Some notes on the line

Can anything be retained from Formalism? Art is not thinking in “images”, Shklovsky says (“image”, of course, in the usual sense of “picture” or “representation”). The rhythms of a work of art form not a special but a general economy of sensation according to which the sedimented history of significations (including that which comprises the movements of our very bodies in the viscera) that inform our experience are exploded. “Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony”, Shklovsky proclaims. But this is not simply ‘die Sache selbst’, for it is not the stone that is stony. Neither, however, is this simply the taking of an “aesthetic attitude”. The general economy of the artwork cares neither for the art object nor for our emotions. The rhythms bi-, di-, and intersected in a work of art open onto a new time that is neither constituted by the subject nor contained in the formalism of the text itself. The success of a work of art here is not the coherence of the “image” it presents (its narrative, its portrait or representation, its theme, etc). The work (of a work) of art is, in a word, a genesis (a unique affect, perhaps an “evental” affect).

One need not travel too late in the twentieth century to see these moments at work in music. Among the masters of the line in this later period are the later Corigliano and Dutilleux. But one can also hear similar moments—although rarely—in Rachmaninoff (in some of the preludes and a few measures in the sonatas), in Godowsky (particularly the left-hand study on Chopin’s 10/6 (No. 13) and, in the same spirit, Hamelin’s “triple etude”, although these moments occur precisely because of the co-presence of their companion pieces), and in Medtner at his best. In this last case, see, e.g., the ingenious closing three bars of the Gm sonata where we have come full circle, yet the origin had been displaced from the very beginning. We enter on the fifth, yet it is precisely that interval that is displaced not only by the immediate statement of the main theme but also in the line in which it is developed, ending in those final three chords wherein there is inversion without variation. Repetition: but infinitely productive within the interval that, ostensibly, is the most perfect. Yet as Medtner reminds us in these final bars, the system of temperament only disguises the Pythagorean Comma: the productivity of a system is nothing but the exploitation of this opening.

Some more orientations

5. Instead of ambiguity and difference, philosophy needs to come to terms with tension (roughly equivalent to what Deleuze calls “tendency”) and singularity: not exactly the tension of the ancient Greeks (that which simultaneously pulls apart and holds together [Heraclitus’ bow]) but the generalization of error, which is manifested in at-tension (Hanslick, Bergson, and Kerszberg) to the temporality of (in-tentional) objects.

6. Modernity exhibits a pathological fear of the future–hence the wild success of game theory. What philosophy needs is the ability to articulate a new futurity, what Bergson calls “novelty” and Badiou calls the “event”.

Images V

Philosophy and art have this homology: they do not exist “for” anything. The creation of philosophy (insofar as in philosophy we inhabit a new image of thought) and art are creations of new existences, new futures. There is no teleology of philosophy: the image is what Arendt called a “miracle” or what others are calling “events”. What art makes possible, what it inspires, and what it causes are all irrelevant to the artist or the philosopher: this is the “intentional fallacy”.

Really to renounce teleology, however, requires a rigorous conception of “creation” (Bergson, Deleuze, Badiou).

Another ideology of philosophy

In the early 1980s, Nozick presented a speculative talk at Trinity College on why intellectuals tend to oppose capitalism. Without making any sociological claims, Nozick proposed that it was specifically the character of formal schooling (particularly that phenomenon according to which we say that graduates go “into the real world” insofar as their academic existence is precisely not “real”) that fosters an “anti-capitalist animus” in intellectuals who find that the rate of exchange for their currency is lamentably poor in the “real world”.

We can extend and refine this particular insight to philosophy not in its opposition to capitalism—which, of course, is also prevalent among many philosophers (Continental, at least)—but to certain features of its practice as an institution.*

*By “institution” I mean what Max Fisch meant in his 1956 presidential address to the western division of the APA. This text deserves much more attention than it has ever received, particularly insofar as he proposes a conception of philosophy as the critic of institutions. Approximately, an “institution” for Fisch is any structure that conditions some determinate (or conscious) activity.

