True Negativity and Immediacy

I'm working on a little project now that requires a ton of Adorno.

The exhausting quality of Adorno's work is how, given the state of the world, Adorno reads very clearly in light of his tradition (Kant, Hegel, and Marx), but the criticism and thinking that he offers is maybe three or four steps beyond common knowledge and casual agreement. Each sentence that Adorno writes is worth about three of anyone else's (maybe besides Hegel). I could describe it as an increase in some kind of theoretical weight. There's an interesting dichotomy within this, because that is balanced with a little bit of unpredictability at the paragraph level, even if each sentence is burdened with many references and technicalities. There are formal tricks, in Adorno's writing, that only make sense musically, but I digress.

There's a level of competence that I've attained over the past few years that enables me to get about 80 percent of what he says--as content--when he's talking about modern philosophy. I'm still in a similar position when reading his strictly philosophical works, such as Against Epistemology and Negative Dialectics, to the one when I first read some of his essays on music as a nascent musicologist... I initially thought that "On the Social Situation of Music" was equal parts music criticism and some kind of Marxist poetry. After some formal training in social philosophy (that is, a thousand or so pages of Marx, Weber, Freud, and Horkheimer in a couple of months), the text blew up with me on the second reading. Instead of being some technical poetry with music as the subject, it was the elucidation of a theory of identity politics with which I had, as a student and practitioner of music, never been close to articulating.

That beautiful, asystematic, and scathing contemporary socio-psychological music criticism (my immediate impression) drew me into commitment to his work. That immediacy--I'd find, after years of working on thinking and knowing--was central to his conception of "how to be." (Scare quotes, here, are because of the lack of autonomy possible in identity thinking and with the division of labor's force against normative claims. This isn't really an ethical claim, nor the epistemic one that I framed it in.) The immediacy of returning to Adorno after sharpening my Marx, then after reading Hegel's Phenomenology, is a reproducible phenomenon, a structured way of finding wonder and immediacy in the relations of the tradition to itself. 

Is it not telling, though, that I can justify all of the aesthetic arguments I struggled (and failed) to offer, from the age of 15 to 25, through this construct? "Why do I like this?" "Because it immediately offered me a beauty that did violence to my own expectations of what music could be." That's not a particularly good definition of "immediacy," if I have a philosopher's hat on, so: unmediated experience that doesn't involve rationalizing it out, explaining it in the world, or being expert/layperson or inside/outside (alienated) for reasons that are inescapable in the social world.

I now have to admit a transgression: I fell asleep for a few seconds in the concert hall a few nights ago while "seeing"* a performance of Elliott Carter's Penthode. I'm copping to to this because I always try to situate myself, in experiences of music and art and even leisure, as my 15 year old self and how mind-boggling those experiences would be to him. He would have berated me for being a lame, ungrateful fuck to not give utter attention to such a unique experience. (*Scare quotes, in this paragraph, are an analog to the conductor's instructions on how to listen to the piece--by tracking the motion through the ensemble--which were given over half an hour of talking that opened the concert, and likely contributed just as much to my trance-like state as the piece began.)

I frame myself that way (as an older version of who I was) because of how much the immediacy of experience dulls as time and knowledge and worry seem to accumulate. I don't mean to point out that getting old sucks... I mean to point out that knowing more of the social world makes unmediated experience less possible, and the world becomes more predictable. (And I don't mean to throw Elliott Carter under the bus, but, when my girlfriend told me a few days earlier that we would see the piece, I said "oh, yeah, that whole conversation/dialog thing where members of the ensemble are on teams." It's only one aspect of the piece, but it is the formal one, most apparent in the "structural listening" that we practice in music. The politics of the form, hilariously--in light of Adorno and of contemporary U.S. politics--are obvious in the piece as the shattered American ideal of a discourse that cannot hold in its secular form.) When I did put my expert hat on afterwards, I came to a moment of startle when I thought: "the piece taught me nothing about the ideals of discourse... they illustrated the falsity of the aspiration behind them."

The problem of immediacy (our lack of it) is something that I see everywhere. There seems to be little "left-field" of the kind that could have existed even 10 years ago... The longer "artists" (in the musical sense) stick around, the more they tend to co-opt the Pop after having come from diverse backgrounds. The only radical thing on television is the delightfully disruptive Eric Andre Show (and is probably the only recognizable heir to the tradition of Monty Python's Flying Circus, That Mitchell and Webb Look, Wonder Showzen, and Tim and Eric). Cinema may have some contemporary examples (but the most talked about movie right now is the most ferociously terrible tribute to the lives of Angelenos themselves).

The problem is, difficultly, a semiotics of negativity that isn't yet theorized. History is crucial to the creation of the work of art, not as "paying dues," but as not retreading existing work and eliminating the sensation that your audience will have in the form "this is like x but with y" (the mathematicization of art that is simultaneous with with a genetic theory of influence, a literal proof that we can't think outside of what is already provided), or in the "I like what I'm familiar with." History in the mind of the audience builds this as a complement to history in the mind of the composer. The trace is what is literally happening, literally doable (if "faithfully" performed). The trace is the only thing that cannot be an abyss, because if it were, there would no longer be labor to create the object, and art would be nothing but nature or hallucination.

