Thursday, February 5, 2009

Back to the Musical Other...

What's at stake in Music Theory? After all, isn't it a harmless set of formal procedures set out to (in Ian Bent-ism) find out how music "works"? Then again, we'd better check the ground for landmines (or shards of mirrors) lest we delve into the depths of musical mystery and gaze deep into the reflection of our own bewilderment. In other words, what we risk is "discovering" traces of a logic that we've epistemologically mapped to discover. The same way any text could be correctly 'Marxist', correctly 'psychoanalytical' or "(fill in your own analytical blanks)", the nugget of gold we've found may turn out to be the child-treasure we burried in our backyard years ago in a frisky game of "Cowboys and Indians". "Hang on!" say the neo-Hermeneuticists (Gadamer and Co.) who insist that any productive academic-textual adventure is necessarily an encounter, more, a dialogue. After all, how can you "see yourself" without the mirror being there in the first place? Perhaps, the trick is to recognize the contingencies of one's own values, and the inevitability of getting tangled up in subject/object ambiguities. What I'm trying to say is that faced with the abysmal musical mystery, that dark unknowable plot of nebulous woods, the heuristic tools we manufacture to navigate "construct" the epistemological Object. Das Ding, as it is, is presupposed in some way via the materials we use to dissect it.

But if the seed of analysis we plant blooms into a plant that was "already ours" in one sense, we forget that the same plant is nourished by the dark earth that enables its blossoming in the first place. But let's twist logic a little more, and consider if the deep abyss of unknowability is precisely a symptom, an inevitable remainder of our cognitive and linguistic procedures. It is precisely these hermeneutic structures which de-mystify and instrumentalize our immediate reality that "digs a mysterious hole" in itself, preparing, as it were, spaces of ineffability in which these musical mysteries inhabit. The "ineffable", Abbate reminds us, remains the sailent feature of "Absolute Music" and the point de capiton of Ideological Musical Autonomy. And how does this relate to the musical Other? Can we not examine our critical approaches to analysis as a sort of rehearsal for the encounter betweeen ourselves and radical Otherness, the mysterious Abyss of Radical Alterity as Zizek would put it?

The academic field is indeed replete with examples. Take Susan McClary, whose "thick" investigations into sexual politics in music suggests that language and metaphor suffuse the scaffold of musical structure. We should read McClary more defectively, I think, and wonder if Music's relation to linguistic tropes in a field of historical discourse contributes actively to the "pasting over" its own epistemological insufficiency by trying to define (hence control) its epistemological object. These signifiers, then, orbit about the insoluble kernel of music's Other-space in a frenzy: all McClary can do is to attempt to reconstruct the linguistic politics (the invisible Big Other) that somehow "vanishes" in the act of naming the Object. But the reverse holds true. McClary's investigations are similarly predicated upon a different hold on sexual politics that figures the musical object into a field ready to receive (or to give up) the ghostly secrets of its oppressive Fathers.

We've reached a terrific vanishing point for this stupid slippery object called music. Like Marx who insisted that his revision of Hegel's topology would not reveal the secret of the commodity, but the secret of the system Of commodities itself, perhaps certain Music Theorists should give up the (unconscious) bluff that their tools are overloaded with their fingerprints.

No comments: