“The magical turn”

Hey folks, sorry I’ve been a bit scarce on Dial M. Broke muh damn leg.


“The Anderson Silva Special”

Don’t want to write about that, though. I want to write about fads.

If you’re in a band and are looking for a genre identity, you can always just add -core to the end of whatever it is you do. Do you have an accordionist? Call it accordioncore. Does your music sound like shit? Nothing says “it’s supposed to sound like that” better than calling it shitcore. Is your music just kind of normal? Call it normcore and tell the world that you’re being post-ironic. Or something. Regardless, the -core suffix announces that you are part of a larger trend. On your own you’re just a shit band with an accordion; as a shitcordioncore band, though, you claim your small share of world-historical importance.

Humanities academics have their own version of this: we are very fond of “turns.” I was just writing about “the ontological turn,” which joins “the cultural turn,” “the linguistic turn,” “the historical turn,” and a great many others. Humanities academics can apply the “[X] turn” formula to pretty much anything they want to claim as the next big thing. So I predict we’re all going to be be talking about magic pretty soon, and maybe already are. Voilà, “the magical turn.”

Signs and auguries are everywhere. A coolhunting brand-consultancy called K-Hole releases a “Report on Doubt” and announces that all the cool kids will be into Chaos Magick. (Paging Ramsey Dukes!) Vodou vévés are appearing on socks. In a possibly related development, demonic possessions are on the rise, and the Vatican announces a shortage of trained exorcists. And Salon has announced that normcore is out and “‘Mysticore’ is the new norm.” Of course they’re calling it “mysticore.”


Finally, not one but two music-academic journals announcing special issues devoted to magic and the occult. I am editing one of them; the other was recently announced in Popular Music

It’s good that magic, mysticism, “the Weird,” etc., are finally getting an outing in that quiet academic neighborhood where I make my home. Now it is musicology’s turn to grapple with the problems that anthropology and history have puzzled over for decades: what to make of people who believe things that our modern education tells us can never be anything more than illusion. I have written at great length about these issues here on Dial M and to a lesser extent in my book Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture. I’m excited about Popular Music‘s planned special issue on popular music and magic, and I encourage anyone with an interest in the topic to start thinking about submitting something right now:

Music and Magic: Call for Articles

This special issue of Popular Music will focus on the intersection of popular music with ‘magic’, however authors may wish to define the term.

Back in 1981, Simon Frith insisted that myths and magic existed insofar as cultural participants believed in them and found them comforting, giving the example of rock songs that conjured up, for those who so desired, a working-class street culture. Eric Weisbard (2005) similarly proposed to focus our academic study on the ‘magic moments’ of musical experiences, insisting that scholars should accept and recognize those instances when rapture, accidents, a sense of vertigo or one’s perplexity (‘the quizzical, not the categorical’) takes centre stage in life, and all thanks to music.

These different interpretations of magic relate to control, with magic offering an illusion of coherence and confidence to artists, consumers and critics, and having the ability to re-enchant an implicitly and excessively rational world –whether this is interpreted as welcome comfort or as political disengagement.

So, when is magic actually mobilised in and around music-making? What does the mobilisation of magic reveal about the values and practices that underpin our contemporary popular music culture? What does the idea of magic bring to music, and to our understanding of the world?

This special issue seeks to explore these issues.

When this CFP came through the musicology listserv, though, something seemed off to me about the wording. I suppose it’s the words “comfort” and “comforting” that bother me. Do academic Marxists, for example, say that they find the idea of a classless society “comforting”? No: comfort is something that silly and sentimental people take from ideas that cleverer folks understand to be problematic. Comfort is “false consciousness:” it’s always something that other people seek. Academics pride themselves on being able to handle the hard truths — in this case, presumably, the truth that magic isn’t real. Which of course invites the question, what do you mean by “real”?, along with all the other threshold questions that we have been entertaining on Dial M for a couple of years now.

What I’m saying is, we’re only beginning to figure this stuff out for ourselves. I’m not blaming Popular Music for a passing awkwardness of CFP wording. It’s unavoidable, given the amount of epistemic heavy lifting that has to happen before this topic even becomes usefully available to academics. Doing serious academic work on magic is playing the game on “hard” mode.

My question is, are we up for it? The vulgarity and hubris of the K-Hole “Report on Doubt,” which reduces magic to “branding,” is easy to see. But intellectuals shouldn’t get too smug. Commodification of magic isn’t that different from strip-mining it for articles and books you can cash in for tenure points.

Wait, have I been doing that? Strip-mining magic for academic currency? Naw, probably not.


The Salon piece ends by quoting Pam Grossman, a real-deal academic humanist and real-deal witch, saying  “Magic is a shape-shifter … It doesn’t care what form it takes. It just wants to flow and be known.” This is profoundly true. But it also never wants to be known too well. It will find odd and circuitous paths into our lives, and yet when it finally gets our attention and excites our curiosity, it also finds ways to vanish just as we are closing our hand around it.

Remember Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street? In the first few years of that show he was Big Bird’s imaginary friend, and every time BB went to get an adult to prove to them that Snuffy existed, he (Snuffy) would wander away by the time the adult showed up. The gag got stale, I guess, so at length the producers decided to let Snuffy join the consensus reality. But I’ve always thought that early Snuffy is a pretty good figure for the tendency of magic to disappear whenever anyone tries to nail it down.

Magic teases you when you don’t pay attention to it, and then when you do, it runs away. Not for nothing is the figure of the magician traditionally that of the Trickster.

Consequently, the history of magic is discontinuous, a series of sudden revivals and equally sudden reversals into infamy and obscurity. Every revival looks a bit different — the 1960s magic revival was conditioned by the wider counterculture, whereas the one we have now is conditioned by the internet* — but they all seem to have the same general boom-bust shape.


A page from a 1960s underground newspaper reprinted in Free Press: Underground and Alternative Publications, 1965-1975, though unfortunately this unsourced excerpt is all we get.

This fragment of an article from a mid-late 1960s Bay Area counterculture rag starts by noting the hipster I-was-into-it-before-it-was-cool attitude that members of a formerly-exclusive scene usually adopt when all the tourists and normies crowding in. The author hopes, however, that the hipster magician’s prediction (“Never fear, these naïve assholes will blow up their friends, freak their minds, and it will all be over in six months”) doesn’t come true. Sadly, it did, though it took more than six months to get there. Stuff like that always seems to happen when enough people get the Trickster by the tail — or think they do.

What always happens with various academic “turns” is what I’ve written about in my piece on “interdisciplinarity.” They start off as unstable zones of risk, experimentation, and excitement, in the cracks between the stabilized positions of conventional academic study; and then they stabilize and crystallize out into the same reified, professionalized forms as the ones they have displaced. Once they start policing their own borders, the fun is over. Now you can’t say anything without checking it against canonical writings in the field and fighting for your own little postage-stamp square of terrain within it. (“Whereas Professor Pastmaster applies a Deleuzo-Latourian lens to understand the gender modalities of Witchcore**, I use a Latouro-Lacanian lens to understand Witchcore’s racial matrices.”)

It may be that humanities academics are beginning to sense the stirrings of new intellectual interest around magic and see in it the possibility of hanging out in one of those fun, not-yet-crystallized, in-between zones. On its own, this is all to the good. I like having people to talk to. But academic mental habits don’t change much, and there’s no reason to suppose that an academic-humanities version of the “mysticore” fad — a “magical turn” — won’t end up trying to normalize magic to some degree, professionalizing it by refracting it through this or that “interpretive lens.” At which point it won’t be magic, but (in Ramsey Dukes’s terms) Religion.

I’m not really worried about that, though. There’s nothing we can do to magic that hasn’t already been tried. The Trickster is always going to be too smart for us. If you piss him/her/it off, though, things have a tendency to go sideways in a gruesome and blackly comic way.



*Technology is a common theme of 1960s and latter-day mysticism, though. For an outstanding (and amazingly prescient) book on this topic, see Erik Davis’s indispensable Techgnosis.

**Just made that genre up, Googled it, and sure enough, it exists.

***Note for those who haven’t read all my other stuff: please don’t think I “really believe” that there is a literal Trickster — some ectoplastic little guy with a cap and bells — much less that such an actually-existing guy broke my leg because I write about magic in a somewhat academicizing way on Dial M. I’m not into “really believing” things. I am into digging things, which is quite different

Posted in Academia, Magic, Pop Culture, Weird Studies | Leave a comment

Billy Joel, Piano Culture, and Rock’s Road Not Taken

Here is the paper I gave on October 8, 2016 at the wonderful Billy Joel conference organized at Colorado College by Ryan Bañagale and Josh Duchan, an exercise in Public Musicology that was a huge success by any measure.  One of the culminating events was an hour-long phone conversation with Billy Joel (currently in NY, recovering from sinus surgery); he spoke very self-deprecatingly about his own pianistic ability.  With respect, Mr. Joel, I strongly disagree, and this paper will reflect that.


Please bear with me while I acknowledge a debt.

Billy Joel’s Piano Man came out in my junior year of high school, followed by Streetlife Serenade when I was a senior.  Now, I loved the pop-gospel-influenced playing on the first seven or eight Elton John albums, and enjoyed Leon Russell’s meaty honky-tonk, and (naturally, as a piano guy myself) had an ear out for piano guys in general.  But this Billy Joel—whoever he was—could really play.  No doubt about the classical training—you could hear it in the ease of his technique, the way blues and rock licks were extrapolated all over the keyboard, at warp speed—and there was no relying on stiff-armed right-hand chords, as was characteristic of so many other players.  This guy had chops, and I obsessively listened to his album, and then to the next one.  And ultimately, I realized that whatever would happen later, I had to study music; I had to be a better pianist than I was, period.  And I ended up at a university where I could make up for a lot of lost time, and I also encountered a musicologist or two, and things went on down the lane, pretty much—I suspect—as would most have delighted my parents, who liked piano fine but really endorsed and understood academics.  So, Jonnie wants to study music.  Good; the operative word for us was “study,” so since I wanted to study something, all was in order.

But I state publically: had it not been for Billy Joel’s early albums, I would probably not have been impelled to become a music major, and I don’t want to think of what my life would have looked like had I not risked it.
*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Now: I have had decades to think about this, and the question I’d like to ask is why GUItar slingin’—both the playing and the pose—is somehow culturally definitive of Rock’n’Roll, while the piano is not.  Rock did not begin that way; New Orleans ivory-ticklers like Huey “Piano” Smith and Fats Domino presided from the keyboard, and “greatest show on earth” shaman Jerry Lee Lewis burned audiences down with his playing and wild-man antics.  Of course, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly played guitar, but in those early days there was a balance: you had your guitar people and your piano people, both with origins deep in American vernacular musics that antedated Rock, and both completely legitimate.  What happened, and how was the piano “Betamaxed” out of its initial position?  The reasons are both cultural and musical and Billy Joel’s early solo career provides an apt illustration of the how, and why.

The Pianist as Cultural Icon has a particular flavor in the U.S.  It is easy to imagine Leon Russell and Fats Domino—to choose two random examples—pounding their American-roots-music hearts out (Russell in Oklahoma, Domino in New Orleans) on thrashed upright pianos, probably in church.  The roots of their respective piano styles include boogie-woogie, novelty rag, gospel, and blues—and whether the result is New Orleans style, Texas barrelhouse, or honkytonk depends more on the proportions of these cocktail ingredients than any essential difference.  Regardless, there’s a revelatin’ authenticity to the sound: it may be technically unfinished, yet it is cosmically true.  Repeated chords, rhythm-and-percussion left hand, grace-note rolls fattening the right-hand figures, blues-scale spice throughout…somehow it all happened in the absence of proper classical lessons.

