Paper on philosophy and composition

My new friend Matthew Lorenzon invited me down to give a paper on philosophy and composition at a postgrad symposium that he was organising at ANU. Below is the first half of what I came up with (the second half I’ll flesh out and re-post: it has more to do with Badiou’s specific ‘subjective orientation’ for the composer). The paper’s a bit scrappy, but hey.

I might also just say that the Nicolas that I present below is very simplified and skewed, and comes from only a selective reading (by contingency: I haven’t read all of his central writings yet). However, I think the validity of its attempt comes from its treatment of the problem of the separation of philosophy from its conditions in Badiou. One major tension, or perhaps contradiction, in the paper – one that I couldn’t deal with in the presentation – is between philosophy as axiom, as provider of ethics, based on its ability to summon up a figure of ‘contemporaneity’, and thus a meta-language or meta-physics, and philosophy as mere other in a process of Two (according to love). The second structure, I propose below, is required to maintain the former in a state of disjunction, that is, without letting music’s ‘truth’ be determined by philosophy – without philosophy becoming the end of art, as in Hegel. The question, is a question of immanence…


Philosophy, art, love

1.1a Master and hysteric

The relation of art and philosophy, as Alain Badