From Plato on, philosophy has had an uneasy relationship with expressive arts such as narrative, poetry, drama, music, painting, and now film. If philosophy today can learn from science, can it learn from the arts as well– or even instead? If so, what can it learn?
Does expressive art access truths, particularly ethical truths, that cannot be expressed any other way? If it does, what can ethicists and other philosophers say about these truths? If it does not, what differentiates expressive from merely decorative art?
Some philosophers insist with Wittgenstein that “whatever can be said at all can be said clearly”. In that case, are artistic uses of language such as metaphor and imagery just “colour”, as Frege called it – just ways of dressing up thoughts that philosophers, by contrast, should consider in their plainest possible form?
The Radiolab Blog has a fascinating podcast about American Bob Milne. Bob is predominantly known for his piano concerts of Ragtime and Bogie-Woogie music – and was given the moniker of ‘National Treasure’ by the United States Library of Congress. It was at one of these concerts that drew the attention of Penn State neuroscientist Kerstin Bettermann. At his concerts, Bob often carries on conversations, telling stories and jokes, while simultaneously modulating key signatures over the polyrhythmic Ragtime music. In their broadcast, Radiolab discusses with Dr. Bettermann why this is so surprising.
Language use and musical competency often use the same neural resources: the prototypical language areas in the left hemisphere of the brain, and the working memory circuit that keeps information available and rapidly accessible for a short-period of time. Our ability to use language and engage with music should, on most models of the brain, be competing for these neural resources and interfere with one another. Not so with Bob – he appears to be able to tackle both tasks with ease. Further, while most people can approach this kind of competency in multi-tasking, it usually involves many learning trials, a process of sedimenting the learning into what psychologists call procedural memory, which may have its roots in a different brain region, the cerebellum. But Bob can hear a tune just once, and play it back with commentary.
Philosopher and historian of science, Dr. Jay Kennedy – currently a visiting academic in Manchester – has recently put forward the provocative thesis that Plato’s texts are based around a secret cipher; a kind of Platonic Bible Code. Each book of Plato’s major texts, he contends, is structured in such a way as to represent relative musical harmonies according to the ancient Greek scales.
The twelve note musical scale is the foundation of Western music, and is rooted in the mathematical relationships between different soundwave frequencies, their inter-relation, and the effect they have upon the listener. Music theory is based upon the observation that Continue reading “Decoding Plato”
An excellent, detailed introduction to the application of the term “hauntology” to music is at Rouge’s Foam here. The term was coined by Jacques Derrida in Spectres of Marx. It plays on “ontology”; the two terms sounds almost identical in French. He asserts that the spectre of Marx’s ideas will continue to haunt Western consciousness in the same way that the spectre of communism was haunting Western Europe when Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto.
In music it has come to be associated with artists such as Burial, Boards of Canada and the Ghost Box label (see the Rouge’s Foam post for listening). However, its application is much broader than music. Here it is discussed in relation to visual art. As theorist Mark Fisher notes here, hauntology can be seen as a paradigm for the malaise of postmodernism, a static world haunted by the ghosts of the past after Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History. Continue reading “Hauntology”
Steve Goodman’s Sonic Warfare was published in November. Goodman is best known under his alias kode9, which he uses as a producer, DJ and founder of the record label Hyperdub. However, Goodman (unbeknownst probably to many of his fans) has written extensively on philosophical themes, taking his PhD at Warwick where he was also a member of the influential Ccru (see here for an article describing their theoretical position and methods as well as their fraught relationship with University of Warwick authorities).
Sonic Warfare focuses on the use of sound “to modulate affect” – as a weapon in postmodern warfare, as a method of crowd control, or as a way or creating “bad vibes”. Goodman draws heavily on Deleuze and Guattari, Kodwo Eshun and A. N. Whitehead, at the same time offering perceptive critiques of Virilio, Bergson and Marinetti, among others.
Goodman focuses on sound as vibration, and it is this that distinguishes his position. Firstly, it leads him to describe the sonic as amodal, pre-sensory, working at the most fundamental ontological level. Secondly, the sonic is re-imagined as non-anthropocentric, since it is no longer reliant on human audition. Instead, it is a concept that stretches from the vibrations at a quantum level to those at an architectural level in 21st century cities. He offers a radical reimagining of the concept of sound/unsound, casting it as a force that can be deployed to remould and reorder societies, bodies, and the very ontological structure of human beings.
Sorry to make it two in two on Simon Reynolds but something else struck me when writing my previous post. A recent grenade in certain parts of the blogosphere has been his concept of a “hardcore continuum”, the theory of a strand of music stretching from breakbeat hardcore in the early nineties, through jungle and garage to dubstep and grime in the noughties. Reynolds writes in his introduction to his seminal series of articles in The Wire that “it was only in 1999…that I really became conscious that for several years I’d been documenting a continuum of musical culture that emerged out of the British rave scene”. In doing so he makes explicit something that lately seems to have slipped his mind: that it is only after something has happened that we can begin to understand it. This is what Hegel meant when he said that “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk” – we can only understand a particular historical (or social or cultural) moment once it has passed. Continue reading “Owls and Rave Music”