Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Teleological Polarities, or, making the vanishing mediator (Adorno) reappear!

No one could have more harshly criticized poor Stravinsky for his culturally destructive objectives than Adorno. According to the latter, Stravinsky signposted the very real material effects of the decline of music qua the culture industry which could not but lead to the "liquidation of the individual" (see Philosophy of New Music), worse still, "Auschwitzch" itself (see Negative Dialectics). Perhaps Stravinsky should have been a little wiser; critical sharks roam fast and hungry in a war-ravaged world plagued by the real ideological threat of Nazism and Fascism (which many intellectuals happily grouped together under the same presuppositions of totalitarian manipulation), bouyed with the still-festering revolutionary ideals of socialism and the utopianist enterprise. By positing such a fiercely nostalgia-presuming title such as "Neo-Classicism", Stravinsky no doubt tossed himself on the grill to be flayed, conceptually bifurcated into two receptive modes of understanding. The first was (perhaps childishly conceived) "anti-modernism", better still, "anti-modernism anti-romaticism" which implied a renewed reverence for the Kantian "thing-in-itself" of objective reality; a critical position. The second, even more infantile than the first, was nostalgia for a utopianistic agenda that was precisely soaked in Romatic German Ideology for a sort of seamless language that resutured the signifier to the signified. A musical objectivity would assume to deliver the "musical object" through a "musical language" to speak of, no less, no more: "for Christssakes Igor, call the spade a spade!"

But is there a peverse "third way", a constructive strategy that troubled the assumptions of the Frankfurt School by precisely working through the conceptual models of Stravinsky and Schoenberg? Here we encounter no simple dichotomy cut-and-dried; in fact, we find Schoenberg straying much farther from the resistive dimension Adorno tried so hard to articulate in order to preserve an "elite" form of critical listening as opposed to anti-teleological "regressive listening". Far from casting himself as revolutionary reactionary, Schoenberg dumbed the axe he first grineded to sever the consonance/dissonance binary. Chaos ensued: without an organizing principle articulating hierarchy, the centripetal pull of tonality was a supernova, blasting a well-organized system of orbiting celestial (tonally pitched) bodies into a constellation of free-roving stars. Musica Mundanna was now a white dwarf, floating sheepishly in space and dimly remnant of the divine light it once showered upon a Republic of happy Platonic composers. No wonder Schoenberg quickly reverted to other forms of teleology to make up for this musical embarrasment: not only was the "emancipation of dissonance" prefigured in Beethoven, Wagner and Debussy, Schoenberg was the latest captain of music's teleo-Logical ship, steering it into the mysterious waters of an exciting future.

And we think - so much so for the Adorno-esque hero that represents a full resistance to the destructive compulsions of Capitalist anti-dialectics. Or, we could simply imply that Schoenberg's 12-tone serial technique announced in the 1920s had reverberant effects beyond what he had originally imagined. That is to say culture misinterpreted what Schoenberg had produced, never mind what he had in mind. On the other hand, we have Stravinsky whose witty transfiguration of historical style pushes merely beyond blind mimesis or self-depricating parody. Let's forget the surface implications of "New-Objectivity" and "Neo-Classicism" for a while, lending our ears, as it was, to the strange twists and turns he inflicted on a growing sense of a (musical) historical universe. History, it seems, was the key word. With the professionalization and institutionalization of the discipline in the late 18th and 19th century, followed by numerous Bach and Mozart revivals, composers, performers and intellectuals at the first unfoldings of the 20th century were immersed in a sense of continuity, and at the same time reverence for so-called "origins". Like incestuous siblings, Origins and Historical consciousness were authors of power (even though along the way they begot some truly disfigured scions), upon which the "new" and the "contemporary" were foregrounded. History and geneaology would triumph over the war-loving grenade-licking tendenceis of the Avant-Garde world who were all to simply linked with the Futurists. Now was not a time to think of the new: now was a time to think of how the new subjectivized, indeed politicized!

