thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: Creativity

On Play

Play, I’ve come to realize, is a favorite word of mine.  In no particular order, here are some possible contexts for it:

He plays that piano well.

The book’s title was a play on words.

My dog is playful.

No worries: we were just playing around.

You just got played.

The musicians were playing off of one another.

Play with the ideas until they fit and make sense.

Play is a favorite word because good things tend to grow out of play, and by “good things” I mean interesting and useful things. Play is usually fun, too.

I wrote about play in an earlier post on this blog, but lately I’ve been thinking about it again in the context of composing.  You see, my process is usually to sit down at the computer and just start playing around–in the sense of randomly listening through and trying out sounds.  Simple.  The mindset feels like that of a young child grappling with different-shaped blocks, trying to figure out what goes with what.  Are there rules to this play?  No, not really.  Whatever catches my ear (as if my ears might fly away like butterflies if not so caught) becomes sufficient reason to jump into capture mode (now the potential musical idea is the butterfly liable to get away if I don’t act fast), quickly experiment with some patterns and then hit record and improvise.  At this point, I’m still in a play state, only it’s kind of like I’m under self-surveillance too–observed by my own critical ear.  It remains play though because I feel as if I don’t know what I’m doing: I’m in new territory and don’t know where I’m going.  It’s fun in a slightly scary kind of way.

After this moment of recording under self-surveillance I often lose that sense of play as I begin judging what I’ve done.  First thoughts to materialize in my mind: “That’s kind of lame.”  Or a shrug: “Whatever.”  Or sometimes I like what I’ve done because it sounds vital: “I really like this!”  But whatever its tenor, self-judgement is corrosive, at least at this stage of the game.  At later stages, though, it’s a useful tool.

In his novel Television, Jean-Philippe Toussaint articulates two distinct stages of artistic process:

“The first, subterranean, is a gestational process, demanding looseness and flexibility, a game and open mind, in order to fuel the handling of new ideas and new materials, while the second is soberer, more orderly, requiring method and discipline, austerity and rigor; this is the process that takes over when it comes time to put the [work] into its definitive form” (100).

For me, play is part of what Toussaint calls the “subterranean” and “gestational” process.  The trick, if that is the right word, is to forestall the “soberer” self-critiquing stage long enough for ideas to flower.  So I improvise–play–with an open mind.  Who knows where this is going?  Maybe nowhere.  The important thing is that for this very moment it feels new and holds my attention.

I have a lot of these musical beginnings (trapped butterflies!) stored as files on my computer’s hard drive.  They’re blueprints for full pieces to be completed down the road, but they also serve other, vaguer purposes.  Sometimes, when I’m doing something mundane like changing the water in the fish tank I listen to the sketches on loop mode, as if they’re already finished.  I’m listening, believe it or not, to try to get to know them.  They’re still strange to me and I’m trying to understand what essential feeling they embody.  Put in the form of a question: What is this thing?  Put in the form of a statement: I’m trying to let the music socialize and teach me something.  It strikes me that even as I generate these ideas I’m not all that well equipped to make sense of them.

So I take my time, listening and mulling things over.  It’s possible that this process–this trying to get a sense of what the sounds are all about–is as interesting as the compulsion to one day get the things finished.

And then, just when my listening starts moving away from play, I hit stop.

On Techlust: Native Instruments’ Maschine

I’m at Tekserve, in the audio department, and I spot a beauty: Native Instruments’ Maschine, a hardware-software rhythm machine.  I move in for a closer inspection.  Its top is made of metal and I run my fingers across the smooth, cool brushed surface.  I pick up the musical object off the display table and assess its weight: a solid few pounds.  I put it back down and continue exploring.  Its dials are smooth and rotate infinitely, and I so I twist them around and around, imagining what parameters they might control.  Its buttons produce subtle clicks–confident sounds that will surely respond to my touch and help me, one day, switch something on or off in an instant.  And then there are those sixteen beautiful 1.5 inch square rubber pads.  Soft like gummy bears, they’re mini drums that can absorb the impact of an incoming finger, and so I start drumming on them, my fingers playing silent patterns across the four by four grid.  Feels nice.  I pick up Maschine again, rotating it in my hands, and even consider smelling it–after all, I’m sizing up a potential musical mate. (This from someone who regularly smells his Kindle as if it were a paper book!)  What, I’m wondering, might I do with this thing?  Will this be, finally, the instrument that allows me to create fluidly, or will it lure me down a wormhole of complicated procedures that will blunt the creative process?