Inevitably, the situation with a Billy Joel from Levittown, Long Island, NY would be different.  His German-Jewish father had been classically trained at the piano, So piano-playing was high-stakes in the Joel household. By his own account, Billy got the one real parental beating of his life for a musical infraction: “The only time I ever got beat up,” he recalled, “I had a Beethoven piece, one of the sonatas, and I started boogie-woogieing to it. And my old man came downstairs and smacked the hell outta me. It was the only time I ever remember getting beat up as a kid.”[1]  And unquestionably, the Rock mythology of primitive/vernacular roots, whether rural or city, would not have attached to a nimble-fingered, classically trained, first-generation American, last name Joel, who looked as Billy Joel did.  (An aside:  There is a point to this somewhat politically incorrect remark: while Billy Joel grew up in legitimately straitened and stressed financial circumstances, by the first solo albums he wasn’t looking like it at all; he was looking like the sort of talented, intelligent son of whom any mother could be proud.  Such a gifted boy!)  It was hard to hear someone who played as he did on the early albums, before different hand injuries took their toll, as a rebel, whether or not he actually behaved as one or thought of himself that way.  To the American mind, the kid who can play like that is the kid who did practice the piano, as opposed to sneaking out to play baseball.  Such a young person was in the living room, practicing dutifully, not withdrawing into some kind of fearsome, newfangled Rock’n’Roll consciousness.  In popular culture, the pianist is far less of a rebel then the guitar-player, anyway; the discipline required is great, and as a rule parents don’t complain about that awful noise—quite the contrary.  So in sum, a New York boy taking classical piano lessons is hardly the stuff of the Rock’n’Roll origin myth.

By the 1950s, after all, the piano had accrued more than two centuries of history, repertoire, and cultural associations: Beethoven’s heaven-storming sonatas, Chopin’s melancholy apotheoses of song and dance, Liszt’s virtuosic barn-burners, Debussy’s dreamlike soundscapes, and much, much more.  Up to that point, the electric guitar was a relatively recent American invention, associated with Jazz, country, and swing musics, often as a rhythm instrument, so Rock playing was a natural outgrowth of that.   Consider: a besotted young guitarist, having discovered guitar either from Chuck Berry and the 50s rockers or the Beatles and the other British Invasion bands, could either lock himself away to get better—incidentally, rejecting all civil conversation with the family—or go out and play in technically basic rock bands that both entertained and attracted curious females.  The phallic symbolism of the guitar, as exploited by the Detroit band MC5, Jimmy Page and many others, was pretty much unavailable to the person camped out behind the piano. All this is to illustrate the point that choice of instrument, particularly for a young Billy Joel, establishes much about the artist’s reception and cultural profile from the outset.

So what does such a pianist do with the instrument?  First off, our hero does not consider himself to be all that great a piano player, though the aforementioned series of hand injuries may have colored his view:

Because of the damage to my hand, there’s no subtlety to my playing, no real nuance at all.  For Rock and Roll, I can hold my own, but in classical or Jazz terms, I stink.  I mostly use two fingers on my left hand; I play octaves.  Most people are right-handed, like me, so to be able to manipulate the fingers in your left hand, to do the stuff that greats like Bill Evans could do, is a real gift.  Bach teaches you that both hands are equally important, because they’re both playing melody.  I never really studied enough to emulate that.[2]

Still, he could still tear off blues-rock piano solos to challenge all comers.  The solos from “Traveling Prayer” (off Piano Man, 1973; the solo begins at 2:10) and “The Entertainer” (off Streetlife Serenade, 1974, but this is a Karaoke version in which the solo is much easier to hear; it starts at 1:57).  Aside from brute speed itself, there is a relaxed sound, a smoothness caused by economy of physical motion (a hallmark of classical training), as opposed to the showmanship-first aesthetic of a Jerry Lee Lewis.  Note: economy of motion and relaxed ease of performance is almost anti-Rock; that which does not exude sweat, hormones, effort, and display is apt to excite an audience less than a performance that leaves much of one’s body chemistry on the stage.