Knowing is positivity, a relation to the world as it is. It's an upvote, a story supporting your worldview, a theory that proves your empirical continuity, or a claim to novelty that's understandable somehow (which is prima facie contradictory). They should all be suspect on the grounds that the world gave them and they now, as Heidegger once said, "lie in the storerooms of the publishing house like potatoes in a cellar." A true negativity would be (and is, if even through reproduction) the thing that suspends history and society for a second or less. A true negativity would not just present what is possible, but something that isn't. That can happen at any scope and make the world into immediacy, which defeats the world and its social totality... but it, itself, is only possible with unknowing and the impossible, somewhere in a system.

Society, on the other hand, could be true negativity, unleashing art and other labor as immediate and unrecognizable, as we freely engage with it, and would lead to knowing history as nothing but the (already existing) scars of a mediated and alienating world.


A Prelude to Artifice of Intelligence

I just disturbed myself greatly with this idea... In a longer post that will come soon, I'm doing a pickup philosophy game about Artificial Intelligence and stumbled into a new reading of Alan Turing's Imitation Game from "Computing Machinery and Intelligence."

The Game is constructed of an interrogator and two agents: a man (who is a computer) who must convince the interrogator (who is a human) that he is more of a woman than the female agent (a female woman who can only tell the truth). If a particular Male agent can succeed at being chosen as the Female agent more than 50% of the time, it has the appearance of intelligence (if not intelligence itself).

That's it. Almost any popular depiction of this Test is a lie... It confuses the process for a one on one conversation, or says that it's good enough to win the game once, or it ignores gender.

Of course, the gender thing is true irony... Knowing Turing's story, and not the one in The Imitation Game that accuses him of treason, makes gender anxiety into something that was felt deeply enough by Turing to take his own life. But we no longer gender the Test. This is in spite of our proclivity toward stories that show a "female" robot killing their maker because they were "born" into sexual slavery. I was going to write a chapter of my master's thesis on the generation of anxieties in the Turing Test, both deceptive and gendered. I didn't write that thesis...

Thinking about the Imitation Game as a social construct is more interesting than any fiction about robots... Our blueprint for designating intelligence when imbued in a made object is more terrifying than a killer "gynoid" emancipating "herself" from her owner or user...

The humans in the Test are themselves classed. The interrogator is responsible for identifying the semblance of intelligence, but the Female agent is responsible for truth and truth only. Deception is folded into the role of the newcomer, the Male, made intelligence. His ability to lie about his gender is what defines sufficient intelligence to be counted among humans. But paradoxically, the Female must give up the right to deceive, and stick to the world of things as their truth value (whatever that is).

It is because of this that the Test is dehumanizing in itself, and the Female is the automaton, but a human one. Parroting off truths is simultaneously not human, and the role for the Female who is only in the Test because she is essentially human. She is impinged upon by reality and forced to know nothing but what is, again, a source of dehumanization and a defeating of creativity.

The interrogator can be themselves and nothing else. They are not gendered, and consistently free to make judgements about the threshold of femaleness, be they from it or not. They are presumably critical and human (if those are different somehow). They will judge however they may, and the results will be about their sensibilities, their standard for intelligence. We must hope that they have a sound judgment, since they will be making the first call to the world that we can create in our image, and become our own myth (again).

Gender, for Turing, stands in for valuations about social life: female living is truthful, while male living is a deception. Intelligence is defined by the quality of deception, and deception is only performed by the made object that wants to be legitimized as intelligent. Intelligence is a deception... It is a social truth that builds success in an episteme that knows itself and itself alone. The interrogator sets the price of intelligence at what they would buy it at.


Adorno, for Doug and Matthew

This week's episode of Zero Squared with Matthew Collin contains a very confused reading of Adorno, so I'll treat it like an essay prompt. First, I'll say that I've spent a lot of time with Adorno's work, but am not a certified "Adorno expert." Second, I had the opportunity to read Adorno first as a musicologist with a background in phenomenology, and later as I was being trained in Marxist social theory and critical theory. Through this process, I found that there is a lot in Adorno that only means something when you know all of his references; I'll simply never get there, and because of this, my interpretation of his work could be called "quite subjective." Third, the Frankfurt School has come up a lot recently on Zero Squared, and always seems to lack a voice in the discussion, because I don't think Doug (or C. Derick Varn) take them seriously as Marxists. I don't have an interest (today) in explaining the epistemological and historiographical problem of Marxist orthodoxy more deeply, but there may be some things here that are tangential to Doug and Derick's previous conversation about Jacoby's Dialectic of Defeat. Suffice it to say, for now, that I did not understand why the Frankfurt School is non-canonical Marxism. When Derick said recently that Adorno and Horkheimer are "too cultural," I had a little bit of an epistemic shock; I don't know what "too cultural" could even possibly mean, since culture is the realm of all relevant truth, everyday individual and mass action, and ideology formation. It did, recently and along with other problems, make me rethink the term "Marxism," and draw the Frankfurt School, and myself, as outside of that term for the first time. As I like to tell people in conversations about Adorno: "Marxists wait for the proletariat to wake up; Adorno says 'have you met these people?'"

Adorno and Horkheimer's Critique of Structure Itself

The topic at hand is Adorno's dismissal of popular music, which is basically one of the two things that he is most known for in his musicological writing and methods. The context of all of his dismissals (popular music, Jazz, narrative film, and basically, everyone except Beethoven and Schönberg) is the totality of his overall project, and the projects of the Frankfurt School (at least Adorno and Horkheimer) more generally. 

