Well, there’s your problem

Part of this week’s to-do list is some clearing of the briar-patch that is chapters 2 and 3 of the book, which gets into the heavyweights of German philosophy—Kant and Hegel. One of the habits I developed while poking around Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment European thought on this trek was that of looking at the course of 19th-century Western philosophy as successive claims on intellectual real estate, a kind of dance between incomplete zoning and squatting. The Romantics set up shop where Kant’s aesthetics ran out of steam, Marx colonized the materialistic no-man’s-land that Hegel tried to jump over with a leap of faith, &c. Nietzsche pretty much made an entire career out of going back and opening up all the boxes that previous philosophies had left discreetly closed. It explains his brio—the process is, in itself, kind of exhilarating.

Now, almost all of these revisionist vacuum-fillings had a musical parallel—the Romaniticization of Beethoven, the Schopenhauerization of Wagner, and so forth. In fact, I think there’s an interesting case to be made for music as the canary in the philosophical coal mine. Music—and the way we talk about music—has a kind of tendency, in this interpretation, to coalesce around the weak point(s) of whatever philosophical movement is currently taken for granted. At the very least, it’s a provocative source of leverage, kind of like Feuerbach’s old trick of reversing the subject and the object in Hegel—it doesn’t reveal the truth, but it gives you a hint where to look. Probably the last thinker to really effectively work the lever was Adorno, using the increasing commodification of music to unpack the ways in which the free market is a lot less free than we might like to think.

I got to thinking about this again because, just for fun, I was reading some of Adorno’s student, Jürgen Habermas. (It is recognized that I have a funny sense of fun.) The fun of Habermas, for me, is that he embodies certain traits of the Frankfurt School in a kind of amplified, straight-to-the gut pop-music-ish way. The first is analysis; where the first generation of the Frankfurt School took aim at contemporary society, Habermas takes apart the whole of philosophical history. The book I picked up this week, Knowledge and Human Interests, bounces through Idealism, Positivism, Pragmatism, even a bit of psychoanalysis with the confidence of a chef walking through a market—that won’t work, that’s tasty, but then we’ll need this, but make sure it’s not that, and, oh yes, that can be lovely if you know what to do with it.

And then Habermas takes all his ingredients and comes up with something way more optimistic than I, at least, would be able to justify. This too is an amplification: the Frankfurt School was always more optimistic than their dour reputation might have indicated—they were Marxists, after all, so there was at least a lingering whiff of Utopia. But Adorno’s optimism, for example, was tempered by his suspicion of human nature, especially collectively; he believed that a better society was possible once one clearly saw the current society’s structure and mechanisms, but that was balanced by his pessimistic assessment of the political and corporate forces standing in the way of that vision. Habermas, though, with his program of “communicative rationality,” puts an awful lot of faith in the desire of human beings to interact with the common goal of logical understanding. Instead of searching for truth through self-reflection of phenomenological perception, Habermas thinks that it is in the very nature of communicative action that truth can be found, that our ways of communicating with each other will reveal universals. The mechanisms of civil society—for that is where we interact and communicate—at some level reach a consensus. Here’s how he puts it in his book Communication and the Evolution of Society:

In action oriented to reaching understanding, validity claims are ‘always already’ implicitly raised. These universal claims (to the comprehensibility of the symbolic expression, the truth of the propositional content, the truthfulness of the intentional expression, and the rightness of the speech act with respect to existing norms and values) are set in the general structures of possible communication. In these validity claims communication theory can locate a gentle, but obstinate, a never silent although seldom redeemed claim to reason, a claim that must be recognised de facto whenever and wherever there is to be consensual action.

Habermas is judiciously qualified in his description, but the key here is that first assumption—that civil society consists of “action oriented to reaching understanding”. If you find that a little too optimistic, then you’ve recapitulated the main criticism of communicative rationality—that, if history is any guide, the mechanisms of civil society are pretty easily turned towards creating and reinforcing power irregardless of justice or rationality.

Here’s the really fun thing. Given the question of which era or aspect of music might be, as is its wont, hanging around the weak points of communicative rationality, a plausible answer is: all of it. Music is, essentially, communicative irrationality, an art form that goes through all the public motions of civil discourse without saying anything. Or, rather, saying whatever each individual listener needs it to say—which is the equilibrium civil society always reverts to in the absence of exceptional coercion, positive or negative. In philosophical terms, you can almost imagine music hovering behind any utopian speculation, aping its movements, making goofy faces.

The Boston Globe has, in the past year, taken to running e-mail addresses for its reviewers, which means that there’s rarely a notice of mine that passes without a dissenting note, and rarely a dissenting note that doesn’t rehearse some variation on the phrase “I wonder if you went to the same concert that I did.” A venerable sarcasm; but, then again, there are numerous levels—epistemological, phenomenological, communicative—on which we actually didn’t go to the same concert. It’s why, like so many previous philosophies, music structurally demurs on communicative rationality. Utopias only work in music because we can each pick the utopia that best matches our nature. When it comes to civil society, you’re lucky if you can just get everyone to tune up.

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