Conceptualizing Contextualizing



The context in which some"thing" is perceived is a major determinant of how that "thing" is defined & perceived in general. An act of breaking eggs on a sidewalk is critiqued & explained in a very different way when contextualized as "art" than when perceived as an act of "vandalism". In such an instance, the "art" context might focus the perceivers' attention on aesthetic concerns that are comfortable to them. If contextualized as "vandalism", the egg-breaking might be perceived as a threat. As such, the context is an important influence on emotional response.

It's my typical experience that people rarely question the established contexts for activities. It's often the allure of a context that partially attracts people to activities that it frames. People being "creative" in areas not otherwise contextualized strive to be accepted as "artists" in order to gain greater acceptance thru attachment to the already accepted.

It's been my contention for many years that a person truly interested in being creative would extend their creativity by introducing into the perceptual dynamic a consideration of making &/or defining &/or discombobulating the context in wch their acts are included. A person exploring the use of sound & wanting their use to be appreciated from a fresh perspective would, therefore, avoid & reject the concept of "music" & all its associated & potentially irrelevant "baggage"/history.

For me, the contexts of "art", "music", & "performance art" are particularly annoying dead weight. In an Anya Lewin vaudeo that I witnessed recently entitled "Green Trees and Dirt" the main character digs a shallow hole, places her bare feet in it, & covers them with dirt - "planting" herself next to a road. Various characters pass by & react to her being there. One man gets out of his car & asks her "So, um, is this some kind of performance art?" She replies "Yeah, pretty soon I'm gonna pour gasoline all over my body and light it on fire" wch eventually leads to her saying "I'm kidding. I'm just a tree. No fires, no art." If only more people could imagine actions freed from "objective" history. Life is "art" is all well & good but sometimes it's more interesting to me for life to be life instead.

Imagine perception being "framed" by stereotyping templates. People use categories to slot information in. The less imaginative or flexible the person, the smaller their category vocabulary. The more conformist the person, the more their categories are determined by the "consensus" of their subculture/peers. These templates, or prejudices, are cognitive aids. Unfortunately, they are also anti-cognitive in the sense that: 1. most people using them are unconscious of their existence, & 2. no-one's vocabulary of templates is appropriate for the contextualizing of every possible situation.

Since I tend to at least try to be an "individualist", I often get the chance to observe how other people try to categorize me. Instead of accepting me as an individual, or, as I prefer, as a "subculture of one", they try to pigeonhole me into whatever their "weirdo" class is. So, if I have a "weird" haircut, I might get lumped together with "punks" or "krishnas" regardless of whether other data conflicts with this. So, for example, if I'm telling them that I find punk music to be totally boring or if my haircut looks more like nothing they've ever seen before they will still conceive of me as a "punk" or a "krishna" because it's easier for most people to perceive others as belonging to a group than it is to accept them as individuals!

It's exactly this latter tendency that I think of as being a parallel to the over-use of the art, music, & performance art pseudo-catch-alls. In other words, when a thoughtless &/or lazy &/or unconcerned perceiver is confronted w/ new stimuli, they are going to be more inclined to process the data by storing it in an already existing trap than they are going to be inclined to think of a new generalization for it or to perceive it as a distinct unique instance. The more they rely on previous frames, the less they actually perceive of the actual data.

To switch gears into a high-profile case in wch there's a widespread consensus of its harmful nature, I'll mention racism. In racism, a stereotype can so overdetermine perception that a person's actual behaviour can go almost completely un-noticed. But it's not only in racism that such overdetermining occurs. My point is that the more people use templates in any situation for slotting any info, the more they're simply relying on potentially misleading contexts.

Of course, people will object to my lumping together prejudices damaging to the quality of life w/ the use of abstractions whose negative effect might be thought of as trivial in contrast by a "humanist" viewpoint. I hope it's obvious here that my intention is not to totally reject generalizations in favor of a progressively more extreme practice of specifying as much as it is to prioritize specificity over generalizations & to make new generalizing groupings that might effectively point out connections ordinarily ignored. Although my use of the terms "generality" & "specificity" may imply a clear-cut dividing line between the 2, I prefer to think that such distinctions are more an arbitrary matter of degree differentiation. Any knee-jerk contextualizing can potentially be to the detriment of astute perception. I'm postulating this as a sort of "truism" (despite my not "believing" in "truth") to wch the relative importance to wch the perceiver hierarchicizes the subject is irrelevant.

