The news that Governor Oglesby would not commute the sentences of Parsons, Spies, Engel, and Fischer was received by the four men with composure. They had long been prepared for the worst. A deputy sheriff who was with Parsons on the night of November 10 reported that he was in good spirits, indeed “very cheerful and hopeful.” Parsons, in a garrulous mood, talked almost incessantly for several hours. He spoke about socialism and anarchism, about Haymarket, about his wife and children. It was not until he reached the last subject that he manifested any regret, and “the more he talked about it, the more sorrowful he became.” He said that Lucy was “a brave woman, a true wife, and a good mother.”
After the lights had been turned out and the prisoners settled down for the night, the silence of death row was broken by Parson’s voice, reciting Whittier’s poem “The Reformer”:
Whether on the gallows high, Or in the battle van, The noblest place for man to die Is where he dies for man.
Later in the night, Parsons broke the silence once again, this time with the melancholy strains of “Annie Laurie” (“And for bonnie Annie Laurie, I’d lay me doon and dee”). In Parson’s clear tenor voice, verse after verse of the Scottish ballad rang through the gloomy corridor, while other inmates listened “as if to the death-song of a dying hero.” Deputy Hawkins suggested that Parsons ought to get some sleep. “How can a fellow go to sleep with the music made by putting up the gallows?” Parsons joked. The sound of sawing and hammering could be heard late into the night as the scaffold was erected in the north corridor. By two o’clock, however, Parsons was sleeping “as soundly as he ever did in his life.”
I’ve noticed that somebody perusing this space might think that all I ever compose are sacred choral pieces. Not true—they’re just all I ever finish anymore. I’m ridiculously deadline-driven, so unless there’s a performance on the calendar, most things just remain lazily hanging about in the notebook. I may not be very religious, but I suppose that makes me at least somewhat millennial.
Anyway, here’s a little introit for the coming stretch of ordinary time. This would work just as well up a whole step or so, but I love the sound of a full choir laying into a low B-flat; I always find the difference between middle C and that B-flat like the difference between lowfat milk and heavy cream. Poetic, no? I’ll regret it the first Sunday I only have six choristers show up.
Living in a consumer-oriented culture, it’s hard to imagine that it hasn’t always been this way, but in fact, that culture only dates from the 19th century. In order to tell this story, it’s useful to review Karl Marx’s labor theory of value. Remember that? It’s the one where Marx analyzed the price of a product as the sum of three factors: constant capital (machines and factories), variable capital (paying people to operate the machines and factories), and surplus value (essentially, the marked-up profit). Now, if you think about the history of management-labor relations, it’s kind of the first two factors fighting over the third. Especially in America, that battlefield initially was dominated by populist sentiment that supported labor; making money off of capital investment was widely viewed as less honorable, fair, all-American—choose your epithet—than making money by actually directly producing a product.
But there was another shift underway. Marx also divided products into three categories: means of production, subsistence goods, and luxury goods. Marx was analyzing data from early in the Industrial Revolution, when the main problem was one of production, of increasing the industrial capacity; Marx saw that economies would be driven by capital investment in the first category, means of production. As more capital went towards means of production, the economy would expand, which would create more surplus value, which would increase the ability of people to consume the other two categories of products. But here’s the thing: the financial virtues of an economy driven by the first category are investment and saving. If more surplus money is going towards factories than the products those factories produce, eventually supply catches up with and surpasses demand—which is exactly what happened in the later 19th century, just as the “labor problem” was coming to a boil. Marx saw it coming:
Thus the production of surplus-value, and with it the individual consumption of the capitalist, may increase, the entire process of reproduction may be in a flourishing condition, and yet a large part of the commodities may have entered into consumption only apparently, while in reality they may still remain unsold in the hands of dealers, may in fact still be lying in the market. Now one stream of commodities follows another, and finally it is discovered that the previous streams had been absorbed only apparently by consumption. The commodity-capitals compete with one another for a place in the market. Late-comers, to sell at all, sell at lower prices. The former streams have not yet been disposed of when payment for them falls due. Their owners must declare their insolvency or sell at any price to meet their obligations. This sale has nothing whatever to do with the actual state of the demand. It only concerns the demand for payment, the pressing necessity of transforming commodities into money. Then a crisis breaks out. (Capital, volume 2)
19th-century capitalists were getting squeezed from two directions; overproduction was eating into the amount of surplus value they could claim, while political sentiment, even pro-business political sentiment, was still based on the assumption that the price of a product reflected the amount of labor put into its production, and the government’s role was to enable investment and improvement in that production. Even before Marx, classical economists tended to think in terms of production. Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, famously contrasted diamonds and water:
The word VALUE, it is to be observed, has two different meanings, and sometimes expresses the utility of some particular object, and sometimes the power of purchasing other goods which the possession of that object conveys. The one may be called ‘value in use’; the other, ‘value in exchange.’ The things which have the greatest value in use have frequently little or no value in exchange; and on the contrary, those which have the greatest value in exchange have frequently little or no value in use. Nothing is more useful than water: but it will purchase scarce any thing; scarce any thing can be had in exchange for it. A diamond, on the contrary, has scarce any value in use; but a very great quantity of other goods may frequently be had in exchange for it.
