Reification and the Aesthetics of Music
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Reification and the Aesthetics of Music

Jonathan Lewis

  1. 186 pagine
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Reification and the Aesthetics of Music

Jonathan Lewis

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This innovative study re-evaluates the philosophical significance of aesthetics in the context of contemporary debates on the nature of philosophy. Lewis's main argument is that contemporary conceptions of meaning and truth have been reified, and that aesthetics is able to articulate why this is the case, with important consequences for understanding the horizons and nature of philosophical inquiry. Reification and the Aesthetics of Music challenges the most emphatic and problematic conceptions of meaning and truth in both analytic philosophy and postmodern thought by acknowledging the ontological and logical primacy of our concrete, practice-based experiences with aesthetic phenomena. By engaging with a variety of aesthetic practices, including Beethoven's symphonies and string quartets, Wagner's music dramas, Richard Strauss's Elektra, the twentieth-century avant-garde, Jamaican soundsystem culture, and punk and contemporary noise, this book demonstrates the aesthetic relevance of reification as well as the concept's applicability to contemporary debates within philosophy.

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1 Reifying Aesthetics

In the introduction I briefly discussed the tension that exists between aesthetics and reification. Art defies attempts to characterize it through theoretical contemplation, yet requires articulation in conceptual terms in order to be made comprehensible. The issue is that by explicitly thinking about what kind of object ‘art’ is or what constitutes its characteristics, and thereby attempting to provide a theory for its ontology, meaning and value, what is ignored is the important role concrete aesthetic practices play in everyday life. However, in order to bring aesthetic practices into the inferential sphere of the giving of and asking for reasons, in order that we can discuss and debate interpretations, we need to be able to articulate aesthetic practices in linguistic terms. Indeed, the discussion of aesthetic utterances is vitally important to the illumination of art and artworks in general. Nevertheless, the uncertainty that surrounds the nature of art can, as Richard Bernstein (1983) observes, lead to the search for foundationalist refuge in realism or idealism when it comes to accounting for an artwork’s ontological status and meaning. In the case of music, for example, formalist attitudes are based on the idea that music is purely an object of perception, whose autonomy and untranslatability ensure that if it is a language, it is its own language, incapable of being permeated by thought. Similarly, under the sway of musical autonomy and metaphysical commitments to substantial form and aesthetic properties, certain analytic aestheticians attempt to remove music from all contingencies, turning it into an isolable and independent abstract object. We will encounter both types of musical engagement in this study. Consequently, I will demonstrate how philosophy struggles with the idea of art’s embeddedness in social and cultural practices because, in order to theoretically characterize art and artworks, it must be isolated from the ephemeral, the transitory and the historical. On the other hand, commentators may choose to discuss the material conditions that surround the creation of specific works, focusing on matters such as patronage, publishing, living conditions, social context, cultural norms and political institutions, but with little or no regard for concrete aesthetic practices. Consequently, without reference to manifestations of specifically artistic praxis, it is difficult to distinguish between art and other world-disclosive phenomena such as gestures and images, symbolic forms, language and, indeed, philosophy. The tension between aesthetics and reification demands that we consider the issue of how to discuss works of art in conceptual terms without damaging their irreducibility as artworks. In other words, we need to avoid theoretical attempts to characterize aesthetic practices but still allow our concepts to illuminate aesthetic praxis. The focus of this chapter and of the study in general, will be philosophical engagement with music. Although much of what will be discussed will apply to other forms of art as well as the practice of analytic aesthetics, the specific examples of concrete aesthetic practices will be, primarily, musical examples.
Music is to some degree an object of perception consisting of socially and culturally formative styles and sonic norms without which it would be incomprehensible. However, music is more than its sonic configuration. Music is composed, practiced, performed, received and commented upon, it has changing social functions, it plays a role in political and cultural transformations, it is historically, socially and culturally contingent, it discloses the worlds we live in and is also something we use for entertainment, spiritual, subversive and cathartic purposes. It follows that the frame for this chapter is to explore the consequences of a non-reified engagement with music, that is to say, a post-metaphysical understanding of music according to which we are required to distance ourselves from attempts to account for music’s real or true nature through theories of meaning, ontology and value. The starting point for a non-reified engagement with music is to understand it as an inherently and immediately meaningful part of our everyday practices—as something that matters to us. Music that is understood as embedded in communal practices and that cannot be abstracted away from the specific experiences we have with it can be considered in world-disclosive terms—as a form of meaningful articulation that can be illuminated through and, indeed, cannot be isolated from interpretation, analysis and criticism.