In the cases of people trying to slot me in their convenient "weirdo" category there's this frequent phobic sequence: 1. someone perceives me & feels discomfort that I am "dissonant" w/ their already existing pigeon-holes, 2. in keeping w/ their belief that "consonance" is "harmonious" & therefore "good" & "knowing" that I am not "one of them" they become fearful & slot me as "the enemy", 3. therefore, they decide that I must be a "criminal" or a "terrorist" or whatever & treat me w/ the subsequent attempt to supress my existence.

As a relevant aside, I quote the following from Tony Conrad's "Slapping Pythagoras" essay: "The number ratio intervals of music are the most immediate and affective human embodiment of HARMONIA [capitalization & underlining emphasis mine thruout this quote]; and musical idealism has sustained this linkage to political elitism ever since the time of Pythagoras. Just as the American right-wing now assaults multi-cultural education, so it's predictable that oligarchic cultural forces would align themselves with the "one voice" of homophonic musical expression. HOMOPHONY IS REPRESSIVE! [by wch I mean homophony of context] Packaged homophony is the trademark of consumerist culture industry "pop" music products; and naturally homophony also "pops up" at the symphony, in church, and at all the other usual kowtowing ceremonies."

The point isn't to complain of "ill-treatment" as much as it is to, once again, draw parallels between such a sequence & any other fearful response to new stimuli. I worked in a used bookstore where I played recordings of sounds that I liked - usually fairly recent "difficult listening". The volume was always set very low to avoid conflicts w/ the customers - who complained about what I was listening to more often than they appreciated it.

In one instance, I was listening to a tape of Lukas Foss / Jan Williams pieces that feature a fair amount of Williams' percussion playing. The tape included "Paradigm", "Ni Bruit Ni Vitesse", & "Dream Lesson". A customer entered the store & almost immediately exclaimed in great irritation "What are you listening to?" I explained that it was something composed by the conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic & that it might be called "experimental classical music". In extreme indignation she informed me that she listened to classical radio stations & that she, therefore, knew what classical music was (a ludicrous enough statement in itself to me considering how narrow the repertoires of the classical music stations in Baltimore are/were) & that this was "definitely not CLASSICAL music!"

I replied by saying "Ok, it's not classical music - then, What is it? Punk Music?" To its being "punk music" she readily agreed. As long as the category that something she didn't like was to be put in was a category that she thought was inferior, it was acceptable to place that thing in that category - regardless of its formal inappropriateness. In another instance, someone angrily told me, while I was listening to Anthony Braxton, that "her grandson could play better than that!" I informed her that she must have a very talented grandson.

{It's indicative of the emotional potency of organized sound, at least in my life, that I've gotten into more arguments over "music" than probably anything else other than personal matters (&, possibly, politics)}

BUT, I meander somewhat. What I was originally getting at is that there's been a movement to make the categories of "art", "music", & "performance art" catch-alls - to broaden what get's accepted w/in them as an act of liberalism/radicalism. My opinion is that the overuse of these contexts makes it easier for people to be lazy perceivers & to delude themselves that data has been substantially processed because a compartment has been found to dump it in. These contexts then just become mental garbage dumps.

While calling all sound "music" is still a stimulating conceptual challenge for most, I find it more stimulating to pursue the perception of sound in different contexts. If we're to propose "catch-alls" why not tailor the catch-all's name to indicate its function? W/ this in mind, I prefer to use the term "SO-CALLED WHATEVER" & the classification "DDC#040.002" (Dewey Decimal Classification: Generalities / Not Used / Miscellany) as open contexts that are fairly self-explanatory as such & that have less irrelevant aesthetic baggage. Some might argue, perhaps, that simply using the term "OPEN CONTEXT" might be even better. I, however, prefer the humor of the contexts that I propose.

With this in mind, I hope that, despite my having presented a "So-Called Whatever (e.g.) w/in the context of the Music Gallery & the targetting of this article (currently) to !PO-PO! magazine (which, unfortunately, contextualizes itself as the product of an "art movement"), that presentation & this article can be accepted as context alternative & critical. My "So-Called Whatever" included a presentation of my "A Year & a Day at the Funny Farm Bogus Piano Concerto - in 2 rapid bowel movements" (this version made in collaboration w/ John Henry Nyenhuis). Try to imagine a "Piano Concerto" (or, in this case, a "Bogus Piano Concerto") as something other than music & you'll experience the mental process that I'm trying to encourage.

By way of disclaimer I also note that people quoted in this essay may completely disagree w/ my uses of their texts & that this is meant to be a rambling stream open to, & in "need" of, "infinite" revision (& greater specificity & qualifying). This is not meant to be the final word on anything.



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