Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Michael Pollan's dilemma

I like the way Michael Pollan writes and talks. It's easy to follow. He starts his writings as an ignoramus, so the readers can feel as if they are investigating with him. It seems easy to figure out who his target audiences are. For example, when he discusses the ethics of eating animals, he goes like this: "And yet most of the animals we eat lead lives organized very much in the spirit of Descartes, who famously claimed that animals were mere machines, incapable of thought or feeling. (Omnivore's Dilemma, Penguin Books, p306)" I imagine he assumes many of his readers know Al Gore's polemic against "Cartesian worldview." (I guess Descartes could be appalled by our feedlots.)

In In Defense of Food, Pollan tries to convince us that food is not just the sum of nutritions, yet he has to use many scientific terms, including omega 3 fatty acid. And then he says: "The undertow of nutritionism is powerful, and more than once over the past few pages I've felt myself being dragged back under. You've no doubt noticed that much of the nutrition science I've presented here qualifies as reductionist science, focusing as it does on individual nutrients (such as certain fats or carbohydrates or antioxidants) rather than on whole foods or dietary patterns. Guilty. (In Defense of Food, Penguin Books, p139)" At such a moment, I understand he is addressing to American readers. My prejudice is revealed.

György Ligeti called Kyle Gann's analysis of Nancarrow "too American," Gann says. Gann explains:

Lately I've been trying to get information, for my 12-tone class, about how Stockhausen mapped the row of Mantra onto various "synthetic" scales, and all I find is a quote from Stockhausen about how he dislikes explanation because it "takes away the mystery." Well, taking away the mystery is precisely what I'm trying to do, to empower my young composers and show them that there are no secrets out there that they can't use.

I believe Gann is a good composer and also teacher. I'm sure that his analysis helps young composers. On the other hand, I think Stockhausen shouldn't be afraid of his methods being revealed. His "mystery" --if there is such a thing!-- is never going to be taken away by analysis.

By the way, I'm not interested in mystery, but contingencies.

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