Maschine is a recent example of electronic music software assuming a physical presence in order to attract musicians. The thinking is that we like tangible things–vibrating strings, membranes, or even smooth moving knobs and smushy rubber pads–with which to interact and make music.  But the fascinating paradox about the tools of electronic music is that as the palette of sound possibilities has increased exponentially with software innovations, the music making process has become increasingly less physical.  There are two ways to think about this.  On the one hand, the shift has encouraged many people without traditional music training to just go ahead and make music.  On the other hand, those of us with training are always looking for a foothold, a link to the physical.  So far, this foothold or link comes in the form of MIDI keyboards and other controllers such as the Akai APC series and the Korg Kaoss touch pads.  Maschine harks back to hardware instruments from the late 1980s and early 1990s such as Akai’s MPC workstations, like the unit in the pic below:

These instruments are still popular with hip hop beat makers who program their patterns like a potter plays with and molds clay: the boxes allow them to feel like they’re getting their hands dirty.  This is a good thing, because our hands often know as much or even more than our minds, and letting our hands play with instruments is a direct route to new ideas.  Maschine is both an attractive piece of hardware and a powerful piece of software, hence its appeal for electronic musicians.  Below is a Native Instruments promotional video for the instrument featuring Jeremy Ellis hammering away on those rubber pads:

On Marcus Boon’s In Praise Of Copying

Marcus Boon’s recent book, In Praise Of Copying (Harvard University Press, 2010), is a timely argument in favor of our freedom to freely copy one another in the name of healthy creativity.  Boon, a professor of literature at York University (as well as a DJ and contributor to Wire magazine) notes that the word copy derives from the Latin “copia” which means “abundance, plenty, multitude” (41).  Copying is everywhere, and Boon eloquently argues that not only is copying an integral part of being human, but that “we could not be human without copying, and that we can and should celebrate this aspect of ourselves, in full awareness of our situation” (7).

Part of what makes this book so authoritative on our situation is its own sheer copiousness and wide-ranging mobilization of ideas from philosophy, religion, critical cultural studies, anthropology, and music.  Anchoring the book’s argument are some ideas from Buddhist philosophy, through which Boon makes deep and abstract observations about copying, beginning with the fact that nothing is ever truly original and that everything comes from something, thus everything in the world is a copy.  We ourselves are copies too: namely, DNA copies (thankfully mutated ones!) of our parents (and their parents…).  For the world as we know it, it’s copies all the way down.

One of Boon’s main case studies is that of the Luis Vuitton handbag–the original LV which costs thousands of dollars and the many knock-off LV copies which look and feel practically identical but cost much less.  One interesting point here is how originals need copies in order to assert their originality; there’s a subtle dialogue between the two that Boon argues is essential to the original’s thriving.  So in the case of the LV bags, the knock offs are actually what give the original its imagined and real (i.e. dollars and cents) value.  The idea Boon is getting across is that the essence of things is never fixed, for if it were, “it could not be transported to the copy, and imitation, even as a degradation of the original, would not be possible” (27).

