13 September 2010

It Really Is Better With (In) Chunks

Three tremendously chunky sausages this morning, even after yesterday's essay...

  • In breaking news, the U.S. Register of Copyrights is retiring at the end of the year, meaning that there's an upcoming vacancy. I greatly fear that this position will be filled by someone who has been "agency-captured": That is, whose allegiances and predispositions are entirely aligned with the most financially self-interested segments of the industries that depend upon copyright. I can virtually guarantee that authors and other actual creators of copyrighted material will be entirely shut out of consideration for the position; that best that they can hope for (and it's extraordinarily unlikely) is a seat at the table for preliminary consideration. Instead, we're going to get stuck with either a current member of the Copyright Office (not at all a good thing, as there are institutional interests there that are inimical to both copyright in general, at the abstract level, and the interests of those who create copyrighted material) or someone sponsored by Big Media. Neither would be good; in all probability, either will be a disaster.

    My radical proposal would be to do away with the Register of Copyright entirely, and to do away with copyright registration, and actually follow the bloody Berne Convention's denigration of bloody formalities... especially since registration of copyright is not definitive in demonstrating ownership — not even as much as registration of interests in real property is. That, however, is not going to happen. My modest proposal would be to explicitly appoint at least four author representatives; at least one artist representative; at least one musician/performer representative; and at least one "other" representative of actual creators of copyrighted works — explicitly excluding patrons of works for hire — to whatever screening committee gets established... and ensure that these people constitute at least a majority of that screening committee.

    Neither proposal is going to happen. And in the meantime, the Copyright Office will continue to fall farther and farther behind reality, concerning both technology and the generation of copyrighted works, while bureacratic inertia reexerts its primacy during the changeover.

  • Over at Black Clock, here's a fascinating lament on the shrinking of the belles lettrist class as simultaneously a reason for and a result of "the death of literature." Unfortunately, Ms Hawe, I think, misses two critical points that change the meaning of her analysis. For one, she has missed the distinction between "has been created and survived" — the subject-matter of the professors of literature — and "is being, and will be, created" — the subject-matter of the less-prestigious professors of composition. This is another example of the reflexiveness in defining "literature" and "fiction" as two different sections of the chain bookstore that she (for good reason, if not always the reasons she states) laments early in the piece. To put it another way: I enjoy reading Jane Austen's work on occasion... but I wouldn't dream of writing like that, either stylistically or substantively, because we've learned so much since then. Unfortunately, we haven't figured out yet how to teach a lot of that difference, so instead we get stuck with the third (unacknowledged by Ms Hawe), and lowest, caste in English departments: The "creative writing" faculty.

    The other critical point Ms Hawe missed is the distinction between mastery of currently accepted technique (which has an inordinate effect on whether a work will survive to be gnawed on by later generations of scholars and the belles lettrist class) and mastery of substance (a far more hit-or-miss proposition). Literature and the arts are replete with such examples. One of my favorites is the distinction among Mozart's overrated Le nozze di Figaro, which displays considerable mastery of accepted operatic technique; the play by Beaumarchais upon which Mozart based his opera, which displays little mastery of anything other than pedantry (or, at least, not in the translation I've read), but is nonetheless a better "work of fiction" by all of the standards I learned from those gentleman-scholars of literature; and the fascinating complex of folktales and commonfolk tellings of similar stories in prerevolutionary France, which together scult a fascinating piece on the interplay between the political and the personal (if often in the negative spaces) superior to both.

    So, then, perhaps part of the problem that Ms Hawe has discovered comes not from the loss of the belles lettrist class — "gentlemen of letters" — but from increasingly common preservation of material outside the purview of that class... meaning that it has never been subjected to the same rigor. E___ V__ H____ is considered a guitar god, despite the wretched lack of substance in what he plays, while M___ K______ has largely slipped from view because his works balanced technique with substance instead of elevated technique over substance; conversely, I'll also put M___ K______ up against most of the overblown musing by a certain B__ D____, a "muse" whom nobody considers technically accomplished (in fact, virtually every one of his best-known pieces is known through covers by more-technically accomplished artists, whether J___ H____, T__ L___, or B___ M_____). In recently-produced fiction, we've got more similar comparisons available than I can shake my typewriter ribbons at.

    Ms Hawe has discerned yet another of the false dichotomies in the arts; The distinction between the commercially successful and the academically respectable. They need not be mutually exclusive; that they often are is as much a matter of tempo as anything else, and is not necessarily a measure of the true worth of either. But then, I'm a chess player and intellectual by nature... and even though it is a false dichotomy, it is one that cannot be ignored.

  • On an official Grauniad blog, Jon Butterworth wonders if poor science advice is betraying UK science and engineering. There may well be something to that; but I think there's something much more fundamental: The utter absence of distribution ("general education") requirements in UK higher education means that the decisionmakers seldom have any knowledge of science beyond the high-school level — not even a rocks-for-jocks course — and so can't discern the difference between good and bad scientific advice in the first place.

    OK, that's too subtle. The problem is that in Europe, even more so than in the US, the governing class is not just scientifically unsophisticated, but scientifically illiterate... but nonetheless believes that it knows enough about "management" and "politics" to make decisions on and about science. Conversely, too many of the most brilliant scientists have never learned to communicate to anyone other than, well, other scientists within their own specialties. Stephen J. Gould, for example, was not a particularly original researcher; he was, however, particularly adept at putting research into a context that was meaningful for the nonspecialist. The same goes for Lewis Thomas, for Linus Pauling, and for a substantial proportion of those recognized by nonscientists as great scientists. A similar, even more disturbing parallel problem comes from the "fellow traveller" problem epitomized by the current head of the NIH... who is a not-so-closeted "accomodationist" between science and religion in a position that is supposed to be for an advocate of science over nonscientific obstacles. That's not to say that ethics, for one, should never intrude to guide and focus scientific research; it is to say that the religion-based ethical considerations should never be used to foreclose entire fields of study, but should instead go to the appropriate methods and safeguards.

    Yes, there is a connection between this chunky sausage and the preceding one. More than one connection, in fact; some of them are probably unintentional.