Internal Negativity as a Challenge to Reification

Theodor W. Adorno’s account of reification as identity-thinking, as discussed in the introduction, rests upon the idea that there is a divergence—a non-identity—between our concepts and the reality we subsume beneath them. With metaphysics, which Adorno associated with ‘pure speculation’, with ‘reason asserting itself absolutely’, the unreconciled state of concept and object, which he also referred to as the ‘non-conceptual substance of concepts’, ‘particularity’, ‘heterogeneity’, ‘individuality’ and ‘matter’, is overcome such that objects are reduced to concepts. For Adorno, identity-thinking is vital to the practice of metaphysics, whereby the goal is to disclose truths stripped of all that is ‘ephemeral, transitory and historical’: ‘philosophy thereby obtains its identity only by conjuring away the non-conceptual from the very outset’ (Adorno NS IV.16, 94). In making the acquisition of acultural and ahistorical truths ‘the entire substance of philosophy’, whereby metaphysics is propelled towards what Thomas Nagel calls the ‘view from nowhere’ or what Hilary Putnam refers to as the ‘God’s-eye point of view’, what is denied, even though, as Adorno demonstrated, metaphysical ideas would be empty without them, is the important role our concrete experiences of objects play in coming to understand them. In other words, identity-thinking, of which metaphysics is just one manifestation, is, for Adorno, a form of conceptual imperialism that impoverishes our experience of phenomena because diversity is reduced to unity and homogenous form is misapprehended as content. Thus, in relation to philosophical ‘idealism’, ‘metaphysics’ and ‘materialism’, Adorno claimed that philosophy, ‘by its own medium, by its own approach, blocks the way to what it actually should achieve; namely the possibility of judging matters that are not itself, that are not concepts’ (ibid, 95) Consequently, identity-thinking, which, for Adorno, determines the nature of traditional philosophical method, is considered to be an instrumental form of reason based on the ‘principle of mastery’—‘the mastery of nature, which spreads its influence, which continues in the mastery of men by men and which finds its reflection [Reflexion] in the principle of identity’ (ibid., 21). Ultimately, as a response to ‘idealism’, ‘metaphysics’ and ‘materialism’, Adorno claimed that philosophy must ‘reject the illusion that earlier philosophical enterprises began with: that the power of thought is sufficient to grasp the totality of the real’ (Adorno GS 1, 325).
Adorno’s critique of identity-thinking was, to a certain degree, reprised in Martin Heidegger’s account of the relationship between traditional ontology and ‘present-at-hand objects’, whereby our original and pre-theoretical experiences are retrospectively reinterpreted according to the demands of the philosophical theory one is committed to such that the theory posits unchanging and unaffected existents (Heidegger GA 2, 199). Ultimately, in an attempt to examine reality as it truly is by eliminating all disruptive pre-theoretical distractions and prejudices, reality is ‘distorted’ [Verdrehen], making the present-at-hand object the metaphysical model for everything (Heidegger GA 17, 288). In other words, it is the ‘objectivity of definite objects’ understood as independent and isolable entities that are conceived as the essence of being in metaphysical thought (Heidegger GA 63, 3). On the basis that this ‘manner of human representation’ is ‘metaphysically characterized’, all that can be found in reality is ‘metaphysically constructed’ (Heidegger GA 7, 71). As a result, Heidegger claimed that the theoretical dilution of phenomena is the ‘inadequacy of ontology’ (Heidegger GA 63, 2).
For both Heidegger and Adorno, metaphysics, as a form of disengaged contemplation, sacrifices those original and pre-theoretical aspects of phenomena that are uncovered and analyzed in our everyday concrete experiences. For Adorno, the result is that objects are reduced to concepts, whereas, for Heidegger, inherently and immediately meaningful phenomena are relegated to decontextualized, unchanging entities. In both cases, pure speculation and theoretical contemplation are unable to account for the meaningfulness of particular concrete phenomena. The key methodological point here, which calls into question philosophy’s attempts to demystify art and artworks, is that theories regarding the nature of art can be seen to depend upon the sense made by our concrete experiences with aesthetic practices. Furthermore, as Heidegger made clear, these ways of making sense cannot be encapsulated in a theory that invokes the presence of either metaphysical objects or natural properties without discarding the very substance of that sense.
