Posted by: George | October 24, 2015

Lance Armstrong and the New Tragedy

They say ev’ry man needs protection

They say ev’ry man must fall

Yet I swear I see my reflection

Some place so high above this wall

“I Shall Be Released,” Bob Dylan

“I would like to make it absolutely clear that I am not in any doping process.” So said Floyd Landis on July 27, 2006. Many other denials followed before he finally admitted that he was a doper, before he took a large segment of the cycling world down with him, including Lance Armstrong. It was about this time that I lost interest in the sport.

I had been a fan of the cycling for a long time—as far back as the early 1980s, when little news of the Tour was available in American newspapers and only a few hours of television coverage came in a brief recap on Sunday afternoons. This was before American cyclists were considered a threat, before the 7-11 team surprised Europe in 1986, before Greg LeMond three Tour wins, before the Armstrong era, before one leader after another was disqualified, before evidence accumulated against Armstrong, and long before the grand confession on Oprah.

By the beginning of the Armstrong era, I read cycling magazines, followed riders as they switched from team to team, and watched all of the events leading up to the tour. I spent most of July watching tour coverage, sometimes twice a day. Then, all the doping scandals hit. Floyd Landis being disqualified was the last straw, not because I was a Landis fan, more because I finally had enough. I was tired of cheering for a rider only to have him test positive and exit the race. I just couldn’t care anymore.

Recently, I have found a new obsession—Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing, a documentary about Armstrong’s long history with doping. The film aired on Showtime then moved to Netflix, and I have been watching it over and over. At first, I thought my incantation of the film was something like self-flagellation, atonement for being so naïve as to believe that Armstrong could be that good, or therapy, a way of purifying myself, purging the resentment about being duped. But the more I’ve watched the film, the more I’ve come to believe that I am fascinated by the arc of the story: a hero overcomes adversity to captivate the entire world and then, just as precipitously, falls into disgrace. The documentary seemed to bring tragic form to events that played out on television over about fifteen years of television time. I am not really sure what I mean by “television time,” but I know it exists. I know it is something different than regular time. It has a faster pace and you constantly lose your bearings. It’s a blur on images in a seemingly random sequence.

When living through television time, we need something to make sense of the images, something to bring it all form. As I repeatedly watched Stop at Nothing, I could see something tragic about the Armstrong story. Not tragic in the modern sense of a sad story, nor tragic as Aristotle first defined the genre, but somehow, in some way, tragic.

In the Poetics, written about circa 335 BCE, Aristotle defined tragedy as being a drama about a hero who is admirable and good, also highborn, whose flaw, usually hubris, or pride, leads to his or her—don’t forget about Antigone—downfall. The hero comes to a recognition of the consequences of his or her actions, which elicits pity and horror from the audience, which leads, in turn, to a catharsis of these emotions—a release, a resolution.

In the middle ages, Aristotle’s analysis of tragedy morphed into a set of prescriptive rules for dramatists and critics alike, an extension—or perversion—of the Poetics. These rules shaped tragedies for centuries. When Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman hit Broadway in 1949, critics claimed that it could not be a modern tragedy because Willy Loman is an Everyman, not highborn. Toward the end of the play, Biff tells his father, “We’re a dime a dozen.” Miller wrote a defense of his play, arguing that a tragedy in the modern age can and should evoke pity for an ordinary man.

If Aristotle had lived long enough to see a production of Death of a Salesman, I think he might have rethought his definition of tragedy. He might have come to believe that tragedies in ancient Greece were about kings because the death of a king might endanger an entire society and that other kinds of societies would necessarily create a variation of the genre. Aristotle was, after all, writing about a genre that had emerged within his lifetime. If Aristotle had witnessed the roughly century and half of Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy, he might have agreed with Franco Moretti that this body of drama created “a ‘public’ that for the first time in history assumed the right to bring a king to justice” (Signs Taken as Wonder 42). In other words, it took 150 years of tragedy to prepare the people of England to behead Charles I.

When Death of a Salesman was written, we were in a capitalist society that relied on sales, but we were also at a point when traveling salesmen were, to a large extent, being replaced by television advertising and telemarketing. We were living in a culture for which time was beginning to accelerate. People, entire professions, began to live into an era they could no longer understand or navigate. Like Willy Loman, we were all in danger of outliving the era into which we were born.

We could come up with a number of explanations about how Death of a Salesman is a new form of tragedy, but now we are already in a different time, a new economy, a new culture, a new millennium. It’s not much of a stretch, I think, to consider Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing as the paradigm of our new tragedy, just as Hamlet was the paradigm for a new tragedy in the 16th century and Death of a Salesman was the paradigm for a new America tragedy in the 1950s and 1960s. And, like the body of Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy, like Death of a Salesman, the Armstrong documentary demands that we reinterpret Aristotle, redefine tragedy.

One way to redefine tragedy would be to go through the elements of Aristotle’s definition and shift the meaning a bit to fit our times. Aristotle says that tragedy deals with good and noble characters, a king like Oedipus. In our time, as an antidote to our post-Freudian age, the hero needs to present an image in mass media that appears above the common, and beyond self-knowledge. Our heroes speak of themselves in third-person, as if their media image is more real than their flesh. And so we have common folk rise to international fame, receive lavish praise in the media, and then fall amid a series of scandals, a narrative arc that sometimes unfolds in a few months.

It is the connection between fame and capital and the acceleration of time that most clearly mark our era and the new tragedy. In the late nineteenth-century, robber barons accumulated wealth and then became philanthropists. Capital generated fame, slowly, over the course of a lifetime. In our era, Kim Kardashian becomes famous for some unknown reason and then uses her fame to generate capital. And she seems to burst into our consciousness in a moment, fully formed.

Through hubris, Aristotle says, the hero is led to a fall. The hero recognizes the error (Oedipus plucks out his eyes), which elicits pity and fear from the audience, and the audience experiences catharsis. When the Armstrong story hits its climax, during the Oprah interview, she asks him, “Have you lost everything?” He answers, in part, “I don’t even want to think about it. . . . That was a seventy-five million dollar day.” Oprah’s face seemed to register pity and fear, but I am not sure the television audience felt the same. The Armstrong image collapses and his wealth evaporates. Oprah seems to say to herself, “This could happen to me.” Armstrong seems to recognize his loss of fame and wealth, but not much else.