Musical practice is another useful locus for examining copying.  The reason for this is due to both its evanescence and its resistance to being controlled and regulated as a thing.  Music, notes Boon in one particularly luminescent passage, “appears and disappears fleetingly […] constellates into infinite sonic chains, precipitates collective joy, is eminently portable, and resists being turned into a thing or property–which is why folk cultures have such love for it” (65).  Boon cites folk music and hip hop as traditions that each thrive on copy-based practices.  Folk music cultures “are always cultures to whom nothing belongs, from whom everything is taken” (72), using and  transforming whatever is at hand as the basis for a shared repertoire.  (Think of all those simple chord progressions upon which countless songs are spun!)  Hip hop too is a music culture built on copying, a response “to the industrial world” (69) through the reappropriation of technologies of sound playback (think about the turntable) for copying purposes.  In both traditions, copying is at play “in the repetition of generic motifs and devices such as particular songs, rhythms, patterns, and practices…” (194).

Of course, musicians and composers–whether they work in folk/popular or classical music idioms–have always copied one another, but the issue of copying went into overdrive with the advent of the dub remix in the 1970s, then with the (disco) DJ spinning two copies of the same record to extend rhythmic breaks, and finally with the arrival of the digital sampler and the personal computer.  Now anybody can copy just about anything and make “endless copies of a tune” (67).  Indeed, we are truly in what Kevin Kelly calls a “recombinant moment.”

Overall, In Praise Of Copying offers an abundance of material to process and think through.  Boon’s book also helps the reader make sense of our recent digital music revolution.  Remember back in the early 2000s when Napster was so popular, when peer-to-peer file sharing of MP3 files seemed to be the future of music, and then how the recording industry shut it all down? (Napster is now a for pay subscription service.).  Napster was loathed because it eroded the idea of a music recording as a charged object of desire with value due to its manufactured scarcity.  Napster was also loathed because it effectively made any music that was in MP3 format a fluid, copyable thing again.  And Napster was inherently pro-copia and consumers loved it–free music!–while the recording industry hated it.  In Napster’s wake, of course, came Apple’s iTunes, digital rights management (which prevents you from making endless copies of all those songs you bought for 99 cents apiece), and a return to what Karl Marx would call “commodity fetishism” (183).

And here we come to the crux of the matter: music was never meant to be an object, but rather a shared, impermanent experience.  But with industrialization, capitalism, recordings (copied sound objects), and copyright law came the notion of music as property and the possibility of manufactured scarcity (and our fetishizing of commodities).  Copia, our abundance and shared heritage of creative work, has been, in our era, hijacked by commercial interests.  And yet . . .We remix, we mash-up, we digitally cut and paste and juxtapose, we auto-tune speech into melodies…Copia is, in these ways at least, alive and well.

Boon offers you a copy of his book to read here.

And for more reading on copying, see Jonathan Lethem’s excellent article “The Ecstasy of Influence” here.