Adorno has a reputation in musical analysis that is at the level of infamy. His name, when it appears in the work of contemporary musicological study, invites a plethora of standardized and institutionally endorsed "fallacies," counterarguments that were forged just to delegitimize any of his viewpoints. In the same way Marx's labor theory of value is wrong because it doesn't account for the exploitation of the dead laborer, animals, and grants no human rights to corn, those who would use Adorno's method for musicological inquiry are instantly creating "an authoritarian discourse, and an asocial one," as Richard Taruskin put it in the introduction to the Oxford History of Western Music. Adorno gets a whole paragraph of being called out, forty years past his death, for ruining musicological study, in today's most authoritative and canonical history of all of Western music. Taruskin carefully chose the two words that are the exact negation of Adorno's actual work, as a way of twisting the knife (Taruskin prefers the work of Howard S. Becker, that is, his aping and dishonest reproduction of Erving Goffman's work). This has led to a game that I like to play, where count how many sentences it takes an Adornian analyst to disavow him; it usually looks something like "I don't agree with everything he says, but..." The main criticism that leads to the disavowal is the one that Collin states on the podcast: he's an elitist; I will flesh this out below.

The reason for this is that musicologists rarely have enough of a background in the actual work of the Frankfurt School, and rarely understand the project of Adorno and Horkheimer, for lack of relevance to the more analytic (opposed to continental) subdiscipline of music theory, and the largely (auto-) biographical slant of historical musicology. Simply put, the social value of music is underrepresented in the musical academy because the truths are harsh and discouraging. Adorno's work is just too negative to tell people when they are in the process of specializing in music, and dreaming of being that one in fifty humanist who actually gets the job they dream of.

Musicologists who study Adorno are rarely aware of the totality and consistency of his entire project. This is because of the diversity of his interests, and the difficulty of his arguments. When he freely interchanges Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud's terminologies, usually only to extend or tear them apart, very few musicologists can keep up (I know I can't). When philosophers or social theorists read Adorno's musical work, I don't think they get anything out of it at all. This is because the implied urgency in reasoning out a musical ethics sounds arbitrary if you are not in the "business" of "classical music."

There are two points of Adorno and Horkheimer's project that I will focus on here: first, their relentless interrogation into how fascism could be the pinnacle of modernist capitalism, and the psychological and cultural implications of it; second, their general criticism of structure as a vehicle for authoritarianism, regardless of the quality of the contents of structures.

The personal cost of fascism for the scholars of the Frankfurt School almost never comes up in any treatment of their work, even when Walter Benjamin is mentioned. But the sheer amount of thought and work that Adorno and Horkheimer put into fascist ideology, as the capitalistic ideology with the most immediacy, evidences this personal cost. Having already processed the impossibility of Marx's proposed revolution, they moved on to studying authoritarianism in general. By studying the functions of propaganda, the structure of the fascist state as a giant familial unit, and the historical fallacies that need to be held by the proletariat to be susceptible to fascism, the foundations for a cerebral resistance to fascism were in place. What Adorno and Horkheimer didn't plan on was that their exile would make them all too familiar with the privatized fascism of American consumerism. It turned out that their program for investigating fascism and authority was true for market authoritarianism; American capitalism simply shifts the authoritarianism into the private sector, a political economy that I would describe as non-totalitarian authoritarianism.

Adorno's musicology is consistent with his general conception of social structure, one that he largely shares with Horkheimer. Their fundamental structure for critique is that social formation, production, and authority are all reproductions of each other, both conceptually and practically. For Adorno and Horkheimer, the base and superstructure are a feedback loop, but this is not necessarily a feature of capitalism particularly. This theory is based equally on Marx's material history, from The German Ideology, and Freud's conception of the superego as social structure reproduced in individual subjects, from Civilization and its Discontents. This view of a minor or non-existent divide between society and individual consciousness actually caused Freud to posit that society itself can develop neuroses, but that he wouldn't be the one to prescribe a course of treatment. In similar fashion, Adorno and Horkheimer tend to look at political problems as familial problems (Horkheimer's "Authority and the Family" in Critical Theory), and advertisement as the propaganda of a "monopolistic mass culture" (Adorno, "The Schema of Mass Culture" in The Culture Industry); for them, there is no distance between the individual superego and culture.

Because there is no distance, in late capitalism, between individual identity, consumption, and production, Adorno is looking for truth values in what the producers don't know about their connection to the means of production. The fungibility of meaning (that is, social meaning is political meaning is familial meaning) makes it so every human agent that could make something is either (to put it in Adorno's Hegelian way) inside the identity of capitalism or a nonidentity. (Negative Dialectics) Since the system of production is, indeed, the bourgeois structure in its totality, any work under industrial production changes the actual meaning of music, and the structural contradictions of capitalism are embedded in the cultural meaning of industrial art. Although there is no contradiction evident to the individual composer in their environment of production, their participation in a functional, non-revolutionary institution of musical production means that they are reproducing society as music, industry as culture.

Truth values that exist in the work (in the sense of Heidegger's "The Origin of the Work of Art," what is true in the world that the work imagines) can attach, for Adorno, to the truth values that exist in the real and social world. A good and simple example comes from Adorno's "How to Look at Television," in The Culture Industry. "Many television plays could be characterized by the soubrique 'a pretty girl can do no wrong.'" If a woman must be pretty to play the lead role (productive, consumptive truth), and convention dictates a happy ending (artistic truth), then it is merely syllogism that everything always works out for pretty girls. If the proletariat cannot identify their own chains, then what makes it likely that they'd reject such a ubiquitous but accidental truth? Why would the truth value of an advertisement for domestic normativity, the sitcom, be rejected by the proletariat, when the formal rule of sitcoms is "pseudo-realism." (ibid.) 