Smith’s solution to the seeming paradox was that more labor was required to produce a diamond than to produce a drink of water. The labor theory of value, be it Smith’s or Marx’s, was firmly ingrained in the 19th-century mind.
American pro-capitalist economists thus saw a need to get around the labor theory. They did this with an idea called marginal utility: the value of a product reflects the difference in utility that comes with one more or less unit of that product. A gallon of water has less value than a diamond, according to a marginalist, because an increase or decrease in the world’s water supply of a gallon makes far less difference than the increase or decrease of the diamond supply. For products with a more complicated provenance than that, the market is the arbiter of value—irregardless of the amount of labor required to manufacture the product. Products with a low labor-value might have a disproportionately high marginal utility value, and vice versa, based on how useful consumers viewed them to be.
Marginal utility originated in Europe, but American economists jumped on it, and it’s not hard to see why: the theory is entirely dependent on consumers, completely sidestepping the labor theory of value. Here was coherent economic cover for a political solution to overproduction, shifting government attention to stimulating sufficient consumer demand to soak up whatever supply capitalists could produce. What’s more, the focus was firmly on the macroeconomic level, on aggregate, rather than individual behavior. Here’s how the leading American marginalist, economist John Bates Clark, put it:
Exchanges are always made between an individual and society as a whole. In every legitimate bargain the social organism is a party. Under a regime of free competition, whoever sells the thing he has produced, sells it to society. His sign advertises the world to come and buy, and it is the world, not the chance customer, that is the real purchaser. Yet it is equally true that whoever buys the thing he needs, buys it of society. Under free competition the world is seeking to serve us, and we buy what the world, not a chance producer offers.
When market valuations are made, society is primarily the buyer. Goods in individual hands are offered to the social whole, and the estimate of utility made by that purchaser fixes their market value. In the process the social organism is true to its nature as a single being, great and complex, indeed, but united and intelligent. It looks at an article as a man would do, and mentally measures the modification in its own condition which the acquisition of it would occasion, or which the loss of it would occasion, if once possessed. “With the article my condition is thus; without it, thus; the difference measures its effective utility;” such is the mental process by which individual or society makes a valuation. (John Bates Clark, “The Philosophy of Value”, 1881)
The historian James Livingston has provocatively, but I think correctly pointed out how conveniently the marginalist revolution in American economics dovetailed with the need to reorient the country’s economy around consumers in order to alleviate capitalists’ suffering at the hands of overproduction. Now, whether that reorientation was inevitable makes for an interesting though probably inconclusive debate. The point is that, from the beginning, the focus on consumers was as much a cultural shift as an economic one. It involved reshaping society so that acquisition took the place of thrift as a societal virtue.
One of my favorite soapbox tropes (here’s a recent appearance) is the lousy job the free market does at matching up price and value in the arts. You can see how utility factors into this: paintings and sculpture command higher prices because of their possible utility as investments; going to the movies, though equally ephemeral as live performance, has the advantage of reproducibility, which enables the opportunity cost of a ticket to remain low enough to make up for the lack of utility. (I’ll grumble at putting down ten bucks at the multiplex, but I’d have to bust out an old student ID to get into a concert for that money.) And the emphasis on the aggregate ensures that finding aesthetic utility in something other than the lowest common denominator means paying a higher price, which, over time, increases the barrier-to-entry for potential consumers of non-majority tastes.
That’s old news. More intriguing is matching up the shift from production-based culture to consumer-based culture and the coincident decline in the status of composers. Composers are, after all, producers, and the staggering amount of music produced and published in the early 18th century would suggest that demand was not a problem. A great deal of that was due to domestic music-making; once recordings took hold, the need to actually make music at home disappeared. But that’s a matter of utility as well: the pleasure in performing didn’t change, but recordings required less effort, less practice—less labor-time—and convenience comparatively won out. And note the increasing market share of popular music—a largely performer-driven genre—and the corresponding increase in the performer-centric marketing of classical music. Capital moving away from the means of production and towards the product. (If you’re inclined to view performers as the means of production, and the music as the product, feel free to substitute the shift from live performance towards recordings.)