In an article for the Houston Chronicle, Doni M. Wilson, who teaches literature at Houston Baptist University, wrote about the Armstrong story as an unsatisfying tragedy:

Armstrong defies our notions of the tragic because he denies the significance of his flaws, so there is never any catharsis, only frustration. When you read a tragedy, the tragic hero gives us a lot: as in, Learn From My Mistakes. With Armstrong, he makes us try to understand him, but then we say, eventually, “I Give Up.” He won’t follow the script. We cannot control what we want him to be, and it is depressing, because deep down, we want him to succeed, turn it up, turn it around, be the comeback kid.

From Armstrong, Wilson writes, we have never received a sincere apology. I wonder if it is possible for a celebrity to give a sincere apology when following the advice of a publicist, who in turn is following the social science research on how to repair a damaged reputation, research mapping the ups and downs of public figures and the most effective way to repair a media reputation.

In our media-saturated culture, the hero seems fixed. We don’t have many stories of a good person who is tested in a crucial moment and fails and is transformed by that failure. Rather, the hero attempts to create and control a media image and then learns an image released into media is beyond control. It is the media image that changes, not the person. We don’t pluck out our eyes. We don’t even confess to a priest. We hire a media consultant and then go on Oprah to redeem our humanity.

The swirl of media stories cannot possibly provide the viewers with the emotional release of a tragedy. We need something else for that—something like a documentary.

With millions around the world, I watched the Armstrong story play out on television—during the coverage of the Tour, during the nightly news, during specials about Armstrong, and during interviews. As it unfolded over years, the story seemed coherent and familiar. A single mother raises her son, the Golden Child. He experiences early success but then faces adversity when he is diagnosed with cancer. All is threatened. He overcomes the disease and returns to his sport, achieving unimaginable success against all odds. He promises to change the world by conquering the disease that almost ended his life. Then it all falls apart, seemingly in the span of a few hours. After following the story for years, I was left, as I assume many others were, not knowing what to feel.

How could we make sense of it? The scope was too vast, the time sequence too long, the plot too cluttered for us to process it—for us to aestheticize it. And we are a part of it. The media through which we viewed these events is part of our reality. We are not just the audience in the seats of a theater; we are also on stage. We—the audience, the fans—are playing the role of a theatrical chorus. We are the ones who feel the direct impact of the events, a blow to the face that is felt in the moment. We are not in a position to make sense of it.

To experience the Armstrong story as tragedy, we needed a slightly different medium—we need a documentary. Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing is an hour and forty minutes long, and it unmasks the entire Armstrong story from the beginning, chronologically, with the tragic end folded over as a layer of judgment. The director already knows how this story will end. So does everyone viewing the documentary. We know many—though certainly not all—of the facts already, but we haven’t experienced them in a meaningful way. Within the framework of a documentary, we are able to experience the facts in sequence, to view the entire story in what was once called the “unity of time,” which was one of those medieval rules that defined tragedy.

When we come to Stop at Nothing, what we are looking for is meaning, and we can find that meaning in an hour and forty minutes. The clips we had already seen on television and the clips from interviews with Betsy Andreu, Greg LeMond, and others, shape what had been an amorphous string of information. If we are to learn anything from this story, it will come from the documentary, not from our now vague recollection of the television coverage.

Tragedy can serve as a kind of “public therapy,” as Terry Eagleton says in Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic. If the ground of our new tragedy is mass media, especially television, and the “public therapy” comes with documentary, then what kind of pathology are documentaries like Stop at Nothing attempting to purge?

If we are not naïve about the basic messages of television, if we are capable of critiquing a commercial that tells us the right deodorant is going to bring us love, we are still vulnerable to the repetition of messages on the tube, the familiarity of its images as a part of our environment, the intimacy of its icons as they speak just to us, in our homes, when we are most unguarded. The documentary tells us, “You have been fooled once again. Learn something. Don’t get fooled again.”

Sadly, we have not even been fooled by a noble figure who, at a crucial moment, made a bad decision. We were fooled by someone who seemed to have always made bad decisions. Armstrong did not suffer a moral fall. He was revealed, unmasked. Then he suffered a media fall. Watching Stop at Nothing, I learned that Armstrong paid off competitors, early in his career, to ensure a victory. I learned that he was a vicious bully. I learned that those around him supported his lies because they benefitted from his success. How could I have missed all this?

I would like to think that I am above being duped by media. I am a college professor. I teach my students the art of cultural critique. But, like others, I wanted to believe. I ignored the cracks in the narrative, and there were certainly cracks. A few journalists wrote that Armstrong was doping, but none of their stories seemed to gain traction. When I first saw photos of Armstrong lying in a hospital bed, his head shaved, bearing visible scars from brain surgery, I remember thinking: Did he ask someone to take this photo? Was he already crafting a grand comeback narrative from the moment he was diagnosed with cancer? But I pushed such thoughts aside. I willingly accepted the lies.

The Armstrong story is tragic in some sense, but it is not very satisfying, which might have something to do with why I keep watching it. In some ways, I feel like I am eating one bland store-bought cookie after another, hoping the mass of empty calories will add up to something if I cram enough of the damn things into my mouth at one time. I am not saying that Stop at Nothing is flawed. It’s a great documentary. It’s the new tragedy that is not very satisfying.

So, what does this new tragedy signify, if anything?

Part of the answer might be found in the very network of media that created the Armstrong we thought we knew. The Armstrong story played out on television, not just any form of television, but television in an age dominated by reality shows that are filled with manufactured drama, without a narrative arc, without resolution. When we are wading neck-deep in this crap, we crave a simple story of hardship, overcoming, and victory.