And yet we forget that the condition of exile, the condition of displacement pronounces real diasporic effects on composers and long-cherished ideas of teleology. Adorno (and Benjamin) got the drift, forsaking traditional dialectical structures for a more pessimistic tone of an anthropocentric critical subject (just a different kind of utopianism - elitism), holding the deadly abyss of docile conformism at bay with the sheer force of negative dialectics: "If you can't beat 'em, make sure they don't win!!" But perhaps for all his caustic waggings, Adorno just failed to see that the polarity between Stravinsky and Schoenberg was contingent upon his role as the vanishing mediator. That is, contingent upon Adorno subjectivising himself IN the works of either composer. To make Adorno reappear, we have to conjure Brecht, whose own "alienation" (exile) from Berlin to the experience OF "alienation" (foreignness) in America, possibly led him to conceive of a theatrical strategy (no points for guessing what its called) - indeed a Darstellung (presentational mode) - that adressed the spectator as exile in his own cultural space of inhabitation. That is, critically "alienated" from the nonseductive mechanisms of "Epic Theatre", the spectator is free to make critical comparisons that may just ignite that little bit of resistive spirit in us all.

And was this not, too, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Adorno and Benjamin, who sought to verbalize the full condition of the "Unheimlich" in its original form? Perhaps the Freudian condition had its worth of critical truth for these thinkers, since the "return of the repressed" meant, on the flip-side of its definition, a return to a cognitive state prior to the injunctions of the consumer industry. It was precisely being "not at home" where one finally understood how one's apperception of "homeliness" was constructed in the first place. But how does Stravinsky deal with this displacement? Strangely, not through some defacement of a prior system in order to purify the "condition of alienation" musically, but an engagement in bizarre masque ball, whereby historical cosciousness itself as a source of authorative power is questioned. In fact, we can track Stravinsky's long musical development from Russian Nationalism, Neo-Classicism, Jazz-influenced works and late serialism as one long trajectory encapsulated as a single critique, as a single process. It is not that Stravinsky simply appropriates these masks as a peverse game of fort-da ("now you see Stravinsky... oh wait! now you don't!), but rather, Stravinsky's struggle with musical style is precisely one that flattens an idea of historical telos, one that refutes its conceptual categories of "high" and "low", "serious" and "light" or "past" and "present" by simply presenting to us a different form of subjective struggle. In other words, Stravinsky's seemingly "surface" (simulacra) engagement with these materials throw the entire condition by which we judge the veracity and authority of cultural or historical difference and distance into relief, into question.

As Butler would have suggested, Stravinsky's masque of New-Objectivity does not "liquidate" the subject, it necessarily implicates him by revealing the works as a performative encounter of the alien, the struggle to conform and the will-to-hybridity (Homi Bhaba). By doing so, Stravinsky composes (performs) his own attempts to hybridize the subject with a foreign culture, itself a reverse form of "alienation" that, in retrospect, critically espies systems of culture that are often "essentialised" or taken as "givens". But what of his apparent "give-away" quips about "order" and "disciplinarity" to the extent of leaving much musical material excised in order to speak? The contradictions of New-Objectivity are surface, just as the masks culture employs to preserve a sense of its uniqueness. In other words, culture is an intricate fabric of discipline and order in itself that "subjectivizes" the individual, curtails his speech by clearing away and authorizing Symbolic spaces of discourse that are recognized amongst participating subjects. To this effect, any mode of alien "incorporation" to a foreign discursive model must necessarily entail the reconfiguration of one's Symbolic Universe, and reconstitution (hybridization) of such through operations of discipline and control, "repression" as some might negatively call it.

Stravinsky's "hybridization" phase, therefore, is a failure, and a necessary one. For it is through the failure to conform that the mechanism of the diasporic's struggle to assimilate becomes clear, a clarity that works on both levels since to identify the vagrant is to be aware of the system that works to exclude the vagrant. It is through Stravinsky's necessary failure on a mimetic-syntactical level that lends his critique of culture dynamism, a construction that deliberately eschews the telos of style as well as the telos of the compser-individual by treating the musical dimension as surface to begin with. It is only then that we gain an understanding of Stravinsky's anti-utopianist critique that disregards sources of power by penetrating deep into the performative structures that enable supposedly "closed" authoritarian systems of discourse, chiding us to start taking off our masks (or putting on new ones), plunging into a difficult discourse of guess-and-tell by leaving the comfortable armchair of the parade of fools.

Postscript on the picture of Stravinsky's arrest by the Boston Polics Department (see above):

"Stravinsky was arrested by the Boston police for the unconventional major seventh chord in his arrangement of the "Star-Spangled Banner," illustrated with a reproduction of Stravinsky's mug shot" (source:

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