Here's my own, current example of the same analytic method: Meghan Trainor's three recent singles, when taken together as socially true, create a complex of ugly truths. Song 1: I'm not skinny and that's okay. Song 2: All men lie to me. Song 3: "Dear Future Husband." Simply combining the songs' artistically true messages under one personality (the brand name "Meghan Trainor") I can deduce that fat girls get lied to so much that they can only dream of having a husband in the future. And all of that is to not even analyze its blatantly reactionary musical and visual tones from the 1950's American dream. This method was reintroduced to the musicological community by Susan McClary in the late 1980s, and is currently employed in media analysis by Carol Vernallis.

Adorno as Elitist

Collin's identification of Adorno as an elitist is the obvious and most common attack leveled at him. But it is superficially true. There's actually an historical distortion here, because it is rarely understood why Adorno is so ardent a supporter of Arnold Schoenberg, and what we call Schoenberg's "emancipation of dissonance," and there are myriad misreadings of his disdain for jazz (itself, at the time, the popular music). An historically-minded, but lazy, criticism is based simply on his proximity to Schoenberg, and one can read his advocacy of Schoenberg's music as nothing more than sucking up to his teacher's teacher. But this is an oversimplification, one that serves to make a generalization where none is possible. For instance, it isn't actually Schoenberg that Adorno advocates, it is Schoenberg's pieces from 1908 to 1928. Additionally, I believe I have read that the two did not like each other personally, and didn't talk much to one another.

Second, Adorno's interest in atonal music (in which all harmonic references that were established as "correct" harmonic vocabulary from the 17th to the 19th century are avoided) is not monotonous. This is explained in his 1964 essay "Difficulties," and will become more clear with my next point. When writing about (on one hand) Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, and (on the other) John Cage, he criticizes what he sees as the main motivation of each composer: ego death in composition. Each sought a way of minimizing the role of the composer but still couldn't account for the arbitrary elements still present in their work (ego death, is, of course, death and inaction itself). Adorno saw this as the socially true powerlessness of the individual, a disregard of responsibility for the relationships of sound that the composer has always had actual freedom to choose. (To step away from Adorno for a second: Cage was clearly, explicitly interested in this distance, inspired in part by his studies of zen. It is, in my analysis, a fundamental contradiction of his work, under capitalist production, that he still put his name on his scores. Stockhausen fancied himself to be a theoretical physicist or mathematician dealing with experimental music as his field of physics, to be blunt. Boulez sounds a bit more like a structural linguist, interested in building grammars for the development of a new, expressive musical language. The later two are basically generational amplifications of the two sides of Schoenberg.)

Third, Adorno's musical analyses are more consistent within the frame of his general critique of structure. In "The Dialectical Composer" (1934), Adorno briefly explained the meaning of Schoenberg's work in a historical sense. For Adorno, Schoenberg had completely transformed musical consciousness by unleashing the contradiction of musical freedom upon musical form itself, instead of where it is normally found, the subjective will of the composer in the face of standardized modes of expression (like song form, instrumentation, decisions about the text, etc.). "Subject and object--compositional intention and compositional material--do not, in this case, indicate two rigidly separate modes of being, between which there is something that must be resolved." What Adorno is pointing to is the lack of all expectation, the creation of a musical action that is never subservient to the law of tonality (which was, itself, a standardization of the narrative expectations of the audience, and the bourgeois ideology of music). The form cannot be predicted, the conflicts embedded in the musical material are unknown, and the composer has put something into a musical language that has no grammar, but can still be spoken. A part of this observation is that there is no possibility, in free atonality, for a distinction between the ornamental and the structural; there is no necessity to satisfy anything other than the freedom of composition itself. "After Schoenberg," wrote Adorno, "the history of music will no longer be fate, but will be subject to human consciousness." By this, Adorno means "that in Schoenberg this dialectic has achieved its Hegelian 'self-consciousness,' or, better, its measureable and exact showplace: musical technology."

Two years prior, in "On the Social Situation of Music," Adorno explained that the musical language of Schoenberg's free atonality "annulled the expressive music of the private bourgeois individual, pursuing--as it were-- its own consequences, and put in its place a different music, into whose music no social function falls--indeed, which even severs the last communication with the listener." As an extension of the bourgeois musical language (tonality), Schoenberg was able to eradicate the lawfulness of structure, harmonic and temporal, from the work of music, making it impossible to conceive of in the traditional forms ("wow, that primary theme is really interesting, I wonder what will happen to it in the development section"). This is extremely technical, but, if music is a practice that can reflect other forms of human activity, this is the forging of a nonidentity, far outside of the identity supplied by the social totality. More on this point later.

Adorno's dismissal of popular music more generally is not based, as is commonly thought, on the richness of "high" music versus the vapidity of "low" music. Jazz is simply the inverse of the arguments for free atonality: jazz's structurality strives for a "perfection" of both tonal and formal structures, the complete domination of structure. The totality of a jazz leadsheet, as an immovable structure, is the invisibility of the total authority, with an offer for complete and utter freedom of the individual inside of it. Since Adorno often conceives of musical forms as the musical equivalent of social order, jazz is patently working toward bourgeois escapism in its pure form. "The improvisational immediacy which constitutes its partial success counts strictly among those attempts to break out of the fetishized commodity world which want to escape that world without ever changing it, thus moving ever deeper into its snare," Adorno wrote in his 1936 essay "On Jazz." There are other problems, such as jazz's friendliness to "sound film," its direct orientation toward the market and pleasure for the proletariat and bourgeois alike, and the development of its own, unique divisions of labor. In Adorno's view, jazz does not introduce new musical consciousness, it just gives illusions of difference through added ornamentation, both rhythmic and tonally. This is the music of the empowerment of the oppressed classes, those who don't even know that the authoritarian structure is offering them freedom (improvisation) because it cannot threaten that totalitarian structure.

Adorno's criticism and dismissal of popular music is more specifically about production. The logic behind this is that, if, for instance, the popular music industry is capable of producing sentimental or anti-status quo music, such as protest songs, it's probably a really bad sign that the message is even tolerated by the market. It is what we now recognize as a form of "ethical consumption," a market choice offered as a solution to the problem that the market created in the first place. I like to equate this to Hannah Arendt's essay "What is Freedom?" from Between Past and Future. For Arendt, the reason that the "human rights" were afforded to the subjects of bourgeois republics is because the quality of "freedom of speech" and "freedom of religion" cannot affect the structure of the republic in the first place. It is a seeming concession from the state, one that makes its subjects think that the structure of the state is there to protect them, but all of the rights it affords to its citizens are rights that never amount to a "freedom to action" in the public sphere. Republics, simply, cannot tolerate "freedom to action" because action may threaten the structure of governance, and may deconcentrate power from the ruling class, or transform bourgeois culture into something that opposes itself. Adorno recognizes that musical freedom operates in the same way. If the culture industry can produce anti-war rhetoric, itself not remotely close to action, then it is memorializing, and cashing in on, the real atrocity of war. If the market is ready for protest, we are probably worse off than we think, since it shows the ineptitude of that protest. Why, for instance, was there no marketable musical movement attacking the Iraq War in the mid 2000s? Because it was such a marginal social view that it could only attach itself to marginal musical vocabularies.

Collin brings up a great point when discussing this, by questioning the dismissal of popular music when it is politically engaging (and I must add, I feel exactly the same way about Public Enemy as Doug and Matthew did). His example is James Brown's "Say It Loud--I'm Black and Proud," and he asks why this isn't a progressive step in culture, if it allows people to be more aware of racial identity. If I can speak for (or maybe update) Adorno, it's because even the positive fetishization of blackness, through musical reflection, doesn't do anything to change the system of oppression. Epistemologically, we cannot ensure that popular music consumers will ever know anything more about race and oppression than what James Brown or Hollywood can tell them. We should not expect that positive cultural representations have ever led to a less oppressive capitalism.

This points to a larger problem that is suffered by all subaltern forms of criticism and theory, particularly non-radical feminism. Engels traced female monogamy to the need for proper dispersion of accumulated wealth at the onset of capitalist patriarchy in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Without a systematic rejection of private property, it is unlikely that capitalism will ever develop the slightest bit of gender equality. But a message of empowerment, promoting indefinite perseverance against this structure, authoritative and oppressive, solves no social ills. Shulamith Firestone takes this to its logical end in The Dialectic of Sex, showing that feminism is nothing without global socialism, global socialism nothing without radical feminism, and as long as biological difference exists, women are reproductive laborers that are classed into oppression. Of course, the quality of "radical" in that sentence is immense; her solution is the advancement of non-human birth technology, the eradication of the family, and a totally automated socialist society to eventually eliminate all labor (pardon the double entendre). Such radical structural change would assume no gender oppression to be possible.

Adorno's Endgame

Adorno, when he speaks of Schoenberg's "revolution," is hopeful that music will continue to be revolutionized, despite its inability to create revolutionary force in the social world. Often, his essays open with a reminder that the social realm is a reach too far for music, and that music cannot create its own forces for the destruction of capitalism. So in this way, Doug's understanding of Adorno's view of music is half right. Adorno wants to see musical revolution and the entry of new forms of musical consciousness as a way of proving that there are new forms of social consciousness that are possible; since the proletariat is hopeless and all politics is authoritarian, escaping the psychological components of capitalism mandate a new paradigm for revolution, one that doesn't wait for impossible proletarian revolutions or involve a planned walk through material history into the magical future.

Adorno, when tendering his "Resignation" (The Culture Industry), basically conceived of revolution itself as nothing worthy of intelligent, conscientious people: "The objection raised against us can be stated approximately in these words; a person who in the present hour doubts the possibility of radical change in society and who for that reason neither takes part in nor recommends spectacular, violent action is guilty of resignation... Political acts of violence can also sink to the level of pseudo-activity, resulting in mere theatre." Adorno knew that action against the bourgeois structure is itself bourgeois action; it is playing the bourgeois game, just on the level larger than the current game. Although he sees no hope for eradicating structural deterrents to freedom, he does tend to leave his essays with a glimmer of hope (even though it is sometimes more like a dot of hope).