Is this a capital-letter Bad Thing? Well, for me, characterizing it as good or bad isn’t really the point. I mean, I wish the mass media was just packed with avant-garde music, because it would save me a lot of effort and money to hear it, but that’s just my own preference. For now, the world is the way it is. But I think the recognition of the basis for the consumer culture we live in—and a recognition that it’s historically quite new, relatively speaking—casts a lot of the controversies we bat about so much in an interesting light. Take the common charge that atonality scared away the audience for classical music: one could argue that the cultural shift towards consumerism meant that something was going to scare away a lot of the audience for classical music after the 19th century, and atonality just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Livingston quotes Richard Wrightman Fox and T.J. Jackson Lears:
[T]he new professional-managerial corps appeared with a timely dual message. On the one hand they proposed a new managerial efficiency, a new regime of administration by experts for business, government, and other spheres of life. On the other hand, they preached a new morality that subordinated the old goal of transcendence to new ideas of self-fulfillment and immediate gratification. This late nineteenth-century link between individual hedonism and bureaucratic organizations—a link that has been strengthened in the twentieth century—marks the point of departure for American consumer culture. [emphasis added]
If Fox and Sears are right, that would seem to increasingly disadvantage any genre of music as it requires/expects more reflection and/or critical engagement than your most basic pop song—which might explain why Copland, Barber, &c., didn’t counterbalance the supposed serialist hegemony, why minimalism didn’t restore classical music to the status of its pre-Schoenberg glory days, and why people are starting to worry over jazz the way they already worry over classical. Is that a better explanation for recent musical history? A more useful one, perhaps? Maybe, maybe not—and I’m certainly not inclined to think that the social organism is true to its nature as a single being when it comes to historical causes célèbre. But it does introduce a datum into the calculation that I, at least, have not much seen previously.
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please,” Marx wrote, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” That transmission can happen over a rather wide band, and on a lot of different frequencies.
Today’s cautionary tale concerns the Ukranian-Russian composer Vladimir Shainsky, who moved from Russia to California in 2006, and, according to a lawsuit, promptly became the victim of a real-estate swindle.
It all started when an Armenian woman, a stranger, claimed to recognize the composer in a mall in Carmel Valley. She and her husband befriended him, her husband saying he was the son of a KGB vice minister, all to curry favor with Shainskiy to the point that he unwittingly surrendered control of his finances to the husband and a web of associates, his attorneys say.
At the end, Shainskiy, who’d never had a mortgage in his life, was left holding $1.2 million in mortgage debt in late 2007. He faced unaffordable loan payments on not only the condo he’d previously owned outright but also a house in Santaluz, a North County subdivision, sold to him by the man’s son at an inflated price. His bank accounts had been tapped; his mental state was in shambles.
The suit claims that Angelika and George Vartan convinced the octogenarian Shainsky to take out a mortgage on his condominium to finance a down payment on a house being offered by the Vartans’ son, broker Michael Vartani—without disclosing that the house in question was owned by their other son, Michael’s twin brother Andrew. The group allegedly took advantage of Shainsky’s age and poor English, and even went so far as to forge signatures and documents in order to secure the mortgages in Shainsky’s name. The defendants’ attorneys deny all the charges, but a settlement is currently being negotiated, and Shainsky and his wife are now back in their condo.
All this is as good an excuse as any to spotlight one of Shainsky’s best-loved works, his score to the thoroughly awesome 1971 animated film Чебурашка (Cheburashka), directed by Roman Kachanov. The tune sung by Krokodil Gena at the beginning is a certified standard in the former Soviet Union, eliciting a Proustian response among Russophones of a certain generation similar to, say, Schoolhouse Rock songs in the United States.
One of the more common avant-garde music kvetches is the seemingly disparately high public prominence of avant-garde painting compared to music. The usual explanation is temporal—a piece of music forces you to experience it over a given length of time, in a given order, but a painting is experienced on your own time, for as long as you want, lingering over whatever details you choose. (A while back, I speculated on the philosophical genealogy of this argued divide.) Personally? I’ve always found that explanation a bit suspect.
So it’s an ego boost to find out that none other than Charles Baudelaire agrees with me. Kind of, anyways. Baudelaire made his initial splash as an art critic; in a long essay reviewing the Paris Salon of 1846, he rather infamously included a section explaining “Pourquoi la sculpture est ennuyeuse”—why sculpture is boring. Subject matter, mainly: Baudelaire was weary of sterile neo-classicism, an 18th-century holdover. (Baudelaire thus characterizes the sculptor Pradier: “He spends his life fattening ancient torsos, adjusting the coiffures atop their necks to those of kept women.”) But sculpture itself suffers for being more primitive than painting.
La sculpture a plusieurs inconvénients qui sont la conséquence nécessaire de ses moyens. Brutale et positive comme la nature, elle est en même temps vague et insaisissable, parce qu’elle montre trop de faces à la fois. C’est en vain que le sculpteur s’efforce de se mettre à un point de vue unique; le spectateur, qui tourne autour de la figure, peut choisir cent points de vue différents, excepté le bon, et il arrive souvent, ce qui est humiliant pour l’artiste, qu’un hasard de lumière, un effet de lampe, découvrent une beauté qui n’est pas celle à laquelle il avait songé. Un tableau n’est que ce qu’il veut; il n’y a pas moyen de le regarder autrement que dans son jour. La peinture n’a qu’un point de vue; elle est exclusive et despotique: aussi l’expression du peintre est-elle bien plus forte.