And for another angle, here is Nocturne (off Cold Spring Harbor, 1971, but this is a live recording made in 1976), an instrumental that started life as a song—an early demo or working tape with lyrics can be heard here—in which a controlled, classical legato and careful pedaling are both evident.  Again, this doesn’t come without lots of lessons and practice.  Finally, here’s the opening to “Prelude” (off Turnstiles, 1976), the toccata-like opener to the song “Angry Young Man.”  The technique required here—an advanced hand-coordination combined with sufficient relaxation so as not to overtax the pianist’s stamina—is beyond the usual ability of of a functional pianist-songwriter.  It is reported that “When performing live, Joel plays the fast-paced prelude himself, but performs the song early in the setlist, largely because the prelude section was easiest to manage during the adrenaline moments of starting a show, as opposed to being attempted after he had already expended much of his energy for other songs.”[3]

Cultural aspects of the piano notwithstanding, Joel was quite aware of his classical upbringing—but acknowledged its influence more in his songwriting: “I grew up playing classical piano,” he said, “so I have tension and release philosophy from that training. I hate boogie for the sake of boogie; it’s got to be tension and release. I hate to beat an idea to death.”  To this, critic Dave Marsh commented, “Which is probably why rock remains an easily hidden aspect of his songs: rock & roll feeds on excesses, not discipline—it is the idea beaten to death.”[4]

And here, I think, is where the piano itself defines Billy Joel, and also moves him out of the pure Rock frame of reference (however much that irks Rock purists and taste-shamers).  The piano has had many incarnations: Everyman’s Orchestra, Composer’s personal workstation, convivial living-room entertainment, musical accompaniment for houses of ill repute, virtuoso vehicle, and exponent of the Popular Song.  It is probably impossible for someone from New York to have been unaware of this last role, or not to have been seduced by it; this was the instrument of choice for George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Carole King, and numerous others.  And Joel acknowledged precisely that, in a 1982 Rolling Stone interview: “When I did Cold Spring Harbor, I didn’t want to be a rock & roll star so much anymore. I kinda got that out of my system… I wanted to be a songwriter.”  A songwriter he already was, obviously, and—despite the stardom, world tours, rock-solid band, performances in Russia and Cuba and so on—it was his songwriter incarnation to which he remained truest.  Billy Joel’s songs distinguish themselves with self-examination, narrative, and nostalgia; what is virtually absent is the staple Rock’n’Roll format of let’s-get-it-on in a twelve-bar-blues.  Ultimately, his songs incline toward people who can allow a good story to unfold, whose lives to date have consisted of more than typical adolescent fantasy, and that—much like his choice of instrument—will always affect the purity of his Rock’n’Roll status.  As his disposition and career arc have demonstrated, in other words, the piano leads its players in too many directions to be as essential a Rock’n’Roll instrument as the guitar, hence its secondary role.

The coda to my reflection on Billy Joel and the piano is the 2001 album of piano solos of his own composition, Fantasies and Delusions. He has described how he composes incrementally, one theme or a section at a time, and the album— clearly a love-letter to the piano and the study of it—shows it; there is a pastiche character to a lot of the pieces, a block-by-block construction that enables us to identify the composers he was probably thinking of.  Taking “Waltz No. 1 (Nunley’s Carousel)” as an example, the sections run from a Schumannesque introduction, through Schubert, Brahms, and Chopin textures, all colored with a certain thoroughly American, sophisticated Jazz-Impressionism.  The spirit of Bill Evans is stronger in some of the other numbers.  But all of these styles are the natural inheritance of a musician from New York, where classical piano, Jazz piano, and popular song are all pervasive.

