On Ranking Music

Rob and Alice sit at a café, in a trendy section of downtown Ottawa, enjoying biscotti with their coffee.

Rob: After we finish having our coffee did you want to go to “Make Mine Vinyl” and pick up some records?

Alice: I would be down with that, but I don’t know if I will get anything while we are there.

Rob: Why is that? There are always interesting records to check out. If you don’t have money on you, I can front for you.

Alice: No. That is not necessary. The issue is not that I don’t have money on me, or even that I don’t want to buy a new record. I just find myself overwhelmed by the amount of music I already have; I can’t find the time to truly listen to all of it.

Rob: I guess that makes sense. I have run into this problem myself in the past, but I have a found a way to deal with it.

Alice: How do you deal with it?

Rob: I make sure to set aside a certain amount of time per week to listen to new records, and rate them on Rate Your Music. This way I don’t get behind schedule and find myself in a situation where I have not heard all of the new releases that I want to listen to.

Alice: You rate the records right after listening to them? How many times do you listen to them before you put in your rating?

Rob: I usually listen to them once or twice before ranking them to be fair, and I typically put in the ranking right after I complete my listening. It is kind of part of the process.

Alice: That seems like an efficient approach. How many records have you ranked since starting this?

Rob: I have 1500 records logged on Rate Your Music. How many do you have?

Alice: I don’t use Rate Your Music, but I keep track of my thoughts on each record and have ranked about 300 or so.

Rob: Only 300 or so? I know you have listened to far more than 300 records. Why have you only ranked 300 or so? Do you feel like you have no time for that as well?

Alice: To some degree I feel like I don’t have time, but I also struggle with ranking every record that I have listened to. It feels somehow artificial to put in a ranking for a record just because I have listened to it a couple of times.

Rob: I don’t understand. What feels artificial about it? If you have listened to the record you would most certainly have a judgment on it. Wouldn’t you?

Alice: If am going to rank a record I want to make sure I really understand it, and have given it the opportunity to present itself to me. This will sometimes happen after the first listen, but in other cases the record will seem opaque and I feel I have not really understood what this record is. In these cases, I could just ascribe a ranking to it based on some arbitrary criteria, but that would seem to devalue the record. If I am going to make a pronouncement on a record I want to feel as though I have really figured it out.

Rob: That is interesting, but isn’t any form of ranking of records just selecting a numeric value for the record based on some arbitrary criteria? Some people might attribute more of their rating to their sheer enjoyment of the record, while others might look at originality, musical innovation, lyrical profundity or cohesiveness in order to make their ranking. But in the end, isn’t all of it arbitrary?

Alice: You’re right that people typically rank records in this fashion, but isn’t there something troubling about this? If we rank records just because we can pronounce judgment on them, doesn’t this mean we are ranking records for the sake of ranking records?

Rob: I don’t think so. What do you mean by ranking records for their own sake?

Alice: I mean isn’t music supposed to be something that speaks to us? If our main goal in listening to records is to rank them then aren’t we treating records as objects to be organized into a hierarchy, rather than looking at them and trying to grasp if and how they speak to us? Are records a plaything for our creative amusement in organization and categorization? Or are they unique pieces that call out to be fully grasped and understood?

Rob: I don’t see why records can’t be both. When I sit down to listen to a record and rank it, I do so with an open mind.

Alice: It may be true that you so do with an open mind, but if you are using the method you described earlier and ranking a record after one or two listens what happens when a record does not speak to you after those one or two listens?

Rob: It means that the record deserves a low or mediocre ranking. My view could change if I listen to it again and realize that the record does something well that I had not noticed during my initial listens.

Alice: But how often do you go back to listen to records that did not speak to you upon the initial ranking? If you have to keep up with listening and ranking a bunch of new records where do you find the time?

Rob: It is hard to find time, but I think it is very unlikely that a record would not speak to me on my first couple listens and then somehow speak to me later, so I tend not to go back and listen to them. But I am comfortable with that.