On The Most Human Human

In his book The Most Human Human, an engaging account of competing in the annual Turing test, Brian Christian ranges far and wide through the literature of AI (artificial intelligence), linguistics, computer science, philosophy and even poetry to figure out what exactly makes us distinctly human and distinctly different from machines.  The Turing test was conceived by Alan Turing, an English mathematician, in 1950.  The test is whether or not a computer can fool a human into thinking that it–the computer–is also human through interrogation only.  If a computer can fool us, then it could be said to “think.”  Today, the Turing Test pits both computer software programs and human “confederates” against one another, each trying to convince a human judge that they are human and not machine.  The catch is that each interaction has a 5 minute time limit.  The winner in the human confederate category, of course, is deemed “The Most Human Human.”
One of the more interesting of the book’s digressions is Christians’s discussion of chess playing, specifically the different ways humans and software programs approach this decision-making terrain.  Chess is a space for thinking about what makes humans human precisely because the game offers such a vast array of possible moves to get one’s brain around.  And the amazing thing–at least from the perspective of a non-chess player such as myself–is that the very best chess players can navigate the terrain of possible moves by intuitive means.  What this means is that not only can a Gary Kasparov draw on vast experience but he can also make unusual choices as to how he proceeds.  Case in point: making a somewhat random opening move is a great way to stymie a computer software opponent like Deep Blue, who, of course, proceeds through the game only by crunching millions of possible moves per second.  The human player has the poetics of randomness and intuition on his side, against which the machine can only number crunch the relative merits of the next move.  Here Christian hits on an important point about human creativity: on some level it requires the practitioner/artist to not know exactly what he or she is doing.  Or in the words of Donald Barthelme, one of the interviewees in Christian’s book: “Not knowing…is what permits art to be made.”  Barthelme is referring to that aspect of the creative process that is  inherently random, accessible only by our vaguest of intuitions.
This discussion of randomizing one’s opening moves had me thinking about how I begin working on a new piece of music on the computer.  For some time now I have fretted over the sheer number of possibilities open to me as I try to decide how to proceed with a piece.  The software programs on my laptop are like a chessboard in that they invite millions of possible creative moves from me.  It’s a deeply exciting prospect but also potentially paralyzing.
In the past, I would try to systematically think my way through the “best” option: maybe I’d start by searching for a nice pad sound and then…The problem is that my systematic thinking would always be interrupted by a rogue sound, an unexpected by-way, or an accidental juxtaposition that would instantly charm me, as if asking: “But have you considered this?”  Well, no, I hadn’t considered that because I was under the impression that I was doing something else.  And then I would fret some more about having let myself be undermined by my own digressions . . .
After reading The Most Human Human, I decided to try applying the idea of randomizing an opening move to writing music.  What I did was just jump into making sounds–any sound that seemed interesting–so that I could get the music “game” underway and remove from the equation my anxiety about having too many options.  Randomizing my opening move–“Let me just build a little pattern using this drum sound…”–let me get on with the more satisfying business of interacting with and building a new sonic organism that could grow.

On David Sudnow’s Ways Of The Hand

They don’t seem to make books like David Sudnow’s Ways Of The Hand anymore, but then, Sudnow, who died in 2007, was no ordinary explorer of musical experience.  Trained as a sociologist, Sudnow took a turn inward in the late 1970s and wrote Ways Of The Hand (1978/2001), a remarkable insider’s phenomenological account of learning to improvise jazz piano that was based mostly on his own introspection.  The book attempted to articulate the lived experience of what it feels like to move one’s fingers about the piano keyboard, tracing exploratory paths and going for notes to make jazz.

Here’s a passage from the book’s preface:

“I’ve found that thus far unanalyzed aspects of the body’s ways can be closely depicted, for all to see, by the performer, and perhaps no one but the performer, especially one who self-consciously takes up a complex activity with as strong an intention to master its accomplishment as to try to reflect rigorously upon the experiences of doing so. Guided by neither an introspective, mentalistically inclined consciousness nor the methods of analytic science but only by the concrete particular problems faced in the course of learning jazz piano, I’ve pointed to various critical tasks faced when sustaining orderly articulated movements” (2001:3).

Ways Of The Hand is not afraid to attempt a comprehensive cartography of the terrain the jazz pianist must traverse to make jazz.  And contrary to what I imagine most jazz musicians would think about learning jazz–that you learn the “right” way, the jazz way, by just listening to the jazz greats, by mysterious osmosis in other words–Sudnow proposes an approach to grasping a (graspable) set of jazz moves.  If that weren’t audacious enough, in its intricate, rigorous, and poetically rendered details about the deep connections between the musicking body, cognition, feeling, and creativity, Ways Of The Hand also sets an example for a kind of writing about music that has had few followers since.  In 2001, Sudnow even revised the book (Ways Of The Hand: A Rewritten Account) further distilling its already austere descriptive language into something even more crystalline.

We need more books like Ways Of The Hand–books that look inward for answers, books that approach (and achieve) rigorous thinking through intuition, reflection, and practical experience in things musical.  Many great musicians never write about music, and many great critics and academics seek deep answers far outside the relationship between musician and his/her instrument.  But Sudnow proposes that the way can be simple: it’s right in our hands.  We just need to think about it.

Electronic Music and Gaming Theory

In this week’s New Yorker there is an article by  Nick Paumgarten on the Japanese video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto that unpacks the magic behind such Miyamoto game creations such as Super Mario Bros. and Legend Of Zelda.  Game designing is a creative endeavor that few people besides Miyamoto have mastered.  (Though the American Will Wright, designer of Sims and Spore, also comes to mind.). One key to designing a good game, notes Paumgarten, is to make sure it has a complexity and dynamic depth to it that is cognitively challenging yet also charming and fun to engage with.  Achieving this complexity and dynamism means designing the game around a few elements that can endlessly remix themselves in different combinations to keep things fresh.  Describing the source of Super Mario Bros.’s appeal Paumgarten writes:

“The game had just fifteen or twenty dynamics in it…yet they combined in such a way to produce a seemingly limitless array of experiences and moves, and to provide opportunities for an alternative, idiosyncratic style of play, which brings to mind nothing so much as chess” (92).

To me, there is a similarity between the experiences of playing and designing videogames and making electronic music with a computer.  Specifically, I am thinking of the way software such as Ableton Live (which I happen to really enjoy using–or should I say playing?) is configured.  For those readers who have never used it, this is what it looks like:

One of the software’s two viewing pages, Session View (what is shown in the pic above), is arranged like a mixer, with each sound given its own vertical track.  Within each track, one can stack discrete chunks of audio or midi called clips.  So for a single track of say, percussion, one can have a few dozen clips of different lengths.  Each clip can be looped, played back, and triggered in any order the musician wishes.  And that’s just one track; imagine the “limitless array of experiences and moves” available to a musician with a dozen tracks, each with two dozen clips.  That’s a lot of ways to combine sounds, and we haven’t even begun to consider effects processing (e.g. ways to alter, distort and enhance a sound such as distortion or reverb effects, etc.).

So, for electronic musicians who perform using a laptop running Ableton’s software, part of the pre-performing process is a little like Miyamtoto’s designing complexity and dynamism into his games. And the pleasure comes later when musicians get to (literally) play their music, improvising different combinations of sounds, and figuring out on the fly in what direction to head in.  Like the experience of interacting with a videogame, electronic music allows a musician to explore virtual worlds that strike a balance between adventure and play…

And speaking of play, Paumgarten also cites Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (1938), a famous study of this essential human activity, in order to further unpack the joys of videogaming.  For Huizinga, play has five attributes:

1. it’s free,
2. it takes place outside the realm of everyday life,
3. it is, materially speaking, unproductive,
4. it follows an agreed upon protocol of constraints and rules,
5. its outcome is uncertain and therefore it encourages improvisation from its players

This sounds like an awfully apt characterization of music too, doesn’t it?

Creative Strategies From elBulli’s Cookery

This blog post is not about music or sound per se, but about the creative process of cooking.  I am a big fan of books about cookery, and they can be read from a sideways perspective–thinking by analogy about how they may offer insight onto other domains.  With that said, every once in a while you encounter a book that is not only beautiful but inspiring and thought-provoking too.  One such book is A Day at elBulli: An insight into the ideas, methods and creativity of Ferran Adria (Phaidon 2008).  Adria is a Catalonian chef famous for his innovations associated with the “molecular gastronomy” movement in cookery.  In fact, one could argue that Adria is the prime architect of this meticulously adventurous and scientifically precise approach to preparing, cooking, and conceiving of food.  His restaurant elBulli is open just six months of the year, and Adria spends the other six in research and development mode, designing new dishes, new flavors, and trying things with food that have never been done before.  He’s a creative artist who just happens to work with edible things.

In A Day at elBulli, Adria and Phaidon have created a 528-page wonder of a manual on creativity that I think is applicable well outside of the culinary arts.  The book follows a typical day in the elBulli universe, from daybreak to closing time, beginning with the backdrop for the restaurant–pictures of Cap de Creus park and the natural textures of its environs: water, stone, trees and sky.  From here, the book proceeds in 5-minute increments, tracking the assembling of a multi-hour elBulli meal by a crew of cooks, from shopping to prepping and cooking and serving.  The rhythm of the day is documented through hundreds of photographs, recipes, and quotations.