And piano culture is what, at the end of his recording career, Billy Joel saw fit to return to.  Here is his own account, from a 2011 NPR interview:

I wanted it to be recognized as, “Oh, he’s trying to write classical piano pieces…like, for students.”  I wanted a piano teacher to be able to go, “You want to play Billy Joel?  Here, take this book home”…and there is a music book, with the notes in it…“and learn Opus 1 or Opus 2 or Opus 3,” and these kids’d be “This…this is hard, y’know?” and cursing me out, but the piano teacher would have something they could learn with.  That’s what the point of this was.[5]

The lesson here, I believe, is that Billy Joel has piano roots first and foremost, and as a rocker—even given a straight-up Fats Domino tribute like his song “Josephine,” which was never released—he doesn’t seem particularly concerned about a mythical delta or slum upbringing, as rockers are more or less assumed to have.  Piano is a great blues instrument, certainly, but it can also imitate other instruments, transition into a solo role, and serve as an entire musical world at the fingertips of the imaginative composer.  This is where Billy Joel firmly situates himself: not only as hot player and writer, but essentially as narrative artist with a cinematic imagination.  The film noir soundtrack gestures of “Prelude” or the Coplandesque Americana of “The Ballad of Billy the Kid”—pieces that avail themselves of the film vocabulary in order to evoke film-like images and sequences—these musical strategies, every bit as much as his lyrics, enable him to tell his stories.  And this approach goes back centuries: as eighteenth-century composers evoked an idea with a familiar musical gesture like horn fifths or the drone of a musette, so Joel uses the film-music vocabulary.

Ultimately, despite piano technique far in excess of almost all other Rock pianists, Billy Joel’s piano serves his songs, and he is a songwriter above all.  And my suspicion is that the multifaceted history of the piano and its manifold capabilities are what led it to second place (at best, if not lower) as a Rock instrument.  Anyone in love with the piano is immediately led to classical music, to Rag, to boogie, to Jazz, to a variety of different musics, each with its own peculiar groove—often, one that somewhat contradicts the Rock foundation.  Rock evolved early in the electric guitar’s history, and they developed in tandem; the piano’s heyday, in contrast, was already a couple of centuries old when Fats Domino appeared on the scene.  And when Billy Joel exited, stage right, from his recording career with Fantasies and Delusions, Rock was nowhere to be found: just Preludes, Nocturnes, Fantasies, and the Baby Grand.

[1] Quoted in Dave Marsh, “Billy Joel: The Miracle of 52nd Street,” Rolling Stone (14 December 1978), <http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/billy-joel-19781214> (accessed 21 August 2016).

[2] Fred Schruers, Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2014), 161–62.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prelude/Angry_Young_Man

[4] Quoted in Marsh, “Billy Joel: The Miracle of 52nd Street.”

[5] NPR Interview from 2011, <http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/2001/dec/joel/011210.joel.html>, accessed 2 October 2016.

Posted in Piano, Pop Culture, Rock | 2 Comments

Billy Joel/Public Musicology Notice

Just a note to alert everyone to the Public Musicology conference that will be held today and tomorrow at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.  One of the goals of conference organizers Ryan Bañagale and Josh Duchan is to reach beyond the cloud of musicological specialists to the general public, and with this in mind they have arranged various ways of interaction.

Note the availability of live streams.  My own paper (come on; like I wasn’t going to be involved at a Billy Joel conference!?) is called “Billy Joel, Piano Culture, and Rock’s Road Not Taken,” and I’ll give it on Saturday morning at 10:00 AM.  Unless plans suddenly materialize for a volume of essays (doubtful, I’d say), my plan is to post the paper, enriched with links, here on our very own Dial M.

Here is the notice, with repaired links—SORRY ABOUT THAT!:

In support of the “public musicology” goals of The Billy Joel Conference at Colorado College, we are pleased to offer a variety of ways to participate in the proceedings from afar.
First, a full program of session and paper titles is available here: http://tiny.cc/BillyJoelProgram
The live streams will be available via our  [and the links will also be available on the program page, above].
We are encouraging people to post, tweet, and Instagram using the hashtag #BillyJoelAtCC
Finally, we will display a live-updating “word cloud” at the conference that compiles personal responses to Billy Joel’s music: http://tiny.cc/joelpoll
Posted in Academia, Piano, Pop Aesthetics, Pop Culture, Rock, Society | 2 Comments

Chess timer productivity trick

Now that I’ve gotten that last horse-choking philosophical blog post out of my system, I am turning my attention to other, offline writing projects. I’m sitting down to my desk this morning (actually writing at my desk, fully clothed and with my teeth brushed like a human being and not slumped in an unwashed pile on the sofa with the computer perched on one knee, waiting in vain for inspiration to strike) and contemplating how this writing thing is actually supposed to go. There’s something of a first-day-on-the-job feel to the beginning of a new writing project. It’s a job I’ve been doing for decades now, but somehow it doesn’t get any easier. The distractions don’t get any less numerous or less nagging, and my inertia doesn’t weigh me down any less. Perhaps you are in the same boat?

I won’t belabor the obvious: email is the death of writing. So is Facebook, Twitter, etc. You already know this, but start your serious writing before you ever fire up your email browser. Those hassles can wait just a bit longer.


The daily experience of opening up my email browser first thing in the morning, in GIF form.

(I stole this joke from someone on Twitter, but I can’t remember who. Sorry, whoever you are.)

There are productivity apps that act as a kind of toddler gate for the user’s wayward attention, locking out the internet for a preset period of time. But these are unhelpful for academics, who often have to check online databases and library catalogs while they write. That said, an advisee of mine told me about working at the Paul Sacher Stiftung, where she could not access the internet, and, over the course of several weeks, found herself developing the skill for writing down all those errant “I have to look this up on the internet right now” impulses and saving them for later. She found that many of the things she had felt a sudden, urgent need to look up ended up being trivial and irrelevant — she didn’t even bother with most of them when she was back in wifi range. So perhaps there’s something to be said for the brute-force, Odysseus-lashed-to-the-mast approach to resisting the siren song of the internet.

Still, it wounds my amour-propre to think that I am so powerless over my procrastinating impulses that I need to lock myself out from the internet. So rather than merely forcing myself to make good choices, I thought of a way to hold myself accountable for my bad choices.

Go to the online chess timer. You will see a timer display for two players:


Click start. The clock for Player 1 will start counting up and the “start” button will become a “switch” button. Then begin writing. “Player 1” is your writing self.

When you stop to do something else — going to the bathroom, getting a cup of tea, checking to see what’s shaking on Facebook, whatever — click the “switch” button. The clock for Player 2 will begin counting up. Player 2 is your non-writing self.

When you are done peeing or writing “LOL” in response to a photo of someone’s ugly baby, click on “switch” and Player 1 will start up again, at which point it’s time to get back to work.

At the end of a writing session (whenever you have to go to a meeting or start dealing with class prep or something), you can hit “pause” and the clock will stop. Take a screenshot of it. You now have a straightforward record of how you spent your time: a simple ratio of Player 1’s writing-time to Player 2’s faffing-about-time. If you want to be hardcore with yourself, post your screenshot on Facebook, so all your friends can write “LOL” at your pathetic attention span.

I haven’t tried this last refinement, but the fear of public mockery has to be motivating, right? Actually, though, I find that when I do the chess-clock trick I don’t even spend that much time goofing off.

No warranty expressed or implied: all I can say is, it works for me. Let me know if it works for you.


