Revolutionary Reformer

A social connection posted a piece on Humberto Maturana’s idea of “aesthetic seduction”. I found it interesting, so I wanted to understand more. Performing a Google search, I landed on The Edge, where I found an interesting comment by Dan Dennett. I share it in its entirety.

Daniel C. Dennett

Philosopher; Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University; Author, From Bacteria to Bach and Back

Post hoc ergo propter hoc! “After this, therefore because of this.” Francisco Varela is a very smart man who, out of a certain generosity of spirit, thinks he gets his ideas from Buddhism. I’d like him to delete the references to Buddhist epistemology in his writings. His scientific work is very important, and so are the conclusions we can draw from the work. Buddhist thinking has nothing to do with it, and bringing it in only clouds the real issues.

There are striking parallels between Francisco’s “Emergent Mind” and my “Joycean Machines.” Francisco and I have a lot in common. In fact, I spent three months at CREA, in Paris, with him in 1990, and during that time I wrote much of Consciousness Explained. Yet though Francisco and I are friends and colleagues, I’m in one sense his worst enemy, because he’s a revolutionary and I’m a reformer. He has the standard problem of any revolutionary: the establishment is — must be — nonreformable. All its thinking has to be discarded, and everything has to start from scratch.

We’re talking about the same issues, but I want to hold on to a great deal of what’s gone before and Francisco wants to discard it. He strains at making the traditional ways of looking at things too wrong.

Dennett’s response is a critique of Francisco Varela, which is not the part that interests me. What caught my eye is his distinction between revolutionary and reformer. And it dawned on me—perhaps re-dawned might be a better verb, or to illuminate or intensify, to shine a light.

I consider myself to be introspective, and times like these allow me to be self-critical. I view myself as a revolutionary as far as expectations go. This makes me impatient with little tolerance for the marginal changes that attendant with reformism.

Being a revolutionary doesn’t make one a Utopian—a common critique—, that one is seeking perfection. From my perspective, when things are so far off course or misaligned, incremental changes don’t seem to be enough.

Moreover, reform is a political misdirection tactic I am leery of. So, irrespective of core beliefs, I feel even a reformist should be wary of the tactic. In politics, sometimes new ideas arise that are not in concert with the prevailing orthodoxy but are building mass. The idea is to retain the status quo as much as possible. The tactic is to find the smallest least disruptive sliver and find a way to integrate it in a manner for the mass to diminish and to be able to claim concordance.

The first example that pops into my mind is the Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare) in the United States, which is not exactly affordable not all that caring, though it is a reformist act. Even the main alternative of Universal Single-Payer insurance wasn’t that revolutionary, making the delusion of the solution and the adopted approach all that much more disappointing.

Industrial and post-industrial countries have solved this problem, so it’s not revolutionary unless one considers being over a hundred years late to the party to be particularly impressive. Moreover, there are programmes in the United States, i.e. Medicare, that are ostensibly single-payer programmes. In fact, one approach suggested was to expand Medicare to include everyone. This was dubbed Medicare Part E.

What this exposes is that the Reform-Revolution debate is a sorites challenge. The reformers consider the Medicare Part E proposal to be radical or revolutionary whilst I viewed it as a couple more millimetres away from the original Obamacare promises. Since the status quo started from such a limited position, when they ended up with is a milquetoast implementation.

To me, the debate is about paradigm shift versus glacial change. As for me, when I regard the battle between the Democrats and Republicans in the United States, I am not satisfied with any solution that sees these parties still standing post-solution. As a revolutionary thinker, I don’t need to toss out the proverbial baby with the bathwater, but let’s lose the bathwater and at least the sieve of a tab. Of course, I argue that the direction the so-called Enlightenment has taken the Western world, which is different to the argument made by prior traditionalists, so I can see a lot of room for change—revolutionary change. In the case of implementing Enlightenment beliefs, they took the idea of revolution a bit more literally than was perhaps necessary, but since it was more about a power grab than some broader promise of freedom, I suppose it was necessary. Meet the new bosses, same as the old boss.

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

The United States doesn’t constitutionally protect women. This is where reformism gets you. Per Wikipedia,

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution designed to guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex. Proponents assert it would end legal distinctions between men and women in matters of divorce, property, employment, and other matters. The first version of an ERA was written by Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman and introduced in Congress in December 1923.

Wikipedia — Equal Rights Amendment

If you read 1923 and wonder if that’s a typo, it’s not. It’s been almost 100 years and women still have no guarantee of equal rights. Women had only been granted voting rights with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution on August 18, 1920.

For a country founded on the principle that all people are created equal, this feels like it should be considered to be a redundant act…

My bad, the US Declaration of Independence reads “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. This is just men. And when this was written BIPOC did not fully qualify as men. Reformists have almost got that sorted out by now right? 1776 seems like almost yesterday. Change comes slowly.

By now, I’m rambling semi-coherently, so I’ll close this down. Keep in mind the foundation of your interlocutor. Is s/he a reformist or a revolutionary? Determine where on the scale s/he falls. You might save yourself a lot of time. Time Is on My Side is only a song not a recipe for living.


Being in a band is hard. It’s like being married to a bunch of partners, and if you are a band and not just some cat with some supporting characters, you’ve got artistic differences to consider. This is where I soured on direct democracy.

Slotrocket is the name of one of the bands I performed with. We played under this name exactly once, but let’s rewind to the democracy bits.

