When Does Structure Become Obscene?

(This in an excerpt. Find the full article in the publication Chronicles of Work)

Music may, undoubtedly, awaken feelings of great joy or intense sorrow; but might not the same or a still greater effect be produced by the news that we have won the first prize in the lottery, or by the dangerous illness of a friend? So long as we refuse to include lottery tickets among the symphonies, or medical bulletins among the overtures, we must refrain from treating the emotions as an aesthetic monopoly of music in general or a certain piece of music in particular. Everything depends upon the specific modus operandi by means of which music evokes such feelings. –Eduard Hanslick [1]

I think the oddest response I ever got to my music was […] in Vienna after one of these »Music for Sound Joined Rooms« works. Someone said that they really questioned whether it was such a good thing to have music like this because maybe you wouldn’t need anything else! If you could just live in this experience. And maybe that wasn’t so good socially. –Maryanne Amacher [2]

When Jean-François Lyotard draws a line through nineteenth and twentieth-century musics to state that, »[i]t is not the liberation of sound which seems to me to be [at] stake in Tonkunst, but […] obedience, or rather respect for obedience,« [3] we discern an authentically radicalizing recasting of a particular doctrine of nineteenth-century musical aesthetics at the expense of certain historical elisions. We can only concur with his conclusion, that, »[i]t is at this price, the price of this ascesis, that the Tonkunst can make the walls of Jericho fall, the walls of our body, with their demands accredited by custom, and their haste towards early satisfactions,« [4] by way of certain elaborations that exceed the diminutive, corroborative task Lyotard offers to »those more expert than [him]self« [5] in music. Such corrective addenda to this account of twentieth-century compositional modernity would represent more than simple academic asides or gestures of demystification, and would instead offer means for underlining, specifying, and expanding upon the fragile moment of liberatory anamnesis Lyotard locates in »contemporary« musics. John Cage’s 4’33’ is crucial here, not as the partisan term so rightly cast aside by Lyotard, but as an apogetic moment in a particular trajectory of Tonkunst after which the tacit complicity with a mode of contemplative listening that lingers in Lyotard’s essay is untenable. In reducing, or even sublating, »the formal« to its definitive instance in attention as such (the listening subject as pre-eminent formalism), Cage effects something like a desublimation of the »contemplative« as it functions in the historical discourses of Tonkunst and their echoes in the remnants of twentieth-century musical avant-gardes. Cage’s post–4’33’’ works through approximately 1968 announce composition not only as the composition of composition (structure generating algorithms mapable onto any actions whatsoever), but as the nascent composition of subjectivity. Cage’s Orientalist/gnostic/Californian rediscovery of »the purpose of music« [6] , p.158, or in a later revision, »to sober and quiet the mind/so that It/iS/in aCcord/wIth/what haPpens.« From »Composition in Retrospect,« in X, Hanover 1983, p. 129.) and his occasional forays into its indetermination are a fragile opening toward a reflexive moment in music’s long history as a technology of the self. Regardless, then, of the objectifying tendencies at work in his thinking and in so much of 4’33’’’s reception(that by lending one’s ear to sounds one perpetuates the musical), when Eduard Hanslick’s assertion that »[m]usic has […] no subject in the sense that the subject to be treated is something extraneous to the musical notes« [7] is aligned with the question of the listening subject in Cage, a substantive rupture is revealed, which remains largely undigested to this day. Which is to say, the equivalence or complicity revealed between protostructural, contemplative listening and the denigrated, embodied, and »pathological« form of listening Hanslick ascribes to women, »savages,« and the »vulgar« [8] has more than anecdotal significance. One might understand 4’33’’ in keeping with Sigmund Freud’s 1936 remark to Ludwig Binswanger: »I have always kept to the ground floor and basement of the building. You claim that if one changes viewpoints, one sees also an upper floor in which such distinguished guests as religion, art, and others reside. You are not the only one – most cultural specimens of the Homo natura think so. Therein, you are conservative and I am revolutionary. If I had another professional lifetime ahead of me, I would dare allocate even to those high born individuals a place in my lowly little house.« [9]
In a manner of speaking, our task is indeed to undertake just this – to see what becomes of those »distinguished guests« from the »upper floors« when they reallocated or relocated to Cage’s or Freud’s »lowly little house[s].« The importance of this dissensual displacement is all the more significant when we recognize that the problematic inheritance of nineteenth-century discourses on Tonkunst remains widespread: primarily observable in the decoupling or disarticulation of music and knowledge (with the nominal exception of scientistic cognitive discourses). Under the banner of what Félix Guattari calls the »despotism of the signifier,« [10] one might draw another line between Eduard Hanslick writing, »while sound in speech is but a sign, that is, a means for the purpose of expressing something which is quite distinct from its medium, sound in music is the end, that is, the ultimate and absolute object in view,« [11] the »shimmering of signifiers« [12] in Barthes’s signifiance, and all manner of less elegant but comparable (and far more prevalent) enunciations. The problem has long since been thinking of music and sound in binary relation to language and meaning, whether in Hanslick’s terms or all manner of Saussurian signifier/signified divisions since. Along such axes, the prevalence of music’s mystified promotions to extra-linguistic medium of transcendence par excellence is no wonder. Guattari points to this and beyond when he notes,[…] that the linguists have been over-hasty in assimilating Hjelmslev’s distinction between expression and content with Saussure’s distinction between the signifier and what is signified. In fact, the separation between a-semiotically formed matter and semiotically formed substances, to the extent that it is established independently of the relationship between expression and content, opens the way to a study of semiotics independent of the signifying semiologies – that is to say, semiotics that are, precisely, not based on the bipolarity of the signifier and signified. [13]
A conception of a-signifying semiotics such as that which Guattari adapts from Louis Hjelmslev’s framework (in which both expression and content are constituted by matter, substance, and form) offers us a means to think and describe the functioning of nonlexical entities as properly historically and culturally situated substances. »Scandalous when considered in terms of Saussurean linguistics,« [14] listening to »the written language of reality« offers us a means to understand how »sound itself« is never the transcendent outside projected onto it, is always also a further functional component of inscriptive sociality.
In this distinction, we draw inspiration from a wider «underground current« [15] of materialist philosophy through which it is possible to understand sensory perception outside a purely representational framework. Consider, for example, Gilles Deleuze’s radicalization of British empiricism. Beginning with Hume’s epistemological argument that knowledge is based on sense impressions, Deleuze proposes a theory of subjective emergence irreducible to the linguisticality of experience. [16] Instead, the subject crystallizes in a quantitative field of raw intensities – ideas derived from impressions are not mediated by social conventions or language, but are rather distinguishable from impressions solely by virtue of their »lower intensity.« [17] According to Hume, the «idea of red, which we form in the dark, and that impression, which strikes our eyes in sunshine, differ only in degree, not in nature.« [18] This focus on intensities is only one of a wide range of alternative conceptions of sensory experience beyond a strictly linguistic paradigm that coalesce under the rubric of »materialism,« of which Guattari’s a-signifying semiotics would also be a part. Such materialist frameworks allow us to think music and sound outside the bounds of lexical signification without reverting to notions of the ineffable.