I’ve met not a few psychologists who began study in their discipline not only to help others but also to help themselves. The same is true for philosophy. Can we not question whether philosophy begins in “wonder”? True, Plato and Aristotle both said this, but Plato also wondered whether there might not be a more original trauma at the heart of philosophy. Heidegger says you don’t theorize about the hammer until it breaks. When this happens you are forced to stop, and this interruption is a sort of wonder—what is happening? So too there is an aporia that compels Socrates to philosophize and there is a trauma that gives birth to philosophy in Plato (i.e., the execution of Socrates). In all these cases, the moment of wonder, of perplexity, is a moment of violent disbelief, perhaps even anger (I was, after all, trying to hammer something when the hammer breaks). I am forced to stop before I can go on.

Two more examples: (1) Marx had said that philosophy up to Hegel had made knowledge about the world actual. But this knowledge was insufficient insofar as the world it revealed was intolerable. Thus, the real task of philosophy was to change the world. (2) In the “sublime” world of global capital, what other experience is possible for the individual aside from the question “is it happening” (both Simmel and Gauguin would agree and the latter, like Lyotard, will not use a question mark).

For whatever reason, if it is the case that philosophy has a traumatic origin, then there would seem to be two possible responses. The first is extraordinarily pervasive: philosophy is therapy. Hadot, Nehamas, and Nussbaum are among the most vocal proponents of this view, which unfortunately requires more space than time currently permits. So too I want to assert that this conception is directly related, sometimes even causally so, to the current state of affairs in which, for all that, philosophers are certainly an unhappy lot (Nozick and Rorty are among some notable exceptions; so too, perhaps, even Nehamas), which is not aided (rather, probably exacerbated) by the operation of institutions according to which it is the philosopher’s job (quite literally in many cases) to be “against” something, to show why so-and-so has a stupid reading of so-and-so, to write something disagreeing with everyone else so to have somebody care about one’s work (whether the powers that be that grant tenure or the very colleagues that one at the same time demonstrates to be unequal to the task of so caring).

Alternative response: the point is not refutation. The point is to listen to a philosopher—“you must allow the philosopher to speak to you”, Deleuze once told his students. Better: the philosopher speaks in preludes and refrains. The philosopher engages in what Deleuze has called the creation of concepts or what I have suggested is the creation of images. Although Bachelard has done much to indicate the possibility of such a poetics, insofar as I am committed to the creativity of thought I remain a faithful Bergsonian.


One of the bourgeois virtues of a global, cosmopolitan liberal democracy is “tolerance”. Entire university departments have been created directly from this ideology under the name of “cultural studies”. It is not apparent, however, that either this particular division of critical theory or popular opinion has yet learned the lesson that our contemporaries in feminism, queer theory, or race theory have learned, which is that the proper response to the idealization of culture (the “affirmative character of culture”) is not to level any distinctions whatever (viz. what Seabrook calls “nobrow” culture).

It is a common critique of “tolerance” that too easily it devolves into a vapid relativism that has difficulties dealing with problems of “radical evil”. At bottom, however, what this critique illustrates is the distinction between a merely “open” (“democratic”) mind–which is as closed as the fascist mind, except less overtly so (which is naïve at best and deluded at worst)–and an active mind.

We need not look to juridical discourses for examples of the former: they are found in the most mundane of situations, including in a phrase uttered at least once in any cocktail or courtship conversation: “I like all kinds of music”.

The existence of this sentence is proof positive that the compositional theory of language is either blatantly wrong or manifestly correct. Analyzing the components of this sentence results in something at least akin to nonsense while, ipso facto, the emptiness of each of the components yields a sentence that manages to function in conversation.

“All”. This is not an innocent equivocation. Either this word is to be taken strictly, in which case one does away with judgment altogether, or this word means something like “many”, which is naïve in either an egocentric (the only kinds of music that exist are the ones I’ve heard) or provincial (my local radio station really does play a “variety” of music, or I can find variety among the many radio stations on satellite radio) sense.

“Kinds”. Similarly, either the word “kind” tends to mean something like “because I like Beethoven’s Ninth I am therefore justified in saying I like ‘classical music’” or one then needs criteria for distinguishing between “good” and “bad” classical music.

“Music”. It needs hardly to be said that what counts for music here is either so for romantic reasons or for some reductively materialist reason (I can enjoy the erhu because I can “feel” it).

“Like”. Perhaps the best explanation of this term consists in its use in the sentiment “I don’t like music that needs to be explained to me”.

“I”. This is, of course, the I of preferences, of taste, of feelings. This is the I who has the right to an opinion, who is free to like or dislike the things that subjectively happen to please my individual palate, the I with a “view from nowhere” precisely because it is located in me.