In the chaos of reality television, we were drawn to the media image of Armstrong. Fans were sucked in. Even most reporters were sucked in. Even the people who are supposed to keep the sport clean were sucked in. Then, “it got too big,” as Armstrong told Oprah. It all fell apart. We thought we had a story, and all we had was just another reality TV show, this one as sordid as the rest.

We are living in a culture saturated with mass media. Every room has a television. We can watch television at the gas pump. In elevators. On phones, and tablets, and laptops. To fill all the channels, we must have stories. Stories about sports heroes who beat their wives, stories about couples who yell at each other in the toilet paper aisle of Walmart, stories about empty-headed celebrities who are famous for being famous.

If there is a bigness to these stories, it is the bigness of a media the drives our entire economy. If there is a lesson to be learned, it is that we shouldn’t be fooled by any of it. Unfortunately, it is a lesson we need to learn and relearn, over and over.

Posted by: George | December 22, 2012

Zombie Apocalypse and the NRA


It is December 22, 2012. We have survived the end of the Mayan calendar on December 21 and the End of Days it portended. You might not have even realized it, but we also survived another threat—the Zombie Apocalypse, aka Z-Day, which was also supposed to launch on December 21.

I don’t think we will hear much more about the Mayan calendar, but we will continue to hear about the threat of a zombie invasion.

(I will refer to this threat as an “invasion” simply to make it sound more scary. We all know that this is actually a conversion of normal humans into zombies, rendering them walking dead. But “conversion” has too many religious overtones, and I don’t wish to suggest that zombies have anything to do with salvation or transcendence.)

Zombie Apocalypse was recently broadcast by the Discovery Channel, the network that once aired shows about science. Zombie Apocalypse is what I would call a speculative documentary, an hour, sans commercials, of “science” that grounds and explains the coming zombie invasion and expert conjecture about how the invasion will almost certainly unfold, all of it deadpan, as far as I can fathom, entirely without a trace of irony.

The experts, yes there are Zombie experts, scientists and professors, many of whom work at real universities (holding, I hope for their sake, tenure), explain what kind of changes occur in the human brain before zombies become zombies and shuffle into our lives; they model on real computers how many days and hours it will take for the zombie virus to spread through New York City.

And there are zombie consultants. They dress is safari gear and drive Jeep Wranglers and bear a resemblance to Ted Nugent. They make a living offering advice on how to handle a zombie invasion, which will be caused by a virus, already in development by the government. In one segment of Zombie Apocalypse, a zombie consultant tours the house of a single mother who seems well prepared for the invasion, for the consultant did a lot of nodding and saying, “Yes, good, excellent.”

The woman has a two story house with a steep stairwell up to the second floor (zombies cannot shuffle up stairs) where she has guns and clips of ammo, and lots of canned food. She says,“I don’t save money. I buy food. My kids can’t eat money.” (They also can’t pay for college with cans of tuna.) The woman has a broad porch off her second floor bedroom, which will allow her to scan the horizon and shoot zombies as they walk down the street.

Zombie Apocalypse seems to say that we all need to be as prepared. We all need to stop saving for retirement and buy freeze-dried food. We all need automatic guns with large capacity clips and lots of ammo.

Just yesterday, on December 21, 2012, the last day of the Mayan calendar, also Z-Day, Wayne LaPierre, Vice President of the National Rifle Association, held a press conference, exactly one week after the horrible slaughter of twenty-six people, most of them six and seven years old, in a school at Newtown, Connecticut. The press conference had been announced for days. Many people expected that the NRA would support some limits on the sale of weapons of war. Yet, LaPierre told us that we needed to pay more attention to mental health, curtail violence in video games, and put an armed guard in every school.
In short, the NRA continues to protect all gun sales and all gun ownership without qualification. Whether directly stated or implied, the NRA always warns of the slippery slope. If we restrict the sale of any gun or ammo, then the government will take away all guns, including guns used for hunting or home protection.

What the NRA doesn’t seem to understand is that a slope goes is two directions. The slope can move toward more regulations on guns or fewer regulations.

So, if the NRA supports the sale of assault rifles, do they also support the sale of bazookas and 50-calibre machine guns? Should we allow people to buy grenades? The zombie survivalists would say yes.

Last week, the NRA was faced with a choice, and they chose, whether they directly stated it or not, to support people preparing for the coming zombie invasion.

I chose to stand with our children.

Posted by: George | December 18, 2012

Get Your Bigfooties for Christmas


If you are looking for a pair of Bigfoot shoes, which I call Bigfooties, this would be my recommendation. You can have a great time with these.

Posted by: George | December 13, 2012

Finding Bigfoot (NOT)

I love faux science. And Finding Bigfoot, which airs on Animal Planet, is about as good as it gets.

The episodes follow a basic pattern. Why would they not? This is one of the keys to good science—have a method and stick to it.

Matt, Cliff, Bobo, and Ranae, the four Big Footologists (aka, Squatchers), go into a rural area where there have been sightings. As they are driving into the area, one of the four, usually Bobo, says something like, “This area is real Squatchey.” Some areas are Squatchey, and some are not. Experts know the difference.

Then, the hunt for Bigfoot begins through three basic research methods: (1) town hall meetings to collect stories from locals, which is followed by recreations, (2) solo camping, where one member of the team camps in a wilderness area alone (with a camera crew, of course), which increases the likelihood of a sighting, and (3) night hikes, where the team splits up into twos, then walks around in the dark with thermal and night vision cameras and two camera crews (maybe a catering truck as well) trading off tree knocks and Bigfoot wails, hoping a Bigfoot will respond.


About forty to fifty townies usually show up at the town meeting. The Squatchers ask, “How many of you have seen a Big Foot?” Typically, about twenty percent of the locals in the room raise their hands.

(Let me here confess my envy. It seems that everyone has either seen a Bigfoot or knows someone who has seen a Bigfoot. Except for me. I’ve never seen one. I don’t know anyone who claims to have seen one. I’ve camped in wilderness areas before. I’ve done night hikes. What in the hell is wrong with me?)

Then, the townies tell their stories as their neighbors listen, faces filled with horror. Finally, the team asks the townies to mark a topological map with the location of their sighting. If there is a cluster of sightings, and there always is, that is where the Squatchers will go to hunt the local Bigfoot on their night hike.