But what really makes the book extraordinary as a creative manual are three different 4-page inserts (complete with different sized paper) titled “Creative methods” (I, II, and III).  Here we get a glimpse of the conceptual framework underlying the restaurant’s machinery, and Adria outlines a number of ideas that could be of interest to anyone interested in the creative process.  In Creative Methods I, he discusses traditional and local cuisines, influence, and technique-concept searching.  In Part II, he explains and defines the concepts of association, inspiration, adaptation, deconstruction, and minimalism as they apply to his work.  And Part III discusses the importance of the senses, including the sixth sense that Adria describes as “pleasure experienced by the mind.  [This] sense often relies on setting up a tension or a contrast between the guest’s own knowledge and experiences, and the elements in the dish in front of him.”

These inserts inspire the reader to think systematically about his or her creative process in whatever field they work in.  Not to control everything down to the tiniest detail, but rather to try to cultivate a sense of order over what is potentially an endless universe of flavor (or sound, or texture, or color, or textual) combinations made possible through transformative techniques.  A Day at elBulli chronicles that sense of possibility by documenting how experience is organized at a most singular restaurant.

Sound Exploring

If you make electronic music of any type you can’t get around the inescapable fact of needing and wanting to explore new sounds.  Back in the early days of electronic music–think Stockhausen, Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky–making electronic sounds was a laborious process.  One had to layer sine tones, or manipulate magnetic tape, or deal with giant, wall-sized synthesizers in the pursuit of novel timbres.

How different it is today.  With software emulations of classic synthesizers as well all kinds of virtual sound making instruments, sounds today are cheap.  Entry-level DAW (digital audio workstation) software programs such as Ableton Live, Apple Logic, or Propellerhead Reason come loaded with thousands of factory-made or “preset” sounds.  Electronic music purists have an aversion to presets, choosing instead to make their own sounds.  Indeed, some musicians will only make music using sounds they’ve forged themselves or sampled themselves.

But I wonder if we need to re-evaluate the value of presets?  John Cage once said that he never imagined anything until he experienced it.  This can certainly be the case when browsing through dozens or hundreds or thousands of sounds on one’s computer. Not only do you not know what you’re looking for (besides something generic: a bass sound, a pad sound, etc.), you often discover by chance something you didn’t know you wanted.  In this way, there is what could be called a poetics of sound browsing at play: you listen, make note of interesting sounds, and happen upon unexpected sounds that just might be the start of something new.

Making Musical Systems Public

Over the years, a lot of electronic musicians have shrouded their work in a veil of mystery: they tell us very little about how they make their music–the tools the use, their working methods, and so forth.  We are reminded of vinyl DJs back in the day who would cover up the labels on their records so no one could see the sources of their tracks.  Non-DJ electronic musicians have a lot of equipment potentially at their disposal and so invest time and energy devising their own musical systems through which they channel their ideas.  It’s always interesting to hear what they have to say on this front because they help answer our questions: What software and MIDI controllers do you use?  What is your set-up for rendering your material in live performance?  These are the kinds of things that electronic musicians have to think about because being a one person band is never a natural or a simple thing to pull off. In essence, you’re trying to approximate a larger sound, using technology to multiply your musical capabilities and extend your senses.  And one’s musical system is never written in stone either. For instance, it’s not uncommon for musicians to rebuild their systems from scratch from time to time, just to see what happens.

Occasionally, musicians cut to the chase and share with us information about their musical systems, and it’s a thrill when they do.  Case in point: San Francisco-based ambient musician Christopher Willits collaborated with electronic music magazine and website XLR8R to produce a series of videos on his performance set up and techniques.  I saw Willits play live a few months ago and was impressed by the fluidity of his music making.  Sitting cross-legged on stage, he used an electronic guitar as a controller, while a laptop computer running Ableton Live software handled the sound processing.

