Eclecticism

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).

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