Whoever thinks is without anger in all criticism: thinking sublimates anger. Because the thinking person does not have to inflict anger upon himself, he furthermore has no desire to inflict it upon others. The happiness visible to the eye of a thinker is the happiness of mankind. The universal tendency toward suppression goes against thought as such. Such thought is happiness, even where unhappiness prevails; thought achieves happiness in the expression of unhappiness. Whoever refuses to permit this thought to be taken from him has not resigned.


Music and Magic, Secularization and Spirit-Power

My friend Jude recently posted a nice little meme on my Facebook wall the the prompt, "discuss:" The photo was of some generic, romantic looking score and said "music is the strongest form of magic." 

As per my usual mode, I take this kind of sloganism too seriously, because it is, in effect, really easy to paint the world in very lazy abstractions and powerless metaphors, and so, people do. Were we to replace such trivialities with more depth, more creativity, we would simply have a better, more discursive, more democratic world. And of course, I already understand how silly it is to go after seven anonymous words in a systematic way, but I would hope that the discourse below would be helpful to those who find themselves in the position to confront these erroneous and terrible simplifications, especially when they are in dialog with music professionals who are trapped in these lazy modes of thought.

Commence bourgeois rationality and overly analytic argumentation: the statement makes two simultaneous direct claims, one ontological (that music is magic), and one evaluative (that it is the strongest magic). There is also a claim to be analyzed as an implicit suggestion arising from its image (that music is old scores in a bundle). The last one is preposterous enough, and a quick search of this blog for "Heidegger" will bring up my standard quote for arguments about the ontology of the score.

If we, for a moment, take the ontological claim as truth and focus on the evaluative claim, we see little more than Plato's hierarchy of the arts in the Republic. There, Plato develops his "art imitates life" aesthetics by judging the closeness of the reflection of life, as given through each category of art. Music is the highest form of art because it is the most representative of itself; it reflects life through what he thought was pure emotion, where architecture, for instance, doesn't so much reflect life, but is an ornamentation of a necessity for shelter (even if it is shelter for a deity). Further, in Book III of the Republic, Plato makes it well known that the affective work of music is dangerous, because it is so easy to translate affect into action. This leads to Socrates' idealistic ban on particular modes, scales, and instruments. This line of thought is still rampant in Western culture, but it is only as true as social fact can support it in a particular place and time.

A good way to test Plato (on the general and universal affective power of music) is to play songs on a jukebox in a bar that specifically repudiate the assumed identity of the bar and/or its patrons. If Plato's concerns are still valid, the music will transmit some overwhelming emotional power and reshape the individuals' character. Putting techno on in a country bar will be problematic, but not because the music is doing some emotional violence as music... It is about individuals taking over the physical space with sound waves and imposing their individual musical will on the other patrons who are not sympathetic to the music (for a handful of reasons that are ultimately social truths). Authoritarianism, for Socrates, is a generative force for control; the techno fan in the country bar is attempting the same coup, just without the power to do so.

Music is uniquely suited for such experiments not because of its universal qualities, but because of its universal portability. I am not necessarily interested in making this argument purely about mediums and materials, but it should be clear that the definitive ontological qualities of music, its relationship to the voice, and its ability to happen anywhere there is air, form the basis for music's specificity. Any claim that would evaluate music's "strength" against other forms of art or ritual or production would necessarily address the ontology of music, and work out to social truths at every level. The "capital t Truth" that Plato is looking for is an essentialist cage (befitting, as he could very well be called the inventor of essentialism). The universal essence of Beauty and Art, is, obviously, an illusion, since it is not capable accessing socially constructed truth. If art defines itself locally and socially, it is more likely that relative truth, from medium to medium, genre to genre, requires an interest in the emotions being reflected, the knowledge of the production process, &c. Without being able to see the larger picture of freedom of creation and freedom of interpretation, generalizations about the work of art become authoritarian and arbitrary, just as Plato's do. So goes analytic philosophy to this day, and so reads the meme. Strike one: music is nothing without relative social truths, so music cannot be evaluated against other art objects, at least not without a great deal of specificity.

The specificity that is offered by the image, does, however, suggest that Western music as noted in Western notation is the music which is magic. We need only note this, that the slogan is pointing toward the common practice period composers, because it suggests a disconnect with particular modes of production. That is to say, it attempts to make all composers into Mozarts, gifted prodigies with mystical powers for creating great art. And of course, such a model makes Beethoven look like he was ill-suited for being a composer, because his work was laborious, not magical.

And here is the fun part: the syllogistic truth that music is magic. Western languages, since Greek, have a marked distinction in the form, source, and direction of power, but the two do overlap, or at least may overlap (depending on how socially true it can be made). Mousikos, from which we get music, is the techne of the Muses, the art through which the muses can be brought into the world. The word magikos, on the other hand, is the art done by the learned man, the magos, the mage. In this sense, it is possible to envisage the overlap, as magic could be the embodiment of a Muse, performed by a mage.

It is unsurprising that the two would fit together in pre-modern European culture, not to mention all non-European cultures (which developed radically different local truths). Of course, due to the conflation of magic with illusion (which did not happen until the mid-19th century), magic is, ironically, weakened to the point of embarrassment. We must, in our defining and basic apprehension of this word, remember that today is indeed today, and that the meme suggests a possible conflation of music with illusion, as much as with ritual.

As an adumbration to a point below: illusion fulfilled itself as a grand performance art in the 18th century, as secularized magical ritual in the wake of the enlightenment, which had caused the emancipation of culture from religion. This transformation corrupted "magic," alienating it from that which gave it its ritual power. Before magic became illusion, it may have been impossible to claim that music was mysterious in a dismissive way, but in modern parlance, conflating music and magic certainly strives toward trickiness and falsehood contained in music, the negation of illusion.

