" wouldn't be the main rallying cry against this.

So, WTF? Why call it politics of envy when it's general inequality? How did people become so convinced that the status quo is somehow just or fair?

Look, you were born with certain advantages of smart and healthy and strong and able or you were weren't. It wasn't your choice or effort or lack thereof, and it's not to your credit or discredit either way. You were born to a family that nourished you and prepared you for life and gave you an inheritance or you were born to one that abused and ignored you. It wasn't your choice or effort or lack thereof, and it's not to your credit or discredit either way. It's just like a team or a trader with a great modem -- not fair.

As long as we live in capitalism we probably can't disconnect success from luck and get rid of this problem -- but what we can do is make it less bad. Especially at the bottom. No one in a rich country should have to work three crappy jobs with unpredictable hours and still not make enough to get by. It's ridiculous, and not fair. It has nothing to do with envy. Sheesh.

In this article about Clinton's preparing for the presidential run, Larry Summers uses says how important it is to find a way to talk about inequality without "embracing a politics of envy." The article also talks about how to talk about anything other than growth and opportunity is to want to "punish the rich," and is "vilifying the wealthy."

Please, just stop. It's not about envy -- and it's not "punishing" or "villifying" anyone -- to want to take some baby steps toward ameliorating the harshness of the radically different life outcomes that result from factors completely beyond your control.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Dilemmas of Philosophy: Creativity And Criticism

I'm a philosopher, but I didn't become one in the normal way. I studied math in college, and when I did take a philosophy class in undergrad, I happened into one of the standard Descartes-to-Kant history surveys. To be honest I spent the semester staring out the window and thinking, "Who cares about proofs of the existence of god? This is stupid."

It wasn't until after I'd spent years pursuing a PhD in mathematics and then eventually started hanging around some humanities people that I began to read some philosophy of mathematics, and that drew me in to the whole shebang, and really right into the core of philosophy. If you know me at all, you know I have ideas in a wide-range of philosophical areas, and that, in the classic philosophical style, I like to think about how they all fit together.

So I may be an "accidental" philosopher, but I'm definitely a philosopher.

This particular history, though, means that when I started my PhD in philosophy, I was already a pretty formed person, with opinions and a self-concept that were formed in the "pure math" atmosphere and not the "humanities" atmosphere. 

And one of the first things I noticed hanging out with humanities people -- and especially humanities students -- was how much time they seemed to spend on essentially critical activities. Finding a problem in someone's argument, objecting to a framework, finding a counter-example, complicating a narrative.

While I could see how criticism could be important, and obviously useful for learning, and how it could be part of a dialectic activity that really did move things along, I found this aspect of the humanities ... would "distasteful" be too strong a word? Criticism seemed to me so narrow in scope, so not-getting-anywhere, so uncreative, and frankly, often a bit like shooting fish in a barrel.

I wanted to go beyond criticism. I wanted to create something, and I wanted to take a stand not only on what I thought was wrong, but on what I thought was right. If you know math, you know how creative it is: the main activity in math is proving things, and there's a rich aesthetic quality to it. I wanted to keep the feeling of doing that, and I also thought there was a kind of intellectual virtue to laying my own cards on the table, to say not only "I disagree with your claim that X" but also "I think Y."

So OK: as I've gone along in philosophy, I've tried, with varying degrees of success, to do just that. I've tried to say what I thought the answers to certain problems were, or how the problems should be framed, or what interesting things would follow from which other things.

Lately, however, I feel like I'm running up against the limits of creativity in philosophy. One major problem with it, it seems to me, is that it seems to require framing your new thing with some accepted background framework or set of ideas or posing of the question.

I mean, in philosophy, to make your new contribution seem intelligible, interesting, or relevant, you kind of have to appeal in some way to the way things are set up. Otherwise people -- and especially other philosophers -- have nothing to connect them to your idea, no way of understanding or entering in to what you are saying, no shared starting point for reflection. For example, if you want to offer, say, a new view in bioethics, getting others to care about and understand your work requires some kind of use of familiar concepts and references to familiar texts and so on.

But this seems to essentially limit the depth of possible challenges to the status quo. Sometimes you don't want to appeal to the existing framework, because sometimes it's the framework that's the problem. Sometimes you want to say that some whole way of doing things is wrong -- wrong in such a way that you can't just turn around and create some other way of doing things.

For example, in his book The Racial Contract, Charles Mills expertly lays out the historical and philosophical case that what we think of as "social contract theory" was constructed on essentially racist foundations. It's basically a ground-up criticism of a whole way of thinking about something. I have to admit, when I first finished reading the book, I thought to myself for a moment, "Well? And? Should we stop doing social contract theory? Change it? What?" I was looking for the positive and creative part in a book where that wasn't the point, where the point was more to say that the whole frame for thinking of some area was a problem. I had to step back and remember what that kind of deep criticism was all about.

So while I continue to feel the appeal of the creative and the positive, the importance of offering something that might be true of the natural or social world and not just true of some other theorizing, more and more lately I find myself confronting its limited usefulness for really deeply different thinking. And wow, does this ever seem like a time for deeply different thinking.

This essential limitation to creative and positive work seems to me particularly a problem in philosophy. In other humanities, it seems like scholars have so much to connect them to one another just in the content of the discipline: US historians have the history of the US; scholars of French literature have the literature of France; art historians have actual art to talk about.

But philosophy, it's like there's no there there. All we have are our ideas, and our history, and our shared conversation, for connecting our ideas together and sharing what we are thinking about and how it matters. That's not only a negative thing -- it can also be what makes philosophy limitless and open-ended in the strange way that it is. But it can be a problem.

One way it can be a problem, I think, is in this creativity/criticism dilemma. The creative work of philosophy, the saying what is, the making of a theory or set of ideas to share seems constrained. Since you're always referring back to some shared conversation from the past to even frame what you're talking about, it's hard to strike completely out on your own with a radically and interestingly new thing.