Sculpture has numerous disadvantages which necessarily result from its means. Brutal and positive like nature, it is at other times vague and imperceptible, because it shows too many facets at once. It is in vain that the sculptor tries to put forth a unique point of view; the spectator, turning about the figure, might choose a hundred different points of view—all except the right one—and it often happens, which is a humiliation for the artist, that a trick of the light, an effect of the lamp, discovers a beauty not originally intended. A picture is only what it wants to be; there is no other way to regard it except on its own terms. Painting has one viewpoint; it is exclusive and despotic: thus the expression of the painter is that much more forceful.
Baudelaire privileges painting over sculpture because there’s less room for the spectator’s subjectivity to interfere with the artist’s intent.
You might think that Baudelaire’s century-and-a-half remove from the current media landscape might invalidate his priorities, but consider that film, which is even more despotic than painting in Baudelaire’s terms, ended up trumping both music and painting in terms of cultural market share. The progression is towards less room for the spectator to maneuver, not more. My new BFF Walter Benjamin quoted part of the above passage approvingly, commenting, “Baudelaire makes exactly the same point about sculpture from the perspective of painting as is made today about painting from the perspective of film.” And yet the current cultural landscape—fractured into millions of self-serve niches via digital technology—seems to contradict that. What does that spectator really want? To be in control? Or to be controlled? Put it another way: does 21st-century culture privilege an objective viewpoint, or a subjective one?
When I was a kid, ingesting television culture like free Froot Loops, the main framework for thinking about media in general was still that promulgated by Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s, particularly in his books The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media. McLuhan famously divided media—or at least arranged them on a continuum—using categories of “hot” and “cold”; hot media included print, radio, and film, while cool media included the telephone, conversation, and, interestingly, television. Why put television and film into opposite categories? McLuhan’s explanation is that hot media exclude audience participation, while cool media encourage it. Film fills in all the information the spectator needs—correlating with Benjamin’s analysis vs. painting—but television presents a lower-resolution image, one that (unlike the distinct frames of film) is always in flux, lines of electrons continually scanning across the screen. For McLuhan, the increased effort needed to parse the image results in a tactile experience, the use of a greater number of sensory imaginations. (McLuhan pointed to the increased popularity of Westerns as evidence for this, the necessary presence of leather saddles, metal six-guns, horseflesh and dust dovetailing with the medium’s increased tactile engagement.)
Um, okay. As interesting as that idea is, I sometimes wonder if McLuhan isn’t reversing causality a bit, defining values as inherent to the medium that the medium is only reflecting. He would often point to politicians—Kennedy’s successful use of TV, as opposed to Nixon or Goldwater or LBJ, all of whom were, in his analysis, too “hot” for television. From a 1969 Playboy interview:
MCLUHAN: Kennedy was the first TV President because he was the first prominent American politician to ever understand the dynamics and lines of force of the television iconoscope. As I’ve explained, TV is an inherently cool medium, and Kennedy had a compatible coolness and indifference to power, bred of personal wealth, which allowed him to adapt fully to TV. Any political candidate who doesn’t have such cool, low definition qualities, which allow the viewer to fill in the gaps with his own personal identification, simply electrocutes himself on television—as Richard Nixon did in his disastrous debates with Kennedy in the 1960 campaign. Nixon was essentially hot; he presented a high-definition, sharply-defined image and action on the TV screen that contributed to his reputation as a phony—the “Tricky Dicky” syndrome that has dogged his footsteps for years. “Would you buy a used car from this man?” the political cartoon asked—and the answer was no, because he didn’t project the cool aura of disinterest and objectivity that Kennedy emanated so effortlessly and engagingly.
PLAYBOY: Did Nixon take any lessons from you the last time around?
MCLUHAN: He certainly took lessons from somebody, because in the recent election it was Nixon who was cool and Humphrey who was hot. I had noticed the change in Nixon as far back as 1963 when I saw him on The Jack Paar Show. No longer the slick, glib, aggressive Nixon of 1960, he had been toned down, polished, programed and packaged into the new Nixon we saw in 1968: earnest, modest, quietly sincere—in a word, cool. I realized then that if Nixon maintained this mask, he could be elected President, and apparently the American electorate agreed last November.
McLuhan’s analysis is spot-on, but he doesn’t consider, at least here, the possibility that society is driving the media and not the other way around. McLuhan is right to point out that the technology’s ubiquity does have an effect on how we subsequently interact with the world, but the “coolness” of the medium may just be an artful illusion, one that caters to a societal need or wish, one that would have been utilized whatever the medium.
There’s a bit of a linguistic elision here, too. McLuhan himself refers to Kennedy’s “cool aura of disinterest and objectivity,” careful to characterize that as an appearance, not necessarily a fact. But there has grown up around McLuhan’s ideas the sense that cooler media are more objective, that the participatory aspect somehow ensures a greater objectivity. Within the regime of “hot” and “cool” media, subjectivity becomes an assault from without. Baudelaire’s “despotic” viewpoint takes on all the negative aspects of a despot.