Also, a couple of the stories are chosen for recreation. Bobo, who is a large man, usually plays the role of Bigfoot, standing where the Bigfoot stood in the sighting or walking where the Bigfoot walked in an amateur video. The basic assumption behind this method is that anything (in memory or on video) that looks like Bobo was probably a human but anything that doesn’t looks like Bobo was probably a Squatch.

Now, we have to shift the narrative line to the Squatcher who is solo camping. During one episode, Ranae, the only woman on the team, said, “I am going to solo camp here tonight to see if I get lucky.” She walked around her tent in the dark, yelling, “I’m here alone. Come on down here.”  Maybe the local Bigfoot didn’t speak English, or maybe Ranae was not the type of woman a Squatch would want to get Squatchy with. The basic point is that the solo camping on this episode was non-conclusive. Bigfoot didn’t show up. We don’t know why. This is all part of science.

On the night hikes, the team goes to the area where Bigfoot sightings are common and walk around with a night vision cameras (one of them on a rod focused on the Squatcher’s face), trading off Bigfoot calls (your basic monster howl, which sounds a lot like a cayote) or whacking tree trunks with tree branches (this is how Bigfoots—or, is it Bigfeet?—call each other). They often think that they hear a response to their howl or a tree knock to answer their tree knock. At these moments, the camera trained on the Squatcher’s face registers astonishment and fear, which is its own kind of evidence.

Bobo is my favorite Squatcher because he has the most creative ideas for drawing in the creatures. On one episode, he talked about how Bigfoots—maybe the plural of Bigfoot is Bigfoot, like the plural of deer is deer?—really like donuts and bacon. So, he went to a remote campsite with a dozen donuts, a camp stove, and a pound of bacon. He put a few donuts and a few pieces of bacon on a low tree limb and then waited patiently. While waiting, Bobo finished off the rest of the donuts and bacon, just to make sure the food tasted the way Bigfooties—I think this is really the most appropriate plural form—like ‘em. I was half expecting Elvis to show up. Elvis likes (present tense, because he is still alive) bacon and donuts. However, the more I thought about it, Elvis would be unlikely to show up. He could eat three pounds of bacon in a sitting, so one pound (minus the strips that Bobo ate) would hardly be enough to lure Elvis to a remote campsite.

Some of Bobo’s other techniques for luring out Bigfooties are setting off fireworks (roman candles) or shining disco lights in the forest around midnight. Bigfooties are, you see, very curious, and they often come out of their hiding places to see the fireworks or disco lights.

Bobo also likes to leave a baby doll in the woods near a boombox that is looping the sound of a baby crying. This appeals to the Bigfooties’ desire to protect lost children. Or, eat them. This is not made very clear. It also doesn’t seem to work. I would suggest putting lots of powder on the baby doll to make it smell more like a real baby. That might work.

(It is interesting that Bigfootologists seem to know more about the psychology of Bigfooties than the average farmer knows about the psychology of domestic hogs.)

I should mention something about Bigfoot tracks. The team often analyzes the plaster cast of the footprint of a Bigfoot, cast by a local. Sometimes, they even find imprints that might just be the tracks of a Bigfoot. If you want to help out the cause, you might buy yourself a pair of Bigfoot shoes and do some walking around in wilderness areas, especially shortly after a heavy rainfall.

Posted by: George | October 23, 2012

Phenomenology of Debates

Weeks before the first presidential debate of 2012, pundits were saying that debates rarely matter. Of course, they always mention a few exceptions—the Kennedy/Nixon debates of 1960 (Nixon blended into the background, he didn’t wear makeup, he had beads of sweat on his upper lip, etc.), the Carter/Ford debate of 1976 (Ford made one significant slip when he said that Eastern Europe wasn’t dominated by the Soviet Union), and the Reagan/Carter debates of 1980 (when Reagan came across as both presidential and fatherly).

Then, after Obama’s poor performance in Denver, debates seemed to matter again. Romney seemed surprisingly presidential, and the president seemed disappointingly like Romney. Or, at least, like we thought Romney would come across.

Maybe the debates don’t matter and do matter at the same time, in different ways. I am going to explain this with a little help from phenomenology.

Phenomenology began with Kant’s “Copernican revolution” in philosophy. Kant argued that we cannot know the “thing-in-itself,” that is, how the “thing” is apart from our perceptions. What we can know, and this is the basis of phenomenology, is how we perceive the “thing,” that is, we can understand consciousness. So, philosophy shifted from discussions of “the truth of physical reality” to the “truth of how we perceive reality.”

Please, forgive the four sentence summary of phenomenology. I needed to establish a ground for the point that I wish to make about debates: maybe debates don’t matter, maybe we are even at a point in the development of mass media and social networking that we cannot even know what actually happens in a “debate-in-itself.” All we can know is how the debates are treated in media (not just cable news shows but also Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and text messages from our friends), that is, our public—and publicly constructed—consciousness of the debate. Maybe our mass consciousness (a product of our over-abundance of media) does matter.

Weeks before the first presidential debates of 2012, pundits argued about who would win, who had the edge, what each candidate would say. Ten minutes into it, Twitter was awash of comments like “What’s wrong with Obama?” Within seconds of the debate’s conclusion, the pundits joined in.

It is possible to argue that this is participatory democracy—everyone is allowed to speak, everyone has a chance to influence the spin of a debate.  But nothing about this process feels right. Even spending a few minutes on Twitter before, during, or after a debate makes me want to take a shower.

In an era saturated with media, we have more information, not more knowledge.  We also have faster information, without time for reflection. Anything approaching an extended argument is obscured. Walter Benjamin predicted much of this in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” an essay published in 1935.

In the second presidential debate of 2012, the town hall debate, Romney made his comment about “binders of women,” which went viral. The fact that it went viral might have, depending on your view, either obscured Romney’s good record of placing women into his cabinet when governor of Massachusetts or obscured other features of his answer, like his being proud of letting his female chief-of-staff off early to cook dinner for her family. The “binders of women” is much more suited to the mass media and social networking than the “debate-in-itself.”