Posted in Exercises, Research, Writing | 2 Comments

The ontological turn

I. The Story So Far

This is the last installment of a series on “Weird Studies.” Well, it ended up being about “Weird Studies.” It started off somewhere else entirely, on Frank Sinatra’s performance of Harold Arlen’s “One for My Baby” and the Prohibition culture it romanticizes. I then pivoted off that to write a two-parter on the U.S. drug war and how the academic humanities has responded to its bottomless injustice with a shrug. The first part is an allegory, which was the best way I could think of to sidle up to the true vastness of the injustice. The second part ended up suggesting that academic indifference to that injustice is an artifact of a pervasive and unexamined assumption about what constitutes meaningful human difference: “We can value difference when it pertains to the Other-Bodied, but not to the Other-Minded,” I wrote. (This, in turn, relates to an earlier post I wrote on “mad studies” and the ways we think about depression.)

What is at stake in writing about psychedelic drugs, then, is not only freedom of thought — freedom to think what you like — but what is called “cognitive liberty,” which is freedom to think how you like. But then I needed to back up and reflect a little on the difference between what and how, which I did in a post titled “What Face-Punching and the Star Wars Holiday Special Can Teach Us About Consciousness.” After this, I imagined a new scholarly discipline premised on cognitive difference, “Weird Studies,” and then proceeded to consider what it would have to overcome to become a real academic subfield. The next post continued this line of thought, suggesting that the “naive construal” of modernity severely limits what ideas professional academics can entertain, and the post after that discussed how ideas falling outside that construal get Othered or smOthered.

Which brings us to this post, Episode VII. It turns out that what’s at stake in this whole series of posts is the question of what can be thought. If we imagine for a moment that Weird Studies actually existed, it would be a sustained experiment in testing the boundaries of the thinkable. A practice of cognitive liberty, if you like. Magic lies at the heart of any such experiment, because it is the one thing that most resists our naive construal of reality. But in order to take magic seriously, scholars need to find an alternative to their usual historicizing ways. To do that, some scholars have suggested a new approach, which they call “the ontological turn.”

Good lord, that’s some boring exposition.



I like to think that the Death Star stands for modernity. Continue reading

Posted in Magic, Philosophy, The Modern, Weird Studies | 6 Comments

Deadline reminder: JMR special issue on music & the occult

occult section

A reminder: we are quickly approaching the deadline for submissions to the Journal of Musicological Research’s special issue on music and the occult. The deadline is September 15, or two weeks from tomorrow. The word count limit for papers is c. 8000-9000 words. For those that missed my earlier post, here is the CFP again:

Call for Papers
“Music and the Occult”
Due Date: September 15, 2016

The Journal of Musicological Research, a quarterly peer-reviewed journal published by Routledge, is seeking article submissions for a special issue on “Music and the Occult,” to appear in 2017 or 2018. The editors welcome submissions that occupy and/or concern the intersection of music and the categories of esotericism, Hermeticism, magic, mysticism, or the occult. Scholarly approaches may be historical, theoretical, ethnomusicological, or idiosyncratic to the subject matter.

Topics are not limited to any particular area of scholarly study, but possible subjects might include the following:

Music and paganism
Music and occult/pagan ritual
Esoteric and Hermetic philosophies of music
Neo-Platonic and Pythagorean music theory
Music in esoteric Christianity
Popular music and occultism
Music and theosophy (e.g. Alexander Scriabin, Henry Cowell)
Occult revivals (e.g. late 1800s and early 1900s, 1960s)
Music and the New Age
Nonwestern musics and magical traditions
Musicology and the occult

Posted in Magic, Musicology

We welcome your hatred!

My phone just told me that Dial M stats are booming. Huh. Thanks to vacation, beginning-of-year hubbub, and bronchitis, I haven’t written anything in ages. Well let’s see, where are all these pageviews coming from ….

Oh, it’s Norman Lebrecht hating on musicology.

My only response to the likes of Lebrecht is FDR’s: we welcome your hatred.
dan vs eagles

Posted in Whatever