On Pärt: the mirror of subjectivity

1. We lose the most important structural insights of intentionality when we approach the objects of experience only under the model of vision and the individuating effects of perspective and distance. In seeing, only the smallest, imperceptible lag—which is known to us only in phenomenological reflection*—separates the continuous synthesis of noemata from the unifying apperception of the one who perceives. The subjective illusion consists in the inversion of simultaneity and difference: the apparent simultaneity of the subject with its noetic activity compels us to affirm a difference between subject and object where in fact that (real) difference is in the subjective. What remains is to demolish the proscenium of the Cartesian theatre fully to understand that the location of consciousness is between subject and object.

*This illusory simultaneity that passes us unnoticed, like seeing our reflection in a mirror, also accounts for why, on the one hand, in the natural attitude we are all solipsists (I insist that the world appears to me and that, should the world be dissolved, I alone might remain) and also why, on the other, the mirror stage can only result in an imaginary act of identification.

Listening, on the other hand, affords the possibility of an experience of pure presence (without, like the sublime object, placing presence into question).

“To be listening is to be at the same time outside and inside, to be open from without and from within, hence from one to the other and from one in the other. Listening thus forms the perceptible singularity that bears in the most ostensive way the perceptible or sensitive (aisthetic) condition as such: the sharing of an inside/outside, division and participation, de-connection and contagion. ‘Here, time becomes space,’ is sung is Wagner’s Parsifal.” (Nancy)

Instead of the distance between the object there and the subject here there is only the pure presence of and as space itself (whereas distance is the measure of space). Listening abolishes not only the difference between subject and object but also the difference between presence and the thing (and therefore presence to …).**

**What Ingarden’s phenomenology ultimately refused to acknowledge—and thus the source of its fundamental tensions—is simply that there is no musical object. To use Benson’s terms, there is only a musical ergon within its energia.

2. What Pärt accomplishes in the tintinnabular technique of Spiegel im Spiegel is to cast in sound what Hegel had said of Romantic poetry where “spirit is pushed back into itself out of its reconciliation in the corporeal into a reconciliation of itself within itself … beauty becomes the spiritual beauty of the absolute inner life as inherently infinite spiritual subjectivity”. Pärt renders the inner life of subjectivity exposed to itself only in being reflected by an experience of bare harmony with little to no melodic interest. The triad is like a prism that divides the unity of the fundamental tone but it is the prism itself that “could be the spirit of the listener”. The subject only finds itself reflected infinitely between the notes of the triad and the accumulation of overtones in a sort of feedback loop where, as we know, even the most minimal differences create infinitely complex phenomena.

3. Spiegel im Spiegel stands in dialectical tension with the dissolution of subjectivity in Beethoven’s symphonies (see especially the third and fourth movements of the fifth and the second movement of the seventh). If Pärt exposes pure subjectivity, in Beethoven subjectivity and subjective intentions are subsumed by the perfection of form. In Pärt there is only the listener; in Beethoven the listener is merely accessory, like the gaudy ornaments for which an austere sensibility has no use. Beethoven’s symphonies are totalities to which the listener has no choice but to submit in unity. The great temptation of the symphonies is precisely this promise of redemption in the completed whole where nothing remains to be done. Between the tyrannical externality of form and its inversion into the infinite self-reflection of subjectivity, it is the world that must be called into question. Perhaps the resolution of this tension, then, lies somewhere between Mahler and Boulez.

A question about method (Reflections while reading The Modernist Papers)

1. Either: form. The oldest (western) tradition in speaking of form holds that it is either the principle or product of determination. “Indeterminate form” or “formlessness” (i.e., matter) already contains a (teleological) reference to form. The genius (genie, demiruge, creator, poet) is the one who imposes form (Plato, gnosticism, Genesis, etc). In the romantic version of this thesis (up to and including Hegel), this means the sensuous unity of form and content in the aesthetic consciousness (whether this unity is prior to the work or not is irrelevant). Alternatively, the baroque and classical ideals of form were constitutive of art, and art is nothing other than a thus “purely intentional object”. None of this prevents us from speaking of a “natural history” or “social production” of form, for these kinds of notions are predicated on an idea of form either as morphe or eidos, which ultimately manifests in a geometric conception of lines (whether in painting, music, dance, and so on) and their morphology (the line is thus conceived as a limit—viz., it is not included in the content that it makes possible). Boulez helpfully reminds us that, conceived thus, it is more proper to speak of form as the structuring of local structures (i.e., content). One sees this in nature in, e.g., biological rhythms, equilibria in dissipative structures, fractal geometry, etc.

2. Or: per-form. It is a convenient accident of our language that we cannot use “perform” as a noun (instead we must say “performance”). All form is per-form; all form is performed (mutual implication of work and nature, work and subject, subject and nature). This may be equivalent to what Deleuze calls “consistency”.

3. Method. The creation of new forms (e.g., serialism), then, is co-extensive and simultaneous with the variations in their matter to which these new forms give rise (something like a “hermeneutic circle” of form or the “circle of the origin”). Modernism is not, for example, the attempt to give expression to “new ways of being-in-the-world hitherto inconceivable in human experience”. The “crisis of representation” in modernity (Simmel, Adorno, Jameson) is more than either an abstract formalism (according to which all content is flattened or reduced into the bidimensionality of the plane) or a Hegelian materialism (according to which the crisis in form results from the disaffection and dislocation of the subject in the world such that either artistic form becomes the enslavement of the subject to instrumental totality or the highest expression of an individuality stripped to its barest contingency—the nothingness at the heart of its being that is the essence of human freedom [Sartre]). The crisis of representation is the reflective moment in art where form folds back onto itself toward the form of the form (the limit case in Plato, for example), even if the form of the form is itself the product of reflection.

Yet it was not only Lyotard who thus wondered how we can say that there is anything called “post-modernism” if constitutive of modernism itself is the “rewriting” of modernity. This is not, primarily, a historical question but a methodological one: how is it that the content of the form is “dialectically presupposed” in the form of the content (ideology)? Jameson gives the name of “Utopia” to precisely this dialectical movement according to which form and content refuse to be identified with each other into either a purely abstract formalism or the totality of self-referential content (both of which are equivalent to communism in political terms). But it seems that the persistence of the Absolute in this case consists in its consistent absence, deferral, or subtraction (which is not to say a negation). Does this not point the way to the futurity of per-form(ance) instead of the presence of form? The question is: what is the temporality of form? Is the choice always that between dialectics and history on the one hand and anarchy and ana-chrony on the other?

Presence Silence Event (8 SEPT 2005)

The painter Newman says that his paintings “make the viewer present”. So too Deleuze tries to theorize a kind of cinema that makes the viewer constitute itself as a subject actively without merely being “given” in the sequence of images.

Part of my problem with composing music—and why I do so little of it—is that music faces a similar problem. The music of people like Berg and Stravinsky make the listener pay attention, certainly, but it has been noted that it’s difficult to listen to modern music without having a theory about it (Schoenberg had to write a lot of treatises about music while he was composing). Adorno thought that was this was great thing because music then would not pacify consciousness but jar it into the recognition that everything else does. Unfortunately we’re all familiar with the aporias into which Adorno and modernism were led.

Perhaps with music what is needed is not to make the listener present, but to make the listener disappear. Tibetan singing bowls do this; Boulez in a different way, I think, is on the right track.