I think the issue is that you don’t like the idea of ranking all of your records because then it might leave you open to ridicule for your rankings and you would have to commit to your rankings.

Alice: Or maybe I am interested in grasping and understanding records, rather than viewing the fact that I listen to them as a badge of my status as a music scholar?

You recognize that you do not go back to records if they do not grab you after one or two listens. Isn’t this precisely viewing music as something not to be grasped and understood, but just to be ranked, organized into a hierarchy and thrown away?

Rob: I am not like that at all! Just because I rank every album I listen to and post it to a website does not mean that I am doing so for the sake of establishing some kind of status as a musical authority, or that I don’t try grasp the record. I just happen to really like to rank records and it is good way to keep occupied when I am not at work, or with friends.

Alice: You know yourself better than me, but I still think my general point holds and that there may be better ways to keep occupied than keeping up with, and ranking, new releases.

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Negative Theology and the “True Self”

It is a commonplace of modern culture to refer to the notion of the “true self.” We often claim that we must be true to ourselves and that we need to work to express our true inner self, rather than trying to repress it. But while we talk in this way often, if we look at the notion of having a true self, it seems odd and quite implausible as the notion of the “true self” seems to suggest that there is a fundamental unified essence waiting to be fully expressed within each human being, and this seems to very out of step with the conception of what a human being is that we get from an understanding of modern biology. Modern biology tells us that humans are not true selves trying to express themselves through a bodily vessel, but beings whose core identity can be identified in the arrangement of matter that constitutes them; or put more simply our true nature is that we are bodies made up of constituent parts like brains, lungs and bones. So, there seems to be an incompatibility between the way we talk about ourselves and how we must live authentic lives, and the way we understand our identity as physical biological beings. I think we can explain this tension between our vision of the “true self” and a biological conception of humanity if we stop thinking of the self as a static object of empirical enquiry and instead think of it as Negative Theology thinks of God, and I will explain why in the argument that follows.

If I look deep within, it is hard for me to seriously suggest that I see a clear being, a “true self” waiting to be expressed. But what I can see is that I would like to develop this quality, and that quality, and that I do not want to develop other qualities. However, none of these qualities I long to have, taken independently, or in combination with the others, seems to exhaust the nature of my “true self”. My “true self” somehow seems to be indescribable in the categories of ordinary speech. In this sense, we might say that our approach should be analogous to the approach to God known as Negative Theology. Negative Theology posits awe towards God, but refuses to claim that God has specific qualities like benovelence. According to this approach we can understand what God is not, but not what God is. God can be seen to transcend any categories that can be applied to him.

Likewise we might say that the “true self” within us is not a physical object or even a collection of qualities and desires that we can point to and describe, but rather something that is beyond all linguistic description. This seems to be plausible as the notion of a “true self” is always aspirational in that when we speak of our “true self” we do not refer to an accurate description of the current state of our identity, but a sense of something admirable that we can develop into. Furthermore, this admirable thing we can develop into that is somehow “inside of us” is not something that can be grasped as a collection of properties or a single unifying property. Whenever, we develop our “true self” and think we have fully developed our self we realize that there is something that is missed in our development and our description of that development. I may have developed my capacity for courage, but something about the mode of action, is not simply courage or any other category, but something beyond, unspeakable, that I am drawn towards. We do not stand at the ready with a perfect image and description of our “true self” ready to replicate that self in life as if we were a craftsmen building a replica of an existing model. Rather the “true self” calls us to express it while at the same time all of our categories fail to fully account for what this “true self” is.

Consequently, while there seems to be cognitive dissonance between the image of ourselves as at our core biological creatures with the notion of the “true self”, a Negative Theology of the self, like the one I have loosely sketched above tends to show that this tension is not so irreconcilable. There is a sense in which human beings are physical beings with particular biological characteristics, but what applying the model of Negative Theology to the self, shows us is that any categorization of humanity, whether it is biological like that of science or normative like the categories that I have pointed to in my discussion of the self, fails to fully capture what we mean when we talk about the “true self”. In this sense the “true self” like the God of Negative Theology is something that cannot be fully grasped at once through a set of categories. Furthermore, the “true self”, in particular, is something that comes from within us and demands expression, but eludes full understanding.

I am not sure if Negative Theology is the right approach to thinking about the self, and while I am attracted to certain elements of it, I also am drawn towards the notion that a system of categories can exhaust and fully disclose the reality of something. I find a part of me whispers if we can never fully capture reality through language in some meaningful sense what is the point of thought? But one thing that is certain is that a mode of thought modeled on Negative Theology provides us with an interesting way of thinking about the self that gets at the intuition that while it may be true in some sense to say human beings are matter in motion or social, amicable being, or whatever description we find compelling, none of these descriptions fully uncovers what we are. Further, this mode of though helps us capture how at ease we are at accepting two seemingly contradictory descriptions of humanity, because if all description fail to fully describe the “true self” then there is no reason why two seemingly contradictory modes of thought could not both reveal an aspect of the truth. If this is the case we have no reason to be uneasy that two descriptions of humanity we adhere to seem incompatible or opposed.

Liberal Democratic Equality and Superheroes

Over the past 15 years, or so, films based on superhero comic book franchises such as Spiderman, X-Men, The Avengers and The Fantastic Four have become particularly common and popular in liberal democracies like the US and Canada. It seems obvious that a large part of the reason for this is comic book franchises offer a wide breadth of characters, stories and other source material, and thus many movies can be made with these source materials without having to worry about coming up with new characters or arcs. One particularly shining example of this is that the third live action take on the Spiderman franchise is being developed as we speak, and if the other two editions were any indication than this new take will consist of at least two films. Clearly, the various versions of the Spiderman comic offer a wide variety of materials that studios can draw on, or put more cynically, rehash and exhaust, to create many Spiderman films. But the preponderance of comic book source material does not fully explain why these films are so popular in liberal democracies. Consequently this raises the question of what underlies their popularity. Surely, many things underlie the popularity of these films in liberal democracies, but I would like to focus on two such factors. The first is quite obvious and is that comic book franchises already have a relatively wide audience to draw on which helps to guarantee that the film will be relatively successful. In addition, and perhaps less intuitively, superhero comic book films are popular because they provide occasion to sublimate certain non-democratic desires in the context of a society that does not offer many opportunities to express this set of desires.

The first reason is that the existing fanbase of the comic book means that studios don’t need to worry as much about if there will be an audience for the film, and less effort is required to market the film as the movie already has an audience that will be interested in seeing it. Furthermore, even if the film only appeals to the core fanbase of a comic book it will still have a significant audience, and thus there is far less risk to using comic books for films than trying to write an original story that has no existing fanbase.

Now, the second reason for the popularity of film adaptations of superhero comic franchises may seem quite elusive and odd, as typically superheroes in these films stand up for democratic principles such as equality and liberty. Spiderman is not someone who aims to overthrow democratic principles, rather he seeks to defend the democratic rights and liberties of all people to be free from harm, fear and violence. But, there is one element of Spiderman that speak to the relation of superhero comic book films to non-democratic desires. Spiderman flouts the rule of law and takes the law into his own hands; he may be a good vigilante, but he is a vigilante nonetheless. Taking the law into one’s own hands can be seen to be non-democratic in that unlike a feudal aristocracy in which great individuals must take care to protect their serfs and vassals without the help of a modern state, a liberal democracy uses a body of laws in conjunction with distinct branches of the state to enforce laws and protect the weak. For example, social welfare in liberal democratic society is defined by principles of law, rather than the generous care that is expressed through the spirit of Noblesse Oblige. The former is rule/law based, while the latter is not formally codified in rules and laws, but flows from the character of the good ruler or lord. Superheroes like Spiderman or Wolverine are not recognized agents of the state that must follow particular rules to ensure the common good, but are rather like anonymous lords who generously offer their protection and support to those in need. Consequently, the mode of doing justice that superheroes embody is non-democratic, and specifically aristocratic. The Avengers are an exception here as their authority is more tied to the state, but despite this exception, from what I have said above, it still seems plausible to say that superheroes embody non-democratic principles as their mode of doing justice fits quite well with the aristocratic spirit of Noblesse Oblige.