In the same debate, Obama said that he called the attack on our embassy in Benghazi an act of terror. Romney thought he misspoke. Candy Crowley interrupted Romney to say that Obama was right. The entire issue of how the Obama administration handled the attack, an issue on which the president was vulnerable, was soon pushed aside by pro-Obama glee at Romney’s blunder and pro-Romney rage at Crowley’s apparent bias. The “debate-in-itself” disappeared.

So, here is how I would contextualize debates. The “debate-in-itself” is mattering less and less all the time. The phenomenology of debates is mattering more and more.


Posted by: George | October 6, 2012

Victor Wooten: A New Tour, Two New CDs

I have been a Victor Wooten fan since he broke into a broader audience with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones in 1990.

It’s a good time to be a Victor Wooten fan. Wooten is now on tour (I saw his show in Little Rock on September 28), and he has just released two CDs on the same day. Words and Tones focuses on vocals. Sword and Stone focuses on instrumentals. If you’re smart, you’ll buy them both as a set.

Wooten is, in my opinion, the central figure in the transformation of the electric bass from a background harmony and rhythm instrument to a foreground melody and solo instrument. Few musicians have explored their instruments as thoroughly as Wooten. He does things to a bass that probably put a smile on the corpse of Leo Fender. I can’t verify this, but I am pretty sure it’s true.

At least since 1998, Wooten has been exploring harmonizing the low end of the musical register.  On Bass Extremes, Wooten’s four-string electric bass is paired with Steve Bailey’s six-string fretless bass. Drums and other instruments are added to some of the tracks, but the album is mostly Wooten and Bailey, two master bassists. It is not supposed to work, but it does. Someday, I predict there will be entire courses in music theory taught at major conservatories that attempt to explain what Wooten and Bailey do in this album

.Victor Wooten Band


Wooten’s current albums and tour continue this experiment. (Wooten would probably prefer the word “journey”.) The lineup is four bass players (Victor Wooten, Steve Bailey, Anthony Wellington, Dave Welsch), two drummers (J.D. Blair and Derico Watson), and one singer (Krystal Peterson, more about her later). This is also not supposed to work, but it does.

And it doesn’t work just because the bass players switch to other instruments: Wooten also plays cello, guitar, and a ¾ upright electric bass; Bailey also plays trombone, keyboard, and an upright double bass; Wellington also plays guitar and keyboard; and Welsch also plays trumpet. (On one number Krystal Peterson plays drums so Blair can move to center stage and play a tune by inserting one drumstick in his mouth, hitting that stick with another, while adjusting the echo chamber that most of us use less artistically, that is, to speak or eat.) The lineup works because the four bass players, who often play at the same time, know how to find multiple registers in the low end register. If you didn’t see all four people on bass, if you didn’t listen very closely, you would not think that you were listening to bass on bass on bass on bass. For some of Wooten’s thoughts on this line of development, I recommend Rod Taylor’s interview.

Please, don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying this is just an interesting experiment. The albums and the tour are stunning. I am fascinated by the experiment, by the virtuoso play, but this iteration of Victor Wooten and friends (I think this tour should be titled “Victor’s Playhouse”) delivers pure joy. Which brings me back to Krystal Peterson.

On the Words and Tones album and on the set list of the tour is a cover of “Overjoyed,” featuring Peterson on vocals and Wooten on cello. You might think you have heard “Overjoyed” before. You haven’t. The instrumental break—on the CD, Wooten on cello and electric bass, Joseph Wooten on keyboard, Blair on drums, and Casey Driessen on violin—is about as good as it gets, and Peterson’s vocals are a match. It is difficult to sing with good jazz musicians. There’s a reason why most jazz songs are instrumentals. With the exception of the Big Band era, which is the pop side of jazz (without saying pop is necessarily bad), vocals are the exception. Start counting singers who can match real jazz musicians, and I doubt you’ll get past your middle finger: Billy Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald . . . Krystal Peterson.

I’ve never written a fan letter. If I had Krystal Peterson’s address, I would write her a fan letter and call her “Ella Baby” through the whole thing. Then I’d end by asking her to be my girlfriend forever and ever. (Well, maybe I would tone it down so she didn’t think I was creepy, but the point I am trying to make is that she can sing. In an earth-shaking, historic way.) I have to admit that I haven’t fully explored Wooten’s new albums. I got to “Overjoyed,” and I keep playing it over and over. I don’t know what else to say.

Just so I don’t come across as too sappy, let me add a few minor complaints. Re the tour, I wish I could have heard more of Steve Bailey. During the Little Rock show, Bailey came stage center for only one solo. I wanted to hear more of his six-string fretless. Bailey has a smooth, fluid tone that is peerless, a perfect complement to Wooten’s funk.

Also re the tour, Wooten took several minutes early in the show to ask that the fans not post entire clips of songs on YouTube. He seemed concerned that, if people can see the show on the Internet, they won’t come to see it live. The speech is not going to do any good. Also, I personally think the opposite will happen. When I see amazing clips on YouTube, I want to see the live show. Then, after I’ve seen the show, I like to relive it on YouTube. Cut the speech, give me another Bailey solo. Then ask the fans to post it on YouTube.

Re Wooten in general, I’m not always fond of his lyrics. I love “What Did He Say?” and many other songs, but, sometimes, just sometimes, Wooten’s lyrics are a little too gushy for my taste, not a match for his instrument or his voice. I wish he would work with a lyricist or take a seminar in Ludwig Wittgenstein. On second thought, scratch the Wittgenstein idea. I don’t think a seminar in Wittgenstein has ever done anyone any good. Work with a good lyricist.

