happy new year from george eliot

… and it seemed to him as if he were beholding in a magic panorama a future where he himself was sliding into that pleasureless yielding to the small solicitations of circumstance, which is a commoner history of perdition than any single momentous bargain.

We are on a perilous margin when we begin to look passively at our future selves and see our own figures led with dull consent into insipid misdoing and shabby achievement.

Middlemarch, Ch. 79

at least there was good music this year

Despite all the mayhem and mismanagement of 2018, I was able to enjoy some great live music this year, including that fantastic performance of Ogresse, Angela Hewitt’s virtuosic marathon of the second book of the Well-Tempered Clavier, and a couple great Bill Frisell sets. Now that the year is mercifully coming to an end, I’m picking through albums that have held up over a bunch of listens. In no particular order:

Charles Mingus — Jazz in Detroit:

The never-before-recorded track “Dizzy Profile” is a tune that I just can’t get out of my head, even after several months. It’s a beautiful waltz, especially on the trumpet and on a melodic piano that tosses in some Art Tatum-ish runs. This five-disc release has long, long tracks, all with tons of little things to listen for here and there. You won’t be bored.

Prince — Piano and a Microphone 1983:

The second “newly discovered” release on this list, I picked up this album on the recommendation of a friend from college. Like Jazz in Detroit above, Piano and a Microphone lacks the glisten of hyper-produced pop: the first track starts with Prince calling out “Is that my echo?” and “Can you turn the lights down some in here?” shortly before singing “Good God!” and sort-of-beatboxing over his piano chords. “Turn the voice down a little,” he interrupts at 1:30–unvarnished stuff. How refreshing to hear someone working through songs at the keyboard, not the iMac kind.

Orquesta Akokán (self-titled):

Cuban music is normally off my radar, and I can’t quite remember how I found myself listening to this debut album, but it’s so fantastic from start to finish. All original songs, and you’ll want to change into dancing shoes by the second track. The production on this one stands out: it’s a big band sound that has a little grittiness to the horns and pianos exactly where you’d like it, and you hardly notice you’re listening to something released in 2018.

Minami Deutsch — With Dim Light:

The self-titled debut Miniami Deutsch a few years ago was just fine, but this six-track sophomore album is a lot tighter. Japanese krautrock, but with a dash of punkier Stereolab or My Bloody Valentine-ish vocals, and the first track (“Concrete Ocean”) dabbles in something like math rock. The most interesting actual rock album I came across this year, for sure.

Ivan Ilić — Reicha Rediscovered, Vol. 2:

Tipped by this write-up in the Times, I started listen to the music of Anton Reicha this year. Released as the second of Ivan Ilić’s five-disc series of Reicha’s piano works, these fugue(ish?) tracks really grabbed me–perhaps because this disc sometimes sounds completely non-fugal. The last track, for example, from Reicha’s “36 Fugues” has a playful, even ‘boingy’ feel to it, totally unlike what you’ll hear in the Well-Tempered Clavier.

deepfakes and rhetorical ethos

Deepfakes are everywhere these days, or at least anxiety about them. These “synthetic media” videos, which MIT Technology Review cautions will “threaten to further blur the line between truth and fiction,” leverage advances in artificial intelligence and raw computing power to produce videos of popular figures saying things they have never said and doing things they have never done. Previously available only to well-funded digital graphics outfits but increasingly available to the Internet’s broader demos, the ability to create such videos has produced embarrassing problems which our era of unbridled social media has (unfortunately) made entirely predictable.

Watching well-made deepfakes like the one below by Jordan Peele has made me reconsider some ancient epistemological problems and elements of the rhetorical tradition concering character and persuasion. As this video demonstrates, deepfakes present a compelling new case study in the philosophical problem of “indiscernibility,” where the “vividness”–the enargeia or evidentia–of a sensory experience cannot alone serve as sufficient justification for believing what we see or hear:

Ancient treatments of the “indiscernibility” or “indistinguishability” problem of course never envision the example of deepfake videos, but they instead rely on more pedestrian examples like eggs and twins. Here’s Sextus Empiricus:

For in the case of things that are like in shape, but that differ in terms of what is underlying, it is impossible to distinguish the apprehensive appearance from the false and the non-apprehensive one. For example, if there are two eggs exactly alike, and I give them to the Stoic one after the other, will the wise person, after fastening upon them, have the capacity to say infallibly whether the egg he is being shown is a single one, or the one and then the other?

Sextus Empiricus, Against the Logicians I.409 (trans. Bett)

Watching these videos with colleagues and friends, I’m struck by how often we rely on notions of character rather than technical expertise to tell the true from the false. Rather than watch for telltale signs of artificiality like the absence of blinking (akin to botched shadows in photoshopped images), people watch the above video and proclaim that “Obama wouldn’t say that sort of thing.”

These reactions have made me reconsider the nature and aims of “character-based appeal” (or ethos) in classical systems of rhetoric. One of the standard three methods of proof–the others being logical (rooted in logos) and emotional (rooted in pathos)–this appeal to character often gets introduced to students as a method of making an audience receptive to a speaker’s views. (A good example of this method is the captatio benevolentiae, a common tactic in Ciceronian oratory.)

But by positioning character not simply as a matter of winning favor but as a heuristic tool for media’s legitimacy, deepfakes prompt us to radically reevaluate the purpose and function of character appeals in ancient rhetoric. If we remain unable to surmount the Sextus’ epistemological skepticism when it comes to on-line videos (not just eggs and twins), we may have to rely on imperfect metrics like expected speech patterns and moral reputation to tell the true from the false, the doctored from the #nofilter.