Law in Contemporary Society

45 rpm

-- EldonWright - 21 May 2009

You Have My Attention

We walked into class and the man at the front of the room began to play a song most, if not all of us, had heard. Its lyrics evoked a theme, and like a good dose of Credence in a film set in the Vietnam War era, we sort of instinctively knew what to take from it. The subsequent hand-picked tunes would rarely be so self-explanatory. (Notable exception to Mr. Waits) Like a playlist from someone unwilling to pander to the listener, Moglen started us off with something familiar to prime the crowd before he introduced material with a bit more obtuse music-to-subject matter connection.

Blasting the Beatles was a wildly refreshing way to kick off a law school course, as opposed to, say, a detailed explanation of the on-call system particular to that professor. And just like that well-crafted playlist, our twice-weekly jam sessions were quite purposefully executed. It was the explanation behind the songs, however, that I found harder to swallow than the musical choices themselves. The average professor in the average class enacts controls to establish a framework and facilitate learning, and this was seemingly no different. Moglen’s musical selection very clearly setting the tone (ha), and claimed to be influencing a base level mental shift, readying us for the day’s discussion. I found myself wondering how, exactly, one could play a single track of music at 1:10 PM each day for dozens of people, with totally diverse interests and influences musically and otherwise, whose heads were likely in completely different places upon sitting down for class, and expect even the semblance of a unified response.

Acquiring Guidance

People musically medicate their many personality states without thinking about it in Moglen’s terms. Framed by his concept, perhaps it’s just that listening to music you know and love sets a more reliable “base level” response, so you know what you’re getting. Do people condition themselves to only respond positively to music they like or somewhat arbitrarily think is cool? More generally, does music you already know and have already listened to have a more profound (or reliable) impact, or is it just that music of a certain style is likely to affect people in a certain manner?

I had major problems with the idea that Moglen thought he could ensure a smooth transformation from one of my many fractured personality states to where he wanted my head to be. In addition, as an avowed music snob, at the outset I was also less than receptive to what felt like heavy-handed musical promptings. Now I cannot necessarily speak directly to an abstract readiness to absorb the material, but strictly on a taste-making level I found myself surprised with the results of the semester.

Other than the seemingly requisite Facebook account the only other ‘online social networking’ I participate in is a community of music listeners at www.last.fm , where you download “Scrobbling” software which keeps track of the music you play, and among other things creates custom radio stations based on your preferences. Now, if you were to link to my page and scroll down to “Top Artists” and choose “Last 3 months” as the relevant time period you’d see that The Boss is right up near the top of the heap. I too noticed this recently, and was troubled by it. I immediately had thoughts go through my head like “actually, this is really a long-dormant appreciation, as my mother owns a bunch of his vinyl, and had me listening to Greetings From Ashbury Park on the regular when I was like 9…my musical tastes couldn’t have been somehow influenced without my express written consent...could they?”

Live At the Apollo

Moglen mentioned a Japanese saying which (paraphrased from my notes) means ‘keeping the same smooth surface,’ and that in our society this continuity of outward appearance is essential to ordered social interaction. We’ve discussed how lawyering, among other things, concerns dealing with people who have thrown off this fašade of a unified smooth surface to reveal their myriad, frazzled selves. And you have to deal with it.

We walked through the doors a daunting mix of thoughts and preconceptions. Moglen was forced to take us as he found us, and drafted in music that reflected what he wanted to accentuate about the material; and, no doubt, at least partially reflected what he wanted us to get out of the course. I suppose you can think of Moglen’s efforts (including the music, readings, and discussion) as not so much different than DJing an event, and perhaps it would be useful to consider the practice of law in these terms. You won’t always have a full musicological sketch of your clients. You won’t know whether they grew up in The Bay getting Super Duper Hyphy, if they went through the ubiquitous teenage boy Led Zeppelin phase, or if they mostly stick to Top 40 FM radio.

Clients will walk in with their heads in different places, with different expectations and dilemmas. Not unlike the relationship between the many hat wearing Jack and his equally dissociative psychiatrist, our fractured and damaged clients may well turn the mirror on us in their quest for answers. Hopefully as lawyers we have the presence of mind to loosen our ties, put on A Love Supreme, and get to the business at hand. Maybe there will be a sizeable group of them sitting in front of you, their thoughts scattered, with you at the front of the room and you’ll have to use your legal wherewithal to bring the group together. And hopefully what you lay the needle down on will hit a nerve.

* * *

Although I suppose you can never fully account for all the possible effects of your legal counsel: you may just leave them with a newfound appreciation for Springsteen.

  • This feels to me like a draft you thought your way through, learning more about what you thought as you went along. The idea that what I was doing was not so far from being a DJ may be right, I don't pretend to the knowledge necessary to know. But I think it obvious that the DJ faces, as you say, people coming from all over the psychic and cultural map, perhaps assuming, however, that they've all come to what they hope is a party, whatever that is to them, to dance, whatever they do when they're doing that. And this bears, it is true, on what I do.

  • But I think you're too wedded to your image of me as someone too wedded to the belief that he can use one piece of music to move everybody to the same place. I don't think that. I do think that right brains are usually either understimulated or counterirritated by law school, rather than being accepted and turned on. So musical stimulation of right brains can play a useful role in trying to switch from one intellectual context to another at the beginning of class. Musical interludes during the class were used to give people a little thinking time, with perhaps a slight emotional bias with respect to the nature of the thinking. That's not the same sort of effort as the one you describe me not achieving.

  • The issue you raise and mostly don't dispose of, concerning the process of shaping taste, would have borne more weight had you chosen to discuss it more deeply. It is, of course, the whole history of the popular music business.

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r3 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:46:30 - IanSullivan
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