At the same time, Wooten’s lyrics clearly come from his heart, and he seems to be a genuinely good person. (Too many musicians are all to obviously stunted human beings. It seems like I should be able to separate the music from the person, but I can’t.) I often share Wooten’s TED lecture—where he plays a harmonic version of “Amazing Grace” on his electric four-string as he talks about his philosophy of teaching—with my graduate students. Be more like Wooten, I tell them. The same ethos permeates Wooten’s The Music Lesson. In fundamental ways, good teaching is universal. Whether you are teaching music or writing, it begins with a teacher believing in a student. Unfortunately, this fundamental core of good teaching is not very teachable because it has to emerge from the core of the teacher’s identity. It can’t be imitated; it has to be embodied.

About a year ago, I was able to visit Wooten’s Bass Camp, thanks to an invitation from Rod Taylor, my good friend and one of the instructors. I was able to see Wooten the teacher in action. When I see teachers like Wooten, it gives me hope, and I am a little less cynical. So, I’ll take a little gush.

Posted by: George | October 4, 2012

Obama vs. Romney: Expectations and Presidental Debates

Debates are about perceptions.

During the weeks leading up to the debate last night, the first of three presidential debates between Obama and Romney, surrogates were downing playing expectations. Don’t expect too much from Obama. He’s a busy man. He’s not a good debater. Don’t expect too much from Romney. He’s up against an incumbent. He’s not spontaneous. Both candidates wanted to be underdogs in the dog fight over who will be top dog.

Romney definitely won the battle of low expectations. He is just emerging from one of the worst periods—roughly a month—in the history of presidential campaigns. The period began with Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair and ended with Mother Jones releasing a videotape of Romney calling half our fellow citizens bums.

Most of the country expected Obama to handily beat Romney. I don’t think anyone expected Romney to do a Rick Perry meltdown, but a lot of us expected a Romney sound bite that would dominate the spin, something like the “I’ll bet you $10,000” statement.

But Romney handled himself pretty well. He exceeded expectations, so he won the debate.

In the world of my objective analysis (my narcissistic little bubble), I would give Obama a slight victory. I personally felt that he outperformed Romney, but not by a wide margin. Obama did not quite meet expectations, and Romney significantly exceeded expectations. Hence, the clear victory to Romney.

As I watched the debate, I was concerned that Obama seemed to laugh at Romney’s jokes (does he really think he’s funny?), that he looked down too much (taking notes?), and that he might have come across as too aggressive (he at one point told Jim Lehler that he had five sections when Lehler told him he was out of time, then he took another forty-five seconds to finish his response). This morning, I was surprised that Obama was viewed as stiff, passive, and bumbling. Sarah Palin, bless her little heart, said, “I almost felt sorry for him.” Ouch.

The last time I was this surprised by reactions to a debate was 1984, October 12, the morning after the Vice Presidential debate between George H.W. Bush and Geraldine Ferraro. I thought that Ferraro clearly won the debate. Bush seemed, contra to gender stereotypes of the time, sappy and distracted. Ferraro, also contra to stereotypes, seemed calm, in control of her material, and forceful. The morning after, the general consensus was that Bush won. Of course, democrats and women sided with Ferraro a little more than the general public, but the perception was that Bush won.

Today, I watched the Bush-Ferraro debate on YouTube and read the transcript. Twenty-eight years later, I still think Ferraro gave the better performance.

Here is one of Ferraro’s rebuttals to a Bush answer:

I, I think what I’m going to have to do is I’m going to start correcting the vice-president’s statistics. There are 6 million more people who have jobs and that’s supposed to happen in a growing economy. In fact in the prior administration, with all their problems, they created 10 million jobs. The housing interest rates during this administration, for housing for middle-class Americans, was 14.5 percent. Under the prior administration, with all their problems, the average rate was 10.6 percent. If you take a look at the number of people living in poverty as a result of this administration, 6 million people, 500,000 people knocked off disability rolls. You know, it’s, you can walk around saying things are great and that’s what we’re going to be hearing, we’ve been hearing that on those commercials for the past couple of months. I expect they expect the American people to believe that. I’ll become a one-woman truth squad and we’ll start tonight.

Compare this to Bush’s answer to a follow-up question about trickle-down economics:

Mr. White, it’s not trickling down. And I’m not suggesting there’s no poverty, but I am suggesting the way to work out of poverty is through real opportunity. And in the meantime, the needy are getting more help. Human resource spending is way, way up. Aid for Dependent Children spending is up. Immunization programs are up. Almost every place you can point, contrary to Mr. Mondale’s – I gotta be careful – but contrary of how he goes around just saying everything bad. If somebody sees a silver lining, he finds a big black cloud out there. Whine on harvest moon! I mean, there’s a lot going on, a lotta opportunity.

Let me paraphrase. Good things are up. Bad things are down. Every silver lining does not have to have a black cloud, ya know. Gotta, lotta, golly gee. And, while we’re at it, whine on harvest moon!

Can we really say that Bush The Elder won this debate? I don’t think so. What we can say, I believe, is that, in 1984, America was not ready for a woman to be President or even Vice President. Most Americans expected Bush to win. He didn’t make overt mistakes, so he won.

Last night, Obama was supposed to destroy Romney. With this as the expectation, a slight edge is a stunning defeat. Of course, I might be biased. Read the transcript thirty years from now and let me know what you think.

Posted by: George | September 8, 2012

Obama’s DNC Speech: Timelines as an Argument


The pundits seem to agree that Obama gave a good, but not great, speech at the Democratic National Convention last Thursday night. They say it was not quite as inspiring as they expected, that he didn’t hit the high bar established by his wife or Bill Clinton, that it didn’t have enough details . . .

While the president’s delivery did not quite match Michele’s or Bill’s (he relied a little more on the Teleprompter), it was an exceptionally good speech. The pundits are pretty much wrong across the board. It was, I will argue here, a fitting conclusion to the convention and it built upon the speeches that came earlier. As will be pointed out by Michael Kleine, my colleague and friend, in a forthcoming collection of essays on Obama’s rhetoric, Obama often uses Cicero’s six-part structure. In this post, I will use that structure to provide my read on the speech.

To begin, however, I should say something about the problems Obama faced. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I felt that it would be difficult for him to return to the mytheme or archetype that unified his acceptance speech four years ago—the American Dream. He also faced the difficulty of being the president during a time when the economy is doing poorly. The incumbent usually has an advantage, except when the economy is doing poorly.