In a series of videos posted on YouTube, Willits walks the viewer through this musical set up and explains how he uses it.  The set up includes not just his guitar, but also software programmed with Max For Live (a version of Cycling ’74’s Max/MSP that is integrated into Ableton Live) and a MIDI controller called the Block.  Willits walks the viewer through his software and hardware set up, paying particular attention to how he uses his Max For Live step sequencer.

As the music gets cranking about 9 minutes into one of the videos, you can hear some similarities to American minimalist music, especially the music of Steve Reich.  Of course, minimalist music was once known as “process” music (and indeed Reich himself once characterized his interest in music that was, literally, a process, or an unfolding in front of your ears where nothing is hidden).  The process in Willits’ music is a gradually unfolding series of permutations: Willits plays guitar notes into the step sequencer that records them, chews them up, multiplies them, and sets up a looping and ever-shifting melo-harmonic-rhythmic texture.

You can watch the video here.

C.Wright Mills: On Intellectual Craftsmanship


Thinking is a struggle for order and at the same time for comprehensiveness.”
– C. Wright Mills

Charles Wright Mills (1916-1962) was an American sociologist best remembered for his 1959 book The Sociological Imagination (which is still in print). For me, one remarkable aspect of the book is its Appendix, “On Intellectual Craftsmanship.” Here Mills does something I have never really seen other social scientists do: discuss the nature of the research craft, particularly the creative process of linking intuition with idea generation. This is important because, after all, generating ideas is what scholars do.

Mills begins with the suggestion that one set up a file or journal in which to record ideas–ideas about stuff, about the world, about what you’re reading, about what excites you, and about that which stimulates your curiosity. This lays the groundwork for what he calls “systematic reflection.” The file or journal is a space you can unite “what you are doing professionally and what you are experiencing as a person.”  Or put another way: your personal interests are in fact linked to your professional research interests. The journal is also a place to capture “fringe thoughts”–bits of information such as overheard conversations, something you read, or even a feeling revealed to you in a dream (!). Very cool stuff to read in an Appendix, right? Keeping a journal keeps your inner life awake and allows you to develop powers of expression and the discipline of “controlled expression” by which I think Mills simply means the process of capturing those aspects of your inner life in order to study and consider them. Once the journal is up and running, its individual entries can be periodically re-arranged, cross-referenced, and so forth. All of this serves to loosen your imagination by revealing to you connections and larger themes. The most important point to remember about the journal is this: “The maintenance of such a file is intellectual production.”

Later on the Appendix. Mills suggests ways to stimulate one’s imagination, and many of these suggestions revolve around a sense of play. Playing with words, phrases, concepts and definitions is one way to start. Or you can pursue insight by considering extremes such as “thinking of the opposite of that with which you are directly concerned.” In suggesting forms of intellectual play, Mills advocates for a constant shifting of one’s attention from one level to another–kind of like playing with the zoom function on a camera. To use a musical analogy, Mills almost seems to be describing what could be called composing with ideas.

The Appendix ends with a set of suggestions for good craftsmanship. These include the importance of writing simply and clearly, the importance of grounding your writing in clear examples, and the importance of thinking broadly about the relevance of your work to your time, or in Mills’ words: “orient [your work] to the central and continuing task of understanding the structure and the drift, the shape and the meanings, of your own period . . . ” Finally, and perhaps most incisively, Mills suggests that we maintain our autonomy as scholars when it comes to deciding the kinds of projects we take on and which ideas are in fact important to us:

“Do not allow public issues as they are officially formulated, or troubles as they are privately felt, to determine the problems that you take up for study. Above all, do not give up your moral and political autonomy by accepting in someone else’s terms the illiberal practicality of the bureaucratic ethos or the liberal practicality of the moral scatter.”

You can read the Appendix here.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 146 other followers