ancient deepfakes at classical world

Office Board by John F. Peto

The latest issue of Classical World includes my article on the shifting parameters of successful “impersonation” or sermocinatio in the ancient world, particularly as described in the fourth-century Ars Rhetorica of Gaius Julius Victor. Unlike his predecessors Cicero and Quintilian, who see impersonation as an occasion for “exaggeration and artifice” rooted in the so-called “grand style,” Gaius Julius Victor recommends that speakers use “less overt and even covert means” for taking on the personalities of others. In other words, I trace how impersonation shifts in the fourth century from a method of comedic, rhetorical excess to one of subtlety and even deception.

By recommending a style of impersonation that goes unnoticed, Gaius Julius Victor anticipates our own era’s novel methods of manufacturing deceptive likenesses in deepfake videos, where “concealing one’s fiction behind an expert veneer of sprezzatura is key to the impersonation’s persuasive potency.” His novel stylistic recommendations for sermocinatio in the fourth century show us how an impersonation might be designed to go undetected, not unlike various genres of contemporary disinformation.

The published article is hosted at Classical World, and the pre-print is available through my personal site’s archive.

zoomtunes 2021

Floating Points / Pharoah Sanders / London Symphony Orchestra, Promises — By tossing an ambient producer, a storied jazz saxophonist, and the LSO into the musical Vitamix, this album runs the risk of becoming auditory sludge. But its nine “movements,” better understood as a single 46-minute track, avoid melting into sonic mush by keeping a tight structure around the same theme from start to finish. It’s a real feat of composition. This album has captured the attention of jazz reviewers, thanks to Sanders, but it mostly reminds me of piano solo works like Chopin’s Berceuse and this short piece by Reicha that explore, with virtuosic inventiveness, the possibilities of a minimal, unchanging foundation.

Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Elliott Carter: Ballets — I taught a Greek survey lecture course this fall, so perhaps my brain was already tuned to the Cretan Bull and the myth of Theseus. But these early ballets by Elliott Carter are gems of early 20th-century modernism: sometimes evoking Stravinsky’s jarring Rite of Spring, sometimes evoking Copland’s cinematic sweeps. They were entirely new to me, as was the in-house label of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, which is worth checking out.

Jaubi, Nafs at Peace — Producers have been excavating samples from world music for decades. The Pakistani instrumental group Jaubi turns this relationship on its head, building on a North Indian core with foot-tapping percussion and slick synth chords. Sometimes it echoes the Ethiopiques series—not that all world music sounds the same, especially with the more modern production of Nafs at Peace. But for both, the integration of instruments and harmonies is simultaneously effortless and rich.

Dry Cleaning, New Long Leg — There was a microtrend of spoken-word music this year—or maybe just a microtrend in my listening—from driving lessons on the Henry Hudson to an anthem for millennial male friendship. But Dry Cleaning’s New Long Leg is the standout, hands down. It layers Florence Shaw’s deadpan, droll lyrics—“Would you choose a dentist with a messy back garden like that?”—over instrumentals that are half Sonic Youth, half early B-52s. Shaw herself gets right to the point: “She’s definitely in a league of her own.”

Smirk, LP — The most insufferable thing about people who have lived in New York is their fanatical nostalgia for neighborhood establishments that no longer exist, but hear me out: this album is the Upper West Side’s Ding Dong Lounge, circa 2011. Guitars never tuned; speakers muffled; punkwave, leather-jacket hand claps. Now that so much of life is mediated via webcam, there’s a powerful draw to music (and its long-gone venues) that shuns glossy production. I mean, aren’t we all tired of checking “Touch Up My Appearance”?

trusting the science, not the plan

At Commonweal, I have a brief cover essay on the January 6 Capitol insurrection and QAnon, the far-right theory that—among other beliefs—claims cultural and political elites from the Clintons to Bill Gates are covert pedosatanists intent on destroying America. Recent writing from the New Yorker and the Atlantic has painted QAnon as a “new religion” that has abandoned “reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values,” but I think this religious framing misses the mark. In light of the overwhelming complexity of our overlapping crises and QAnon’s stubborn “pretension of omniscience,” I revisit the writings of Walter Lippmann to argue that Q’s followers should be seen not so much as “a sect of believers with scriptures and sacraments” but instead as a mob of “self-deluded know-it-alls.” And acting out of epistemic hubris, of course, never ends well:

But these clips of the Capitol riots underscore the perils of confident prediction. After the so-called QAnon Shaman scribbled “It’s only a matter of time, justice is coming!” on a Senate desk, he led his fellow insurrectionists in triumphant prayer, their hands aloft: “Thank you, divine, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent creator God, for blessing each and every one of us.” They assumed that Providence had led them there and would grant them “the divine and omnipresent white light of love and protection.” But the Storm passed, Trump surrendered. QAnon’s prideful omniscience collapsed at the moment of Joe Biden’s pious request—“So help me God”—and prophecy turned out to be fantasy. Our present is the one End of Days they had never predicted, every arrest a rapture, every mugshot a revelation.

Read the rest in the June issue of Commonweal.

[Update: I had the opportunity to underscore some important points about Lippmann’s proposal for “intelligence work” in the July issue.]