Exordium. The exordium, Cicero’s term for what we call the introduction, is the place where the speaker establishes his ethos, that is, his good character. In this speech, the exordium lasts only a few minutes. Obama refers to his love for his wife and children, his friendship with Joe Biden, and then he accepts the nomination. The exordium can be short because Obama’s speech comes at the end of a convention during which a series of speeches established his character. Michele Obama was able to reclaim the American Dream as a theme in her speech, telling both her success story and her husband’s. Biden spoke of witnessing Obama making difficult decisions that have, in the end, benefitted most Americans. All Obama had to do what acknowledge their speeches to pull that ethos into his speech.

Narratio. The narratio provides a backstory to the arguments that follow. Obama’s narration begins with this: “But when all is said and done, when you pick up that ballot to vote, you will face the clearest choice of any time in a generation.” Choice will be a central theme of the speech. In five paragraphs (in the speech transcript), Obama moves from his grandparents sacrifice for the country during World War II (his grandfather serving in Patton’s army and his grandmother working on a bomber assembly line) to why he first ran for president (he saw the “basic bargain,” a renaming of the American Dream, slipping away) to what the Republicans said the week before (not much, he says, because they didn’t present a plan). Notice there is a timeline here. Not unusual for the narration. However, as we will see, Obama resorts to timelines again and again in this speech. His overarching argument is that he has, in the last three and a half years, had significant accomplishments but he needs more time to right America. Repeatedly in this speech, Obama says here were problems he faced when he assumed office, he achieved significant accomplishments during his first term, he also laid groundwork for the future, and he needs a second term to continue this trend. He wants Americans to see their current situation as part of a larger historical story.

Partitio. The partition introduces the arguments that will follow. This section begins with “Now, I’ve cut taxes . . .”  In this paragraph, Obama says that he is not going to return to what he sees as failed Republican policies: “We are moving forward, America.” Then he says the path forward will not be easy or quick. Later in this section, he invokes FDR, another president who faced reelection during an economic downturn and a long recovery. The section begins: “I’m asking you to rally around a set of goals for your country, goals in manufacturing, energy, education, national security, and the deficit, real, achievable goals that will lead to new jobs, more opportunity, and rebuild this economy on a stronger foundation. That’s what we can do in the next four years, and that is why I am running for a second terms as President of the United States.” Kind of sounds like specifics. Specifics on the specifics soon follow. Maybe, the pundits were expecting specifics on the specifics of the specifics.

Confirmatio. Here is where Obama presents his core arguments for why he should be reelected. As I mentioned earlier, Obama’s arguments fall into a timeline that encourages us to acknowledge a broad historical perspective. The first argument relates to manufacturing. The problem: Manufacturing was on the decline. The auto industry was on the verge of bankruptcy. What he did: He signed agreements to sell more products made in America and he made the commitment to support the auto industry. Early success: A million and a half new jobs have been added to manufacturing in the last two and a half years. The way forward: A foundation has been laid for green products that will allow American to complete in the world market. The other topics covered in this section (education, energy, the economy, and foreign affairs) are also laid out on timelines.

Refutatio. This section begins with “So now we have a choice.” Obama invokes Clinton’s speech, his comments on the math of the deficit. During the DNC, Clinton’s speech was more refutatio than anything else, so invoking him brings the audience back to the specifics of Clinton’s speech. Of course, arguments against your opponent blend with arguments for your position. Obama says: “Independent experts say that my plan would cut our deficit by $4 trillion.”

Peroratio. Peroratio is Cicero’s term for the conclusion; it should, he says, focus on pathos, or emotional appeals. Usually, this section is comparatively short, but this section in Obama’s text (beginning with “This is the choice we now face”) is the longest of the speech. It is framed around American identity. Obama says, “You know what, that is not who we are.” Then, he moved into a section unified by “we.” Here is one example: “We believe that when a CEO pays his autoworkers enough to buy the cars that they build, the whole company does better.” Then, there is a “you” section that begins: “So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. My fellow Americans, you were the change.” As Michele Obama was able to reclaim the American Dream for the upcoming campaign, Obama here is able to reclaim hope by placing the source of his hope in the American people: “I am hopeful because of you.”

Finally, what is the mytheme or archetype that holds the speech together. The mytheme is established early in the speech, at the end of the encomium: “Now, the first time I addressed this convention, in 2004, I was a younger man, a Senate candidate from Illinois who spoke about hope, not blind optimism, not wishful thinking but hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, that dogged faith in the future which has pushed this nation forward even when the odds are great, even when the road is long.” In a way, Obama is saying I am a different person now. I am wiser, more experienced.

Carl Jung calls this archetype the Wise Old Man. Through the speech, you can find Obama referencing himself as older, an experienced man who can now accomplish more than he could in his first term. The danger of this mytheme is that it can be read as conceited. I think that is why Obama included a reference to Lincoln in the peroration: And while I am proud of what we’ve achieved, I am far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, ‘I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.’”

Posted by: George | September 6, 2012

RNC vs. DNC: Authenticity and the Canons of Rhetoric

Brit Hume of Fox News has already tried to explain away the all too apparent difference in energy and excitement between the Republican National Convention (RNC) and the Democratic National Convention (DNC). He said the DNC was in a smaller hall and the convention planners had done more to amplify the cheers. Well, I’m not so sure.

The vibe at the DNC is definitely different, but I don’t think it has much to do with the hall. To explain what I see as the significant difference, I am going to need to say something about the canons of rhetoric.

The canons of rhetoric are discussed as early as Plato’s Phaedrus, they are covered more systematically in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, and they are codified by the time Cicero writes De Inventione. In brief, the five canons are invention (the development of ideas), arrangement (what we tend to call organization these days), style (that one is pretty clear), memory (techniques for recalling long speeches), and delivery (the oral performance of a speech).