But is music still magic, or capable of being magical, in the classical sense? The historical development of music, magic, and social life is speculative, but important. To address such an issue, I'll refer to two musician/philosophers with different points of view on what is important about the separation of music and magic: Theodor Adorno and Dane Rudhyar.

Dane Rudhyar (1895--1985) is a scarcely known French-American musician, philosopher, composer, painter, poet, novelist, theosopher, and astrologer. I have recently been studying his text, which is often called Art as a Release of Power (1928--1930), a series of seven essays that describe an entire, unique philosophical system. Rudhyar's most important influences are Nietzsche and Oswald Spengler, author of Decline of the West (1918). Rudhyar's thought, like Adorno's, is an unspecialized series of interpretations making up a full model of the world, disrespectful of limits to the work that can be done in speculative thought. For Rudhyar, the only thing worth talking about, in the end, is the power for humans to build their metaphors and develop them into actions that support a "universal brotherhood." In a few shining moments in these essays, Rudhyar encapsulates the project of Marxist cultural speculation, while still being somewhat apart from that tradition.

The beginning of Rudhyar's book looks for the homologue between musical intervals and social organization, and explains that consonance and dissonance are, when mapped onto society, tribal and pluralistic, respectively. Working through this lens, and always being careful to make positive analogies that facilitate a better, more universal world, Rudhyar later works through an entire theory of history, a la Spengler, with "spirit-power" at its core. Spirit-power is the work of individuals, through sacrifice, to bring a new idea to the world, and for that idea to expand to its greatest possibility in a culture or civilization. Instantly distinguishable in Rudhyar's conversation is the role of theological thought, and the language of spirituality, which he scrupulously redefines in a way of reclaiming what was lost through the secularization of Western culture. Deniz Ertan, writer of Dane Rudhyar: His Music, Thought, and Art, is fully aware throughout her analysis, that Rudhyar's work is somewhat unbecoming of a modernist philosopher, which contributes greatly to the lack of scrutiny given to his philosophical work.

Rudhyar asks specifically, in his essay "Art as a Release of Power," "what is magic?" He feels the weight of illusion's commingling with magic: "The word has become the synonym of fraud and charlatanism; and this is most unfortunate, because it was an excellent word which expressed perfectly well etymologically and otherwise an idea which the world needs intensely today." He continues with his definition, stating that "magic is merely the release of power through an efficient form by an act of will. It is in fact life itself; but life in terms of human characteristics, destiny and will-power." (emphasis original) In Rudhyar's mind, the concept of magic was a way of bringing form to abstractions. Gods that never existed were made real, visible, and touchable by art; their constituent powers gave power in the minds of man.

An example he gives in subsequent pages is an Indonesian dagger where the handle is the image of a "weird and monstrous face," a god of war or hunting. "... is [the dagger maker] attempting to create 'beauty?' Indeed not. The word probably means nothing to him. What he wants is to conjure the elemental power whose cosmic function is to kill, to force this power to incarnate into his sword; why?... so that the sword may kill better." There is power, built of abstractions, that needs to be willed by humans to make it real. This fits perfectly with the Greek sense of magic, since the dagger maker is a learned man, making a practical art from his knowledge, bringing it into the world to do physical, actual work.

Rudhyar argues that the loss of the sense of magic turns Western art into impractical, needless prettiness (earlier, he stated that Western art is better at building ornate frames than it is at building paintings to go in them). He would rather art be filled with this power, spirit-power, created by individuals and for all who would join in with the artist to sustain power and gestures of meaningfulness. Of course, if we are capable of such powerful acts, we are responsible for using it in an ethical manner, to benefit civilization (the entirety of humanity) by releasing them from the limits placed on their social relations. Such a world starts with pluralism, the full acceptance of individual difference (dissonance, harmony), and not sameness (consonance, the womb).

The difference between this view of the world and Adorno's is fundamentally tied to their respective differences in the theory of history. Where Rudhyar would say that the spirit-power of individuals to transform the world is always possible (but often defeated by reactionary ideas), Adorno's negative dialectics show that not all historical ideas can form a synthesis with each other, and hence, progress and development can stop. He creates the negative dialectic of secularization in the opening essay of Aesthetic Theory (1961--1969 [1997]), "Art, Society, Aesthetics."

"The basic levels of experience that motivate art are related to those of the objective world from which they recoil... The act of repulsion must be constantly renewed."(AT, 6) The way Adorno sees art's role in society is a reflection of what is not in the world. It is then, the individual who creates their own world, with bits of the world (material: bricks, scores, frames). This means that art strives for autonomy from the entire world, repudiating the world as it exists for a world its own. In this, the realm of the sacred was an historical fact, and art sought freedom from the sacred by employing the profane. The synthesis of the profane with art allowed it to find new types of autonomy, clean of the lies of religious metaphysics. Adorno would be referencing, here, Beethoven and Schoenberg, more than anyone else.