Last week, Nico Muhly was comparing molecular gastronomy and minimalist music:
When done right, molecular gastronomy can be unspeakably evocative. There is a drink at WD-50 which consists of tequila, dried thai long chilis, and smoked pear juice, which all sounds too cool for school, until you taste it. I got the tiniest sip down and was immediately reminded of the smell of an censer a friend of my mother had sent me when I was a child: it was a little pueblo house with a couple of poncho-clad figurines standing out front of it; this same friend later wrote a book in which she analyzed gruesome fin-de-siècle crime scene photographs of mutilated bodies in Paris; all of these memories were immediately available to me on first sip.
Minimal composition, for me, should aspire to evoke similarly specific emotions; whereas Romantic music appeals to the Jungian journeys we “all” supposedly can relate to (the home, the woods, the lover, the villain), minimal music, for me, is unspecific in origin but specific and very personal in destination. You take six pitches, and oscillate between them in some sort of pattern, and one person in the audience remembers playing a broken pump organ, and another remembers a childhood spent playing underneath high-tension electric wires.
This is a description of a McLuhanesque “cool” medium par excellence: presenting a surface that seems to need filling in. The idea that Romanticism appeals to universal stories that “we all can relate to” is a refraction through a society favoring ubiquitous, “participatory” media; Baudelaire would insist that the power of Romantic art is that you are irresistibly pulled into the artist’s journey, an absolutely subjective viewpoint. But that’s not to say that Romantic music has to be experienced in Baudelaire’s terms; each generation reinvents the past for its own purposes. Nonetheless, it points up what we perceive today as a contrast: Romantic music presents a “subjective” surface, minimalist music an “objective” one.
But then again, all music is more objective than subjective, especially if you take those terms a bit literally, to match Baudelaire’s analysis: sculpture produces objects, and it’s the “object”-ness of the sculpture that is the immediately perceived surface. Paintings are, of course, objects as well, but the immediately perceived surface of the painting is its subject, be that a figurative or an abstract subject. Music in general tends closer to sculpture than painting in that regard; the listener is left largely free to perceive a piece of music’s status as a sonic object in time to whatever extent they wish, while even the most subjective compositional viewpoint leaves ample room for individual interpretation on the part of the listener. I caught a bit of Strauss’s Don Quixote on the radio yesterday, one of the most programmatically pre-determined works in the repertoire, yet I was still struck by how much imaginative participation is invited from the listener on a moment-to-moment basis—yes, the cello is Don Quixote, but hearing that line, that phrase, what does it mean? What is he feeling at that point of the story? What are we?
Baudelaire’s analysis of painting as what McLuhan would consider a “hot” medium is the exact opposite of the contrast of avant-garde painting with avant-garde music, which sets up painting as the “cool” medium, one in which the spectator retains control over the participatory apprehension of the artistic intent. Yet the experience of music remains so vague as to beg the question of which, in fact, is the more participatory medium. What if avant-garde music seems more forbidding to certain audience members than avant-garde painting because it requires too much participation, if, in McLuhan’s terms, modern music really is too “cool” for school?
One more example, a tangential one. If you’ve watched any of the American coverage of the Olympics this month, you’ve been hit full-blast with NBC’s penchant for human-interest background stories and endless dramaticizing hype. I’m not going to deny that it makes for good TV, but I do find it interesting that television, that supposedly “cool” medium, has taken what originated as an essentially neo-classical event—a spectacle of athletic competition, for which an in-person audience probably doesn’t have very much sense of the competitors as individuals, except in isolated instances—and changed it into a rather Romantic artifact: hundreds of individual dramas of triumph, or redemption, or perseverance, or heartbreak, each of which provides pre-packaged water-cooler conversation fodder. The thing is, NBC presents this highly subjective interpretation of the games—dramatic structures and narratives imposed on the competition—with a highly objective veneer: reporters, interviews, an anchor’s desk, medal counts, scores calculated to a thousandth of a point, times calculated to a thousandth of a second.
It would seem that we want the illusion of objectivity, but not the subsequent responsibility to fashion that objective data into our own subjective viewpoint. We want McLuhan’s “cool” participation and Baudelaire’s despotic force. We want the freedom to interpret, but the authoritarian confidence that we’ll arrive at the “right” interpretation. But those wants are also in response to what society and technology present to us, and on some level, we remain unsatisfied, knowing that what’s presented to us isn’t entirely “true.” Maybe that’s why music, in spite of constantly seeming to finish second to this or that other artistic pursuit, persists with such tenacity.
In light of this month’s excursion into all things Walter Benjamin, it’s worth asking the question: how come seemingly all the serious philosophical thinking about music comes from Europe?