Unfortunately, no further general critiques are possible, so allow two common (related) examples. First—about which little more needs to be added to the standard ideological critique—there is the opinion that I simply like whatever I happen to like. Music is what “speaks to me”, to which I can “identify”, something “with a good beat”, something that is “beautiful” and “speaks to the soul”, something “common to all humanity” such that the attempt to distinguish between Bolet’s and Arrau’s Chopin ruins the ability “just to enjoy” music.

Second, there is the opinion that music is a “universal language”, that the content of music is expressive of “human spirituality” such that there is a common space between any two people in music. So let us take two people and place them in dialogue.

A: “You’re a composer and you’re writing a sonata? Get real. Write something you like. Don’t try to do stuff that has been done a million times before. Write something fun! Go wild! How about flute and drums, or piano and clapping. Something that at least hasn’t been done as much. The great thing about Cage is that he tried something he wanted to do and he was original and new. As a young composer you should look at new music being written onw. Check out Arvo Part [sic], look at eastern composers, look at Astor Piazzolla. Be lyrical and beautiful but be real and yourself. Do not imitate. I am just like you. I like the same stuff you like: Mahler, Bruckner, Prokoviev, Stravinski, Shosatakovich, etc. Rachmaninoff is [sic] a very good sense of melody. Balakirev sort of silly piano mania [sic]. Brahms too tangled up in all studdy [sic] material. If you want to learn something about composition, check out Vivaldi! Don’t pass too much judgment. Study, study, study. The new ism of our age is spirtualism! You are talking to a twenty-first century composer! What we look to express in our sound is GOD and the spirit, sort of back to BACH but in a very different way. Get over form, darling! Form is not about music form is the preoccupation of little minds and critiques [sic]! I am not talking about form! Content defines form not the other way around! CONTENT! Spiritualism is a new perspective to the window of the arts. It allows us to look at everything in a new way. It is much bigger than deconstruction, romanticism, etc. It encompasses so much. It bridges Vivaldi, Bach, and Sacrlati [sic] with Glass, Part [sic], and Prokofiev. That is the art of this age, so learn about it. It is like giant [sic] waking up! It is majestic! It is awesome! The more simple [sic] the closer to GOD, that is what spiritualism is all about, like a crystal, like a snowflake, like a touch, a kiss, a tear. The only requirement is honesty, and see the romantics where [sic] not honest, they were bull shitters! Be honest, create from your heart. When the seventeen year old Chopin composed, he could not lie, but when the thirty-six year old Scriabin was pretending to be a philosopher that he wasn’t, he was waisting [sic] notes! When you grow older, you will learn to love Mozart. Mozart is the Christ of music! Keep writing and don’t mind all I told you. Love a lot, sing a lot, play a lot, cry and laugh a lot. And stop thinking about music. Just listen to your heart!”

B: Boulez, Salonen, or even Pärt—take your pick.

(The text for “A” is actually a transcription of an online “conversation” I had with someone whose name I have since forgotten after he discovered I was a musician. That I was a musician and at the time working on a couple pieces was the only information he had before launching into this text. In this transcription, I have simply omitted my occasional attempts at interlocution between some of these sentences since, apparently, they were unnecessary. The only other bit omitted from this “conversation” was a diatribe after I mentioned Scriabin, who was the only composer I actually named. I have also changed every “u” to “you” and so forth.)

Just what kind of space do A and B have in common?

Or, to take a less pernicious example, what common space is shared by a Broadway singer and a DJ?

Put simply: there is no such thing as “music” except nominally, and then only in a minimal sense. Ingarden was close to realizing this point when he spoke of the ontology of the work of art. There is only the creation of singularities. One can generalize this example: there is no such thing called “Beethoven’s Ninth”. There is only each performance of that work (which would, of course, include that performance in the mind of the composer had the work never been played by an orchestra), which we could call “Beethoven’s Ninth (1)”, “Beethoven’s Ninth (2)”, … , “Beethoven’s Ninth (n)”. But this sequence is divergent—there ‘is’ no “Beethoven’s Ninth”.

The eclectic thus performs not only an ideological act of fetishization and reification but also an ontological reification. It is the eclectic who, in the name of supporting the creation of music, endorses anything that happens to be called “music”—by voting on American Idol, by pirating underground music on the Internet, and so on—while, precisely by so doing, undermining the very possibility for the real creation of music (one can say this either materially or ontologically).