What makes this non-democratic element of the superhero comic book film genre appealing to us is that because we live in a liberal democratic society we often feel powerless as individuals, and helpless to right injustice or do great things, and thus we tend to have a desire to be able to act as a force that can truly punish the guilty or do great things. Tocqueville points out that individuals in a democracy typically feel powerless as they are weak and cannot accomplish much on their own, as everyone has equal power. In particular he notes:

Aristocratic societies always contain, at the very heart of a multitude of individuals unable to achieve anything on their own, a small number of very powerful and wealthy citizens each of whom has the ability to perform great enterprises single-handed.

But among democratic nations all citizens are independent and weak; they can achieve almost nothing by themselves, and none of them could force his fellows to help him. Therefore they all sink into a state of impotence, if they do not learn to help each other voluntarily.” (597)

As democratic citizens we recognize that there is not much we can do and change on our own; unlike an aristocratic lord I cannot simply will that some great act will occur and draw on those dependent on me for this to occur. Instead I must work with others voluntarily in order for this act to possibly come to fruition. In this context Tocqueville is noting that the use of public associations in democratic America acts to counteract this powerlessness, but nonetheless it still points to the sense of powerlessness that is experienced by citizens of a democracy.

Furthermore, there is an additional layer to the powerlessness of democratic individuals in contrast to aristocratic lords that Tocqueville did not explicitly point out, but can be seen by examining the relationship of leaders of associations and corporate bodies in liberal democratic societies in contrast to the power of aristocratic lords. Many people think of a CEO of a corporation as someone who much like an aristocratic lord has great power, but while the CEO is very powerful, his power is conditioned to a far greater degree, and in a different way than the aristocratic lord’s. The CEO, in contrast to the aristocratic lord, is not guaranteed his position for life, but only based on his performance, which is typically determined by share price, growth and profits. Likewise public associations are also tied to existing goals. If I am the leader of a public association that is setup to support the disabled, I cannot just decide that I now want this association to fight for adult literacy instead or in addition to the initial goal. As a leader of this association I must uphold the stated aims of the association. So, unlike aristocratic lords leaders of public associations and private institutions are very much tied to specifically stated goals, and thus while they are powerful, they are not free. The freedom to do great things in a democratic society is not provided to those who lead public associations, or private institutions, but in our ability to collectively create these associations or institutions. Once the act of creation has occurred the institution will have to operate according to its own logic and consequently its leaders will not be free.

Furthermore, the power and freedom of the superhero is very much like the aristocratic lord’s as they both need to pay homage to no person or goal and they are able to do what is necessary to ensure that good prevails, or a great act is performed. In addition, human beings seem to have the desire to be free and powerful in the way that the aristocratic lord or the superhero is. Who wouldn’t want to be able to do great things on their own and be free from having to answer to another person or corporate body? This would eliminate many of our everyday problems, and it seems likely that many attempts to climb the corporate ladder are driven, albeit misguidedly, on the idea that once you get to a certain point in the corporate ladder you will be free from the fetters of others, and able to do what needs to be done. Similarly, further evidence for this desire is provided by the fact that children typically rebel against parental authority and want to do whatever they want. Therefore, while it may be the case that if we made a considered choice we may not want to become a superhero, I think it is plausible to say that humans have an engrained desire to have the power and freedom of the superhero. Thus, in the context of a liberal democratic society the superhero comic film is popular as it allows people to sublimate their desire to have the power of a superhero through vicariously experiencing the hero’s perspective. As the viewer experiences the life of the superhero, he is able to temporarily pretend that they too can do great things fairly effortlessly and through so doing he momentarily overcomes his sense of powerlessness.

Works Cited
Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Trans. Gerald Bevan. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.