Well, in considering that question, meet Charles Sanders Peirce: middling Harvard student, Confederate sympathizer, scandal-mongering adulterer, destitute ne’er-do’well—and, oh yeah, genius. Peirce co-founded semiotics, coined the term “Pragmatism,” and has, over the past seventy years or so, become recognized as one of the greatest philosophers this country ever produced, even as the majority of his writings remain, amazingly, unpublished.
In 1877-78, Peirce wrote a series of articles for Popular Science Monthly magazine called “Illustrations in the Logic of Science,” in which he laid out much of the foundations of Pragmatist philosophy (Peirce would come to prefer the term “pragmaticism,” to distinguish his own ideas from what he saw as distortions that crept in as the concepts became popularized). Peirce characterizes intellectual activity as a dialectic between doubt and belief, almost in a dissonance-consonance relationship of necessary resolution:
Thus, both doubt and belief have positive effects upon us, though very different ones. Belief does not make us act at once, but puts us into such a condition that we shall behave in some certain way, when the occasion arises. Doubt has not the least effect of this sort, but stimulates us to action until it is destroyed. This reminds us of the irritation of a nerve and the reflex action produced thereby; while for the analogue of belief, in the nervous system, we must look to what are called nervous associations—for example, to that habit of the nerves in consequence of which the smell of a peach will make the mouth water.
(Peirce always disdained philosophical systems or methods that involved starting from blank slates of belief or knowledge, which he regarded as pointless fictions.) So the question is how one gets from doubt to belief. Peirce breaks that down into four categories:
Tenacity. The most basic method: you choose something to believe, and you stick with it, not allowing any doubt or questions to creep in. Peirce illustrates tenacity with most forms of religious or dogmatic belief.
Authority. Top-down prescribed belief. Peirce attributes this primarily to totalitarian governments, maintaining a belief system and eliminating the possibility of doubt via force and intimidation.
Apriority. Peirce regards this as the most pernicious method of getting from doubt to belief, in large part because he sees it as having distorted so much of the Western philosophic tradition. It seems relatively objective: analyze knowledge as a series of logical expansions and inferences from a series of a priori assumptions. But Peirce is skeptical of such assumptions—they are accepted in as much as they seem reasonable, that is, as they seem to conform to rational thought, but Peirce points out that there’s no objective guarantee that what we consider to be rational thought isn’t just an illusion, and possibly a faulty one at that:
This method is far more intellectual and respectable from the point of view of reason than either of the others which we have noticed. But its failure has been the most manifest. It makes of inquiry something similar to the development of taste; but taste, unfortunately, is always more or less a matter of fashion, and accordingly metaphysicians have never come to any fixed agreement, but the pendulum has swung backward and forward between a more material and a more spiritual philosophy, from the earliest times to the latest.
The scientific method. This, then, is Peirce’s favored method: hypothesis and experimentation, making valid philosophical results as easily reproduced as scientific ones.
Now, how would these various ways of bridging the gap between doubt and belief apply to judgments about music? I would guess that most people use some combination of tenacity and apriority: for various reasons (lack of time, lack of interest, ease of availability, what have you) we might decide what they like and stick with it, or else we form musical taste based on what we find appeals to us (a process that corresponds exactly with Peirce’s characterization of the a priori method of reasoning: “The very essence of it is to think as one is inclined to think”). Or maybe, perhaps, we move from one to the other as we go through life. I can’t imagine, in this day and age, musical tastes being controlled by authoritarian methods, except in rather isolated instances.
That leaves Peirce’s scientific method to determine if a given piece of music is true, or whatever the musical equivalent of “truth” is. And therein lies the problem: what, exactly, would that equivalent be? What kind of objective data could one extract from a piece of music to measure its quality or validity? Well, none, really—and that’s why Peirce’s work never really concerned itself with music.
But Peirce’s methods, in the form of pragmatism, ingrained themselves into American philosophy. Not always smoothly—Peirce himself parted ways with his fellow pragmatist William James, largely over the idea that truth was mutable, that is, what is “true” can become not true and even then true again, depending on the situation. And the European analytic tradition remained long skeptical of pragmatism on similar grounds. The seams within the pragmatic tradition itself start to show as later pragmatists took on art. John Dewey took up the subject in 1934 in Art as Experience, in which he attempted to pin down the nature of the individual artwork by analyzing it in the context of the entire process by which it was created. In a way, Dewey is trying to circumvent the need for a priori notions of beauty or expressivity by embedding artistic activity within a social and communicative framework. But as the philosopher Morton White has pointed out, Dewey nevertheless played a little fast and loose with apriority:
In his Logic [: The Theory of Inquiry, 1938] Dewey makes a distinction between what he calls “existential” and “ideational” propositions which resembles that between synthetic and analytic statements. Thus Dewey says:
Propositions… are of two main categories: (1) Existential, referring directly to actual conditions as determined by experimental observation, and (2) ideational or conceptual, consisting of interrelated meanings, which are non-existential in content in direct reference but which are applicable to existence through the operations they represent as possibilities.