The reifying impulse of metaphysics led Adorno to suggest that ‘the claim of the identity of being and thinking, which is behind the whole philosophical tradition, has irretrievably fled from what it protests against’—‘philosophy in its highest form hitherto, which was Hegelian philosophy with its search to comprehend the non-identical, if only to comprehend by identifying, this philosophy cannot be saved’ (Adorno NS IV.16, 90). For Adorno, philosophy, ‘when measured against the thesis of the identity of thinking and being, is shaken to the core by the historical experience of their separation’ (ibid., 91). Both Heidegger and Adorno’s respective critiques of metaphysics, of reason alone attempting to comprehend reality by identifying with it, as we shall see, have a direct bearing on how we understand the engagement with aesthetic practices that take place in analytic aesthetics.
Despite Adorno’s critique of identity-thinking, he was not a naïve realist, entertaining ‘the notion of a sphere of objectivity that is independent of thought’ (ibid., 20). Conceptual thinking is needed to bring things we encounter in the world into the inferential sphere, to communicate, to articulate meaning and purpose, to avoid falling into complete incomprehensibility. This relationship between the intelligible realm and experience is, according to Adorno, what is ignored by metaphysical projects based on transcendental ideas. As Albrecht Wellmer suggests, ‘on the one hand he [Adorno] shows that the “fall” of metaphysical ideas is irreversible; on the other he argues that the truth of metaphysics can only be grasped at the moment of its fall’ (Wellmer 1993, 204). For Adorno, the transcendental ideas of metaphysics would be empty if they were not understood from the standpoint of possible experience. But, as he was aware, that is not to say that any of these transcendental ideas were knowable. Indeed, according to Adorno, the transcendent impulse of metaphysics and thought in general is not aimed at a realm beyond the world in which we find ourselves, but rather at an altered state of this world. The issue is that metaphysics is a constellation of both immanence and transcendence, of both non-conceptual and conceptual, which is both necessary and yet inconceivable. It is on the basis of this intricate dialectical relationship between rationality and experience that Adorno attempts to dispel the aporia through a materialistically modified concept of transcendence, one that takes us beyond the realm of purely sensuous experiences. As Axel Honneth suggests, after the ‘fall’ of metaphysics, the object ‘can no longer be intellectually subsumed under a single “scheme” or categorically tailored to a particular standpoint but, rather, when possible, registered in as many of its aspects and qualities as the indispensable “medium of conceptual reflection” allows’ (Honneth 2009, 79). Adorno went on to claim that what he was striving for ‘includes a salvaging of empiricism, albeit in a somewhat tricky, dialectical fashion. That means that cognition always proceeds in principle from bottom to top, and not from top down; it is concerned with leaving things alone and not with a process of deduction’ (Adorno NS IV.16, 122–3). Negative dialectics does not abolish conceptuality or replace it with knowledge of an altogether different sort, nor does it merely reflect on reality, but reflects on the impossibility of having the type of knowledge of things that forms the goal of philosophical theory construction. Rather than accept ‘the identity of concept and thing’ as the ‘vital nerve’ of philosophy, Adorno proposed that philosophy ‘should seek its contents in the unlimited diversity of its objects. It should become fully receptive to them without looking to any system of coordinates or its so-called postulates for backing. It must not use its objects as the mirrors from which it constantly reads its own image and it must not confuse its own reflection with the true object of cognition’ (ibid., 122). If there can be anything like a succinct statement for Adorno’s project, a positive side to his negative dialectics, then it would be something like: ‘the utopia of knowledge would be to open up the non-conceptual with concepts without making it their equal’ (Adorno GS 6, 21). Suffice it to say that he still demanded that we make identifications even if there is a tendency for identifications to fail to capture the qualitative ‘particulars’, ‘individuals’ and ‘heterogeneities’ of our concrete experiences.