In modern time, as you might suspect, memory has been given less importance as the technology of writing improved. By technology of writing, I don’t so much mean improvements in pen, ink, and paper, but these developments did have some affect on the decline of memory. I mean the technology of typewriters and eventually Teleprompters. It is easier to read a typescript than even the clearest handwritten text. With Teleprompters and, I would add, the general acceleration of modern life, teams of speech writers could produce texts that a politician could rehearse quickly and then deliver via reading rather than memory while apparently making eye contact with the audience.

The reasons for a decline in delivery are less apparent. I would argue this decline is partially related to the decline in memory. When a speaker memorizes a text, he or she is also practicing delivery. If the speaker relies heavily on a Teleprompter, less practice is required. To memorize a text is, to some extent, an internalization of that text. It becomes a part of us. Our delivery comes across as more authentic.

During the RNC, even the placement of the Teleprompters seemed to influence the delivery. Typically, a Teleprompter is set both to the right and left of a speaker. This way, the speaker can shift attention to the left and right and mimic eye contact with the audience in the hall. At the RNC, there seemed to be an additional Teleprompter just to the left of center.

The purpose of the center Teleprompter, I assume, was to allow speakers to look directly into the eyes of television viewers, creating a sense of sincerity. However, as I said above, the center Teleprompter seemed a little to the left (stage left) of the center camera. So, instead of looking directly into the eyes of the television viewer, the speaker seemed to be unable to make direct eye contact, which can come across as a sign of dishonesty.

If the RNC really wanted speakers to connect with the audience (both in the hall and at home), they should have asked them memorize some portions of their speeches or feel comfortable with a few adlibs here and there. What we saw with the center Teleprompter was not more authenticity but far less. (Of course, adlibs don’t always work, and there is a danger of slight slips that can morph into sound bites that do enormous damage. Or, a speaker can have a total breakdown, as we saw with Clint Eastwood’s dialog with an empty chair.)

On Tuesday night, Michele Obama gave one of the best convention speeches I have ever heard. Reportedly, she worked on the speech for a month, both writing and rehearsing it. She very clearly  had large sections of it memorized and, thus, did not have to rely on the Teleprompter as much.

(This is not the only reason the First Lady came across as authentic. It was clear that she deeply felt the emotions she wanted to convey. As Cicero said, never attempt to use an emotion is a speech unless you truly feel it yourself.)

Last night, Bill Clinton gave another great speech. Was his text on a Teleprompter? Yes. Did he read the text? Not much. In fact, the text of his prepared speech was about 3,000 words. The text of the speech he delivered was about double that. In other words, he had memorized his speech (at least, the basic elements of it) and then he spoke from memory (to some degree), but he also recreated the speech on the spot. He was in the moment, reacting to audience as they reacted to him.

(As with the First Lady’s speech, memory and delivery do not account for all of Clinton’s authenticity. Clinton was pouring out Southern charm with fire hose. His role last night was to attack the RNC attacks on Obama’s record.  I don’t think many people outside the South understood how he did pulled off a devastating critique without coming across as mean-spirited. In Southern culture, someone can come up to you, smile, and say in a sweet, sing-song voice, “Have a nice day,” A Yankee, who misses the code, might think, “What a nice guy.” A Southerner, who understands the code, will realize that what he was actually being told was something like this: “You’re nothing but an egg-sucking Som Bitch. I’m gonna rip off your head and piss down your throat.” That is the complexity and the nuance of Southern charm, and that is exactly what Clinton demonstrated last night.)

Memory and delivery will, except on rare occasions, come across as more authentic than reading a text word for word. Brit, it wasn’t the size of the hall. It was memory.

Posted by: George | August 31, 2012

Romney’s Acceptance Speech

If you were able to make it through Clint Eastwood’s rambling dialogue with an empty chair or Marco Rubio’s speech about himself (maybe a speech about why Marco should be the presumptive nominee in 2016, that is, after Romney loses), if you managed to stay awake through all this, you saw Romney deliver an interesting acceptance speech. The speech essentially said, “I am the anti-Obama.” It was not what I predicted in a recent post. I told you to look for the mytheme, the mythic kernel that would hold the speech together. Instead, Romney went for anti-myth.

Before discussing the speech, I need to go back four years to the Democratic primary. On February 5, 2008, Super Tuesday, Obama said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person. Or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” In the same speech, Obama repeated the phrase “yes we can,” which would become one of the cornerstones for his campaign. This speech was the stuff of myth.

Later, the McCain campaign picked up on Obama’s line “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” In a crude commercial, the McCain campaign tried to portray Obama as messianic, a would-be Moses. I would argue that the commercial also had racist undertones. Obama was portrayed as an uppity Black man.

That was McCain’s crude attempt to undercut the Obama myth. Last night, Romney took his own turn at undercutting the Obama myth. It could prove to be more effective than the McCain commercial.

Here is the portion of the speech that best conveys Romney’s anti-myth: “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. MY promise . . . is to help you and your family.”

“President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans” sounds a little like “Moses parted the Red Sea.” The claim to “heal the planet” is an ambitious goal. In contrast, Romney seems to say, “I am an ordinary man. All I want to do is help you like a neighbor helps you.”

We will see how well this anti-myth message resonates with the American people. Romney might have effectively argued that Obama the president did not fulfill the promises of Obama the candidate. However, when Romney offers himself as an alternative because he is not promising global change, he seems to be saying that we should elect an ordinary man to be the most powerful leader in the world.

I suspect that the American people want big promises, the stuff of myth, even if they realize that politicians can rarely bring about the change they envision. If the American people have been disappointed in the myth of Obama, that does not mean they will elect an ordinary man. We need hope and dreams, especially in tough times.

The morning reviews seems to be consistent. Reporters were moved by the video that preceded Romney’s speech. They feel that Clint Eastwood’s sad performance might upstage Romney’s speech. They feel Marco Rubio’s speech fell flat. About Romney’s actual speech, reporters seem to agree that there was no magic. There was no inspiring line. In short, there was no myth.

Whether or not Romney’s anti-myth approach works in November may depend on how well Obama can reclaim a mythic aura during an economic crisis.

Older Posts »



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 31 other followers