I realize, of course, that he follows this with a kind of pragmatic incantation, for he says that “in constituting respectively material and procedural means, the two types of propositions are conjugate, or functionally correspondent. They form the fundamental divisions of labor in inquiry.” But this is an experimentalist’s blessing of a distinction which one does not expect to find Dewey making after he has criticized the “sharp division between knowledge of matters of fact and of relations between ideas.”
Perhaps it is only a coincidence that, in White’s words, Dewey unwittingly “provides wonderfully elaborate quarters for a rationalistic Trojan horse” at nearly the same time he tackles the philosophy of art, but at the very least, it shows why others in the tradition that Peirce jump-started might tread gingerly around the topic of artistic purpose and meaning. (This post doesn’t take the pragmatic tradition much past Dewey, but as varied as the field has become, pragmatic aesthetics have tended to follow Dewey’s lead in concentrating on the social construction of art while demurring any questions of definite meaning or interpretation.)
(As an aside, it’s worth noting that Dewey was, of course, also a pioneering educational reformer, whose ideas did much to shape educational policy in this country throughout the 20th century and beyond. I admit that I don’t know very much about Dewey’s educational philosophy, but I’m intrigued by this analysis by White, in the same book:
[Dewey] also knew that by studying technology in its historical setting, the student can come to understand something about the interplay between scientific advance and social demands, and about the integrity of culture
—which sounds an awful lot like Walter Benjamin.)
It’s one-dimensional to propose the simple causality that philosophies of music are comparatively rare in America because pragmatism took hold. I don’t think pragmatism would have taken hold, after all, if there wasn’t some sort of intellectual need or ferment already idiosyncratically present in the collective stream of American life. In his history of the early pragmatists, The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand suggests that the philosophy was, in part, a turn away from more absolutist 19th-century metaphysics that, to the earliest practitioners’ minds, resulted in the cataclysm of the Civil War. “Pragmatism,” Menand writes, “was designed to make it harder for people to be driven to violence by their beliefs.” (It’s analogous to the often-suggested analysis that atonality was a rejection of aesthetic views that led to World War II.) But there’s a subtle dark side to that: if absolutes sparked the war, technology and mechanization made it the defining event it turned out to be. The acceleration of industrial and financial power in post-1865 America was born in the industrialized killing of the war. (Compare the atomic bombs that woke up Godzilla.) Often to the dismay of figures like James and Dewey, pragmatism seemed to dovetail with the unsentimental Darwinian capitalism that came to define American society and power.
This summer, much satirical hay was made of the fact that, for a time at least, various user-generated Internet polls had The Dark Knight, the new Batman movie—currently the third-highest grossing movie of all time in the U.S.—listed as the greatest film of all-time, period. But the question of whether it’s the highest-grossing movie because it’s the greatest movie, or the greatest movie because it’s the highest-grossing movie, is not a trivial or shallow question in light of the past century-and-a-half of American history. The market, and the mechanisms of the market, are deeply ingrained in American society (and, increasingly, the rest of the world), and that’s reflected in the intersection between the pragmatism and aesthetics. If the philosophy is attempting to undermine subjectivity, what data are left for a “scientific” analysis of art and culture? Before the advent of sophisticated neuropsychology, you only had the market: a numerical reflection of an artistic artifact’s predominance in the community, and, in the absence of any other objective criteria, a stand-in for its value and importance. Even armed with the knowledge that the existence of the market places its own limitations on the possibilities of artistic expression, it’s hard to disassociate decades and decades of the weaving of market effects into everyday perception from our thinking.
Peirce himself occasionally touched on musical themes:
In this process [of moving from doubt to belief] we observe two sorts of elements of consciousness, the distinction between which may best be made clear by means of an illustration. In a piece of music there are the separate notes, and there is the air. A single tone may be prolonged for an hour or a day, and it exists as perfectly in each second of that time as in the whole taken together; so that, as long as it is sounding, it might be present to a sense from which everything in the past was as completely absent as the future itself. But it is different with the air, the performance of which occupies a certain time, during the portions of which only portions of it are played. It consists in an orderliness in the succession of sounds which strike the ear at different times; and to perceive it there must be some continuity of consciousness which makes the events of a lapse of time present to us. We certainly only perceive the air by hearing the separate notes; yet we cannot be said to directly hear it, for we hear only what is present at the instant, and an orderliness of succession cannot exist in an instant. These two sorts of objects, what we are immediately conscious of and what we are mediately conscious of, are found in all consciousness. Some elements (the sensations) are completely present at every instant so long as they last, while others (like thought) are actions having beginning, middle, and end, and consist in a congruence in the succession of sensations which flow through the mind. They cannot be immediately present to us, but must cover some portion of the past or future. Thought is a thread of melody running through the succession of our sensations. (“How To Make Our Ideas Clear,” 1878)
But thinking about music in a Peircean way has been largely in the context of semiotics, not logic, or pragmatism, or “pragmaticism.” Peirce himself would foreshadow European criticisms of Jamesian pragmatism as sacrificing the idea of enduring philosophical truth for more temporal practicalisms. The scientific Peirce ended up espousing a not very small-p pragmatic view of intellectual enquiry. “True science is distinctively the study of useless things,” he wrote. “For the useful things will get studied without the aid of scientific men. To employ these rare minds on such work is like running a steam engine by burning diamonds.”