Skipping a lot of the details, I played bass in this line-up. It was a 3-piece with a focus on alt-post-grunge-nu-metal, but we all came from different places musically. The drummer came from speed metal, death metal, and maths rock. The guitarist-vocalist came from Classic Rock, Grunge and Nu-Metal. I came from all sorts of places, but I wanted to focus this project on the post-grunge thing. For the uninitiated, this is the likes of Seether, Three Days Grace, Breaking Benjamin and so on.

We didn’t have a name. Since we only played with friends and at parties and sometimes provided the backing for live karaoke, it was just us. We did arrive at the name of Breached, but it turned out that a Canadian band was already calling dibs on that, so we just let it slide—especially when they released an EP in the vein of early Incubus.

But then the guitarist-vocalist didn’t want to hold both roles. Too much effort. He didn’t care which. In the end, they found a female singer who was interested. It seems that there was a mixup in communication. They asked if I minded if she joined us during our next rehearsal. I figured it was just another live karaoke session, so when I said yes, it turns out that she was now a member of the band. Truth be told, I didn’t think a female would cop the vibe I was seeking. She was no Lacy Sturm or Amy Lee. She didn’t know any grunge material as she was more of a Country gal. But that’s not the story.

The story is the name. We deliberated for well over a month to settle on a name. We decided to create a spreadsheet. We’d all force rank the entries. And each of us had infinite veto votes to kill an offending entry from the list.

Skipping ahead a few chapters, I liked Rapeseed. It was a benign word that sounded edgy. The boys were fine with it. Notsomuch, the girl. There was no particular rush until we booked a gig—the gig. We’d need a name to promote.

I came up with Slotrocket. Again the boys were fine with it; her notsomuch. However, she didn’t veto—later claiming that she didn’t think we could possibly be serious. Since I booked the date and created the adverts, everything seemed to go under the radar—or under the rug.

A bit before the show, I was distributing material and advertising on our media outlets (as it were) and she caught a glimpse of the promo mats. Let’s just say that she was not amused. Still, when the time came, we performed.

OK, so I skipped over some stuff—the months of pouring over a spreadsheet. Our goal was unanimity. The name didn’t have to be everyone’s top pick, but we did need to attain a consensus view. As it happened, two of the biggest decisions came about by accident, and they both resulted in hard feelings.

It’s not that the 3 or 4 of us couldn’t have eventually come to a unanimous decision amounting to all of our first choices, but this would have taken time—and who knows how much.

One may feel justified accusing me of allowing perfection to be the enemy of the good, but that’s just something apologists tend to say, as they defend their preference for democracy.

Fast Car

I enjoy listening to music reaction videos on YouTube. The other day, I came across Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car. I’ve loved this song since it first came out. Musically, it’s a simple repetitive chord progression—finger-picked D, A, F#m, E. In a manner, repetition is a metaphor for the lyrical narrative. In this live performance version, the treatment is more simplified than the original album version—until the last bar.

Tracy Chapman – Fast Car

The protagonist is in a place where any place is better, and she’s got a fast car she can use to get away. The situation she finds herself in is a family relationship where alcoholism is a problem; her father is an alcoholic. Her old man’s got a problem. He lives with the bottle, that’s the way it is. But she’s got a friend, and she’s got hope. She tells her friend, ‘maybe we make a deal. Maybe together we can get somewhere. They are starting from zero and have got nothing to lose. They can follow her ‘plan to get us out of here‘.

And so she left to create a new life, but in this new place, she recreated her prior experience with her friend proxying her father. Like her dad, she loved her friend, but she knew that the relationship wouldn’t work out.

And so she left to create a new life. Rather, she remains in place and asks her friend to make a decision, to take a fast car and keep on driving, to leave tonight or live and die this way.

Perhaps this new life would be better without the remnant from the previous life. Did she learn from her experience, or would she seek the same type of partner? Would she fall into the same pattern because it was her comfort zone? The song doesn’t tell us, but the underlying music hasn’t changed. It’s easy to imagine the next verse to be the same as the first—although one could argue that it does end on the G, not repeating the Em and D they run out the phrase. That’s for you to decide.

Returning to the song, there is the chorus. She’s retelling this story. She’s looking back—remembering. She had wanted to belong. She wanted to be something. In the end, we don’t know where she ended up. It seems to me that she’s in a place where she can reflect. Perhaps it’s the calm before the storm, or perhaps this challenge has been resolved, and the chain has been broken. Perhaps, that’s the effect of the added notes in the final bars.

A powerful song.

Feeling Music

Back in the day when I was a startving artist, as it were, and a bit of a studio rat, we didn’t always have budgets for top studio musicians, so we had to improvise… and by ‘improvise’, I mean get music students from USC or UCLA to play parts on instruments the bands weren’t proficient at. We could transcribe an arrangement and notate how we wanted it to be played. Notating feel is somewhat possible but not practical.

Typically, we’d secure trained Classical musicians, but the struggle was real to get them to ‘feel’ and not just read the notes on the page. For us, we just ‘felt’ it. We’d find a pocket, find a groove, not care that the tempo might drift or the spacing wasn’t quite in cadence, but getting these trained musicians to get past, ‘but that’s not what you wrote’ was hard. The playing was technically correct, but it was often wooden.

In the day—this is the early to mid ’80s—, synths were not quite ready for prime time when it came to simulating acoustic instruments, 8-bit samplers were shite and 16-bit samplers were out of our price range—and still not quite ready for prime time either. So that was the trade off.

Typically, the best case scenario was to play the parts on a synth for the players armed with sheet music, but that was never as good as when we had a feeling instrumentalist make an appearance.