Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I used to see a guitarist on the subway platform, forever whining "Tears in Heaven." But he missed the point because he whined it. Misery and communication of misery are not the same thing. They have little to do with one another accept to say that to communicate misery - to depict it- you have to understand it, or at least its structure. A good actor can depict emotional depth. He may not have it.
A letter from 2002
Since plastering doesn't take much thought, I spent a lot of the day thinking about what it was I meant by the term sincerity. After I read your email I looked it up in my 50 year old Webster's, and I suppose what it comes down to is a problem of volition. I have a great respect for the notion of the intentional fallacy, and in that context, sincerity implies intention. Sincerity is an emotion. 'Simplicity' and 'directness' describe the manner of things themselves: songs for example, or a style of playing. I would not call a craftsman's work sincere or earnest. I wouldn't call a mason sincere, even if he were brilliant. I might say that he had a sincere love for his work, but that's not the same thing.

My dislike of that word doesn't make me a cynic and I wasn't trying to sound like one. Maybe I shouldn't have used the term 'theatrical' since it implies an audience of others, of outsiders. When everyone in a church sings together the performers are the audience. Maybe that's not theater but it is still formalized presentation, perhaps even more formalized, more rhetorical. "These are the songs my/our grandparents taught me/us, and that their grandparents taught them." You can't get more formalized then that. The notion of sincerity also implies a focus on the individual performer rather than on the song and is therefore the opposite of formalization.

I see a musician on the subway a lot who sings nothing but sad songs. And he sings them with a miserable expression on his face and always in the same plaintive whine. He obviously is miserable, and he's trying to communicate his misery to the rest of us. I feel guilty for being so sick of him. I've heard him do 'Tears in Heaven' hundreds of times. But I've also heard Mexican guitarists singing beautiful sad duets that you know they can do at this point while reading the damn newspaper. And they stand there and sing them again and again and you know as you watch and listen that what they are thinking about is not their misery- if they are miserable- but the song. It is the character's in the song who are sad. Does that make the singers insincere? But they're good at what they do.

I think what you appreciate is the selfless respect for tradition. There's a depth in that that individual achievement can't match. And there's a simplicity to a certain kind of grass roots tradition that is as much about the community as the song. It's collective art. And in a society without much in the way of community, you're drawn to it, just as I'm drawn to the Mexican singers on the subway. But sincerity is an individual's emotion, and to me it changes the subject from the emotions in the performance to the emotions in the performer. I think that's a mistake.

I'll try another tack since I haven't quite hit it yet, and I'm a little drunk. What we both sense is the communication and familiarity within the group that's associated with sincerity. The sincerity is not directed at/to the audience and isn't even the subject of the 'conversation', but is demonstrated or made manifest by the performance. Lovers don't spend every day telling each other how much they're in love, not if it's going to last more than a week, they talk about the things they have in common and the communication demonstrates the emotion. Music is the same. The sincerity and the friendship is between the players. The audience, unless it's a community church, is along for the ride.

It's not sincerity that bothers me it's the thought that it is or should be directed at the audience, or that it therefore produces good art.
I would say that all this is obvious to craftspeople but not anymore to intellectuals, so the intellectuals who "rediscover" what others take for granted are like rebellious teenagers or battered women, forever having to explain and justify themselves to the incredulous, and even to themselves. Secular philosophers argue with priests and both ignore the village atheist because he's not an intellectual. And as I've said before, if anyone ever refers to me as a "content provider" I'll kick him in his motherfucking teeth. As a craftsman I'm a form provider.

For intellectuals like Derrida the issue is the degree to which those who consider themselves content providers are form providers by default. As if this given is evidence of crisis. It is, in the same sense that the "death" of a nonexistent god is still a crisis for philosophers. Every modern academic is a cafe revolutionary who imagines himself the real thing.
Reading one page of James Baldwin on white liberals and understanding that the Palestinian Baldwin writes in arabic, that Josh Marshall's never heard of him, and would never quote him if he had.

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