Mr. and Mrs. Arnold Schoenberg 116 Rockingham Ave. West Los Angeles Calif.
Dear Sir, and Madam,
As per your telephone instructions, I am enclosing bill rendered to Mrs. N. Louise Eberle by Dr. R.M. Emma in the amount of $2100 due to the episode with your dog on Rockingham Ave. on the evening of July 6th—
In addition to this bill we have expended taxi fare of $910 and telephone calls of 30¢ making a total of $3040
Upon receipt of your check we will waive all future claims in reference to this matter.
Resp yours— Nellie Louise Eberle Wray F [?] Eberle 916 No. Harper Ave Hollywood Calif—
Though I have been advised to the contrary, I want to finish this unpleasant affair.
I have been advised not to pay you anything, because there is no relation between a dog jumping (without biting) and you[r] nervous consequences; they are due to your condition.
Besides there is the staement of the delivery boy, that he had closed the gate.
Furthermore I have been advised that I need in no case acknowledge your taxi bill—which is certainely [sic] only your affair.
Furthermore I did even not agree [to] the “three to five” treatments, which you suggested to Mrs. Schoenberg over the telephone. My doctor suggested one or two treatments.
But, as I said, I want to accomplish this affair, though I know that I am not obliged to do it.
Included you find a check of $15.00 (Dollar fifteen). If you do not agree to accept this $15.00 and waive all further claims, you must return it to me. Because endorsing and cashing it means that you agree.
I hope you are well and understand my point of view.
Yours very truly [Arnold Schoenberg]
BONUS EPHEMERA: 1938 home movies of Schoenberg, family (I’m guessing that’s Nuria lugging around the cat), and friends, taken by Serge Hovey, and shared via YouTube by Randol Schoenberg. (The dog is, I think, the Hoveys’—as far as I know, Schoenberg’s dog in the late 30s was an Irish Setter. There’s a scholarly project worth my while: track down Schoenberg’s pets.)
The big news yesterday, of course, was the death of Isaac Hayes over the weekend. I came to Hayes, like every other white kid I knew, through his soundtrack to Shaft, but I think my favorite song of his ended up being “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymystic,”, the nine-and-a-half-minute laid-back epic that’s only the third-longest track on his 1969 solo breakthrough album, Hot Buttered Soul. It’s the sort of song that, when it comes up on shuffle play, all activity ceases, and I just sit around being an Isaac Hayes fan for ten minutes. I once read an appreciation of the song by some well-known DJ (DJ Spooky? One-half of The Chemical Brothers? The internet isn’t helping me out here) who said that he would always spin the song at the end of a long evening, when it didn’t seem like anyone else was listening anymore. That gets at what I always found to be one of Hayes’ most distinguishing features, the way that, even in the most blazing song, he kept that quality of cool intimacy, like he was leaning in to tell you a particularly juicy secret.
Another story, which I missed, was the passing of Louis Teicher, one-half of the piano duo Ferrante & Teicher, who died at the age of 83 earlier this month. I was a Ferrante & Teicher fan because, well, I play the piano—and believe me, nobody ever really got a pair of grands to sound quite like they did. The Juilliard-trained pair met as fellow prodigies, and embraced their mid-career shift to easy-listening stars with enthusiastic equanimity and confidence. They were often compared to Liberace, but to my ear, their aggressively rhythmic playing was more in the Latin-tinged tradition of such 40s stars as Carmen Cavallero. Here they are, early on, tackling a typically bracing arrangement of a song called “Va Va Voom”:
The duo did a fair amount of experimenting with Cage-derived prepared-piano techniques on some space-age lounge records in the 50s—you can hear it on their arrangement of “Fly Me to the Moon.” Ferrante & Teicher never approached Hayes’ level of non-ironic cool, but I’d bet they insinuated their music into the culture far more deeply than anybody ever realized. (Was that F&T’s recording of the “Theme from Exodus” playing behind the floor exercise of a Russian gymnast in Beijing yesterday? Yes, it was.)
Is there any connection between Hayes and Ferrante & Teicher? Well, they both played the piano (check out that solo on “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymystic”), and they both loved to do covers. And Hayes could drop a pretty lush and syrupy F&T-esque string arrangement when the situation called for it. Beyond that, not much, I suppose. Still, consider this: Hayes’ cover of “Walk On By” hit #30 on the pop charts in August of 1969; three months later, Ferrante & Teicher’s cover of the theme from “Midnight Cowboy” hit #10 on the same chart. Think that would happen today? Me neither.