Read more in the publication Chronicles of Work.

  1. Jump Up Eduard Hanslick: The Beautiful in Music, trans. Gustav Cohen, Indianapolis and New York 1957, p. 15.
  2. Jump Up Maryanne Amacher: from a 1988 interview with Jeffrey Bartone, in: unpublished manuscript housed in box M-09-15-09-08 in the Maryanne Amacher Archive, Kingston and New York, p. 17.
  3. Jump Up Jean-François Lyotard: »Obedience,« in: The Inhuman, Stanford 1988, p. 177
  4. Jump Up Ibid., p. 180.
  5. Jump Up Ibid., p. 168.
  6. Jump Up »To sober the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences,« as recounted in his 1954 »45’ for a Speaker,« Silence (Hanover, 1973
  7. Jump Up Hanslick, The Beautiful in Music, p. 118.
  8. Jump Up Listening relegated to »the intense action of our nervous system.« Ibid., p. 87.
  9. Jump Up Freud, author’s translation, in a letter to Ludwig Binswanger, October 8, 1936, as excerpted in: Sigmund Freud: Sein Leben in Bildern und Texten, Frankfurt am Main 1985, p. 217.
  10. Jump Up Félix Guattari, “Toward a Micro-Politics of Desire,” in: Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics, Harmondsmith/New York, 1984, p. 89.
  11. Jump Up Hanslick, The Beautiful in Music, p. 67
  12. Jump Up Roland Barthes, “Listening,” in The Responsibility of Forms, New York 1985, p. 259.
  13. Jump Up Guattari, »The Role of the Signifier in the Institution,« in: Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics, Harmondsmith/New York 1984, p. 74, emphasis in the original.
  14. Jump Up Pier Paolo Pasolini, »The Written Language of Reality,« in: Heretical Empiricism, trans. Ben Lawton and Louise K. Barnett, Bloomington 1988, p. 198.
  15. Jump Up See Louis Althusser, »The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter,« in: Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-87, trans. G.M. Goshgarian, ed. Francois Matheron, London 2006, pp. 163–207.
  16. Jump Up Gilles Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity: An Essay on Hume’s Theory of Human Nature, trans. Constantin V. Boundas, New York 1991.
  17. Jump Up See Manuel DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity New York 2006, p. 48.
  18. Jump Up David Hume, Treatise on Human Nature, London 1969, p. 51; as quoted in: DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society, p. 50.