Beethoven's profanity was his autonomy from the church, throughout his career, whereas Mozart only gained that autonomy in the latter third of his life. Without needing to serve a metaphysical lie, Beethoven's life was the repudiation of the economic and social world (freelancing fairly unsuccessfully), and so, his music was also the repudiation of the contemporary bondage of form. (See Rose Rosengard Subotnik, "Adorno's Diagnosis of Beethoven's Late Style.") Schoenberg, on the other hand, was repudiating the world of tonality, the bourgeois common sense of music, and creating its antithesis. By doing so, Schoenberg, for Adorno, was able to create a secularization of music itself, not against the sacredness of a religious metaphysic, but against music's accepted ruling language of consonance and dissonance in moderation.

"[The] realm of the sacred is objectified, effectively staked off, because its own element of untruth at once awaits secularization and through conjuration wards off the secular."(AT, 6) This, to bring back Rudhyar's Indonesian dagger, is the process of looking at the handle as if it was beautiful, that the handicraft of the maker was somehow valuable, regardless that the subject that adorns it never existed. In this way, the objects of the world, for Adorno, lose their power because they are no longer true or universal. I doubt that Rudhyar would disagree; Adorno's social criticism often lacks his own position, to a perilous extent, and it makes it hard to figure out what he is looking for in this process. Besides, Adorno had already tenured his "Resignation" in The Culture Industry, saying that there is no positive action that seems to matter in the field modern social thought.

In Adorno's "Theories on the Origin of Art," (AT, 331) the dialectic of enlightenment is brought in as his overarching historical force:

... strict positivism crosses over into the feeblemindedness of the artistically insensible, the successfully castrated. The narrowminded wisdom that sorts out feeling from knowing and rubs its hands together when it finds the two balanced is--as trivialities sometimes are--the caricature of a situation that over the centuries of the division of labor has inscribed this division in subjectivity. Yet feeling and understanding are not absolutely different in the human disposition and remain dependent even in their dividedness. The forms of reaction that are subsumed under the concept of feeling become futile enclaves of sentimentality as soon as they seal themselves off from their relation to thought and turn a blind eye toward truth; thought, however, approaches tautology when it drinks from the sublimation of the mimetic comportment.
Thus, we can see Adorno conflicted about the dialectical nature of enlightenment, which sought to free the West from religious lies and supplant it with empirical harshness, because it may have ripped away the possibility of feeling and emotion along with it. In this sense, the conception of music losing its magical process, having been secularized into l'art pour l'art, possibly cut itself off from a considerable amount of feeling itself, and ironically, perfected itself in a scientific manner. The irony here, is supplied by Adorno's interest in Hegel's "end of art," that art may have only been possible at a particular moment in history. Great art, says Adorno, was a feature of a secular society, because it was able to detach from the lies.

Again, the difference between Adorno and Rudhyar comes to a historiographical difference: where Adorno believes that art freed itself from lies and developed itself as a great form during this period, Rudhyar sees music and art as the Prodigal Son, who has wandered away and felt the harshness of the world, and would presumably be better off reunited with his source of power. I think a shorthand for explaining the differences of the two philosophers can be given by how seriously they take Niezsche's Madman, which I will reproduce below for those who have not read it in full. Rudhyar is interested in reestablishing what made us spiritual, but doing it now, on our terms, without an unobservable metaphysic controlling us. Since we are in control of the character of our society, if we were all to act in a universal manner, one which promotes difference and cooperation, society would change. It is now only a "seed-idea," one that needs to develop to its fullest possibilities, one that art could channel into action in the world.

Adorno's focus is more detailed and directed to what he calls the "dual character" of art, that its only options in modern life are to either be a commodity or cultural authority:
For a society in which art no longer has a place and which is pathological in all its reactions to it, art fragments on one hand into a reified, hardened cultural possession and on the other into a source of pleasure that the customer pockets and that for the most part has little to do with the object itself.
In this sense, the work of society, its irrational relations and structure, make art ineffective as a transmission of power. Because of this ineffectiveness, the superstructure and base both need to change to enable art to have a revolutionary character, one that has been stifled by the negative dialectics offered by the enlightenment. That is to say, under the current conditions, the ideas of the ruling class are too difficult to defeat. Rudhyar's point would be that there just has not been enough power invested in defeating them.

So, I suppose, if I must create an answer here, I must say that the two of these philosophers (whose viewpoints are companionate, that is, work dialogically and never break the ability for their ideas to be discussed together) assume that the time for good ideas is just historically not now. With more and more force to secularize and lose individual power in art, Rudhyar placed his thoughts in the world to reinvigorate "the new man" (a direct resynthesis of Nietzsche's ubermench), of whom there are few. Adorno worked to make better terms of social analysis in the popular consciousness, of which, a few have stuck; ultimately, the forces of the ruling class are not seeming shaky, and we have changed little in the past 150 years.

Is music magic? The problem is that people want it to be, for the wrong reasons. There are still pedagogs in the academy that believe and transmit this to their students, so that they can perpetuate a sense of doubt, one that is usually conflated with pluralism. The reason for this doubt is to keep people from committing to music, or justice, or revolution, or anything. When people are not committed to their ideals, they are easily controlled by others. Those others are sometimes Lacan's Big Other, sometimes "bourgeois stinking life" (as Rick Roderick called it), or worse, they are individual authoritarians basking in their dualities.

Epilogue, Nietzsche's Parable of the Madman:

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: "I seek God! I seek God!"---As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?---Thus they yelled and laughed
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him---you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
"How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us---for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto."
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. "I have come too early," he said then; "my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars---and yet they have done it themselves.
It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: "What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?"
Source: Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82.]