According to Adorno, his materialistically modified relationship between the conceptual and the non-conceptual, between the subject and the object, between reason and experience, is articulated through the creation of works of art. Through a composer’s critical engagement with the handed-down musical conventions of history—genres, formal types and tonal schemata—together with the new material that results from such an engagement, ‘expression, objectivized in the work and objective in itself, enters as a subjective impulse; form must be produced subjectively according to the necessities of the object if it is not to have a mechanical relationship to what is formed,’ (Adorno GS 7, 248). It is the subjective mediation of objective stylistic norms that Adorno equated with the ‘thingly’ aspects of works. This ‘thingly’ aspect of artworks, which Adorno also referred to as ‘artificial objectivity’, is necessary if art is to surpass the world of popular culture, to avoid appropriation by finance capitalism and to negate its own status as a thing. As Adorno explains, a ‘completely objective work would congeal into a mere thing’ (ibid., 262). Nevertheless, if a work evaded objectification altogether ‘it would regress to an impotent subjective impulse and flounder in the empirical world’ (ibid.). This is the crux of the matter. For Adorno, artworks can neither be completely objective such that the artist fails to critically engage with the handed-down stylistic conventions and formative norms of history nor can these objective norms and conventions be entirely ignored in favour of a mythical moment of spontaneous and pure subjective creativity.
Adorno demonstrated how the subjective mediation of objective material is perceived in the immanent workings of the artwork. For example, he claimed that the violence of subjectivity in late Beethoven breaks through the roundedness of form for the sake of expression leaving behind splintered conventions. When we listen to the first movement of Beethoven’s Quartet in A minor, Op. 132, for example, we are aware of this fragmentary landscape whereby, as Joseph Kerman observes, ‘contrast is not rationalized but endured; more than any other experience, frustration sets the mood’ (Kerman 1966, 243). Whether it is through the use of abrupt silence (the development section of the first movement of Op. 132), the manipulation of traditional sonata-form structure, the repetition of motifs (‘Muss es sein?’ in Op. 135) or the lack of any extended development such as we find in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, ‘contrast’, as Kerman observes, ‘has been pressed to the brink’ (ibid.). For Adorno, ‘objectivity is the brittle landscape, whereas subjectivity is the light that makes it glow. He [Beethoven] does not bring about their harmonious synthesis’ (Adorno NS I.1, 184). In terms of the music, the goal of the subjective mediation of the objective aesthetic material is to explore new sounds and sound-relationships and to give new content to worn-out conventions–in short, to discover new musical terrain by transcending stylistic and formative norms. However, stylistic and formative norms have not been completely renounced or overcome in late Beethoven; conventions remain although manipulated and criticized through Beethoven’s innovative engagement with them. Thus, in late Beethoven, the creative act whereby the object is mediated through the artist’s manipulation of the formative norms of musical composition still leaves visible the traditional stylistic conventions that have been handed down through history—the use of sonata form, tonal harmony, short sections of motivic development, and so on.
It follows that this dialectical interaction between subjective and objective forces also forms the basis of Adorno’s sociology of music whereby the products of artistic crea...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Cover
  2. Title
  3. Copyright
  4. Dedication
  5. Contents
  6. List of Figures
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. Introduction: Reification, Music and Aesthetics
  9. 1 Reifying Aesthetics
  10. 2 Interpreting Wagner
  11. 3 Beyond Analytic Aesthetics
  12. 4 Musical Analyticity and Postmodern Aesthetics
  13. 5 Reification and Relativism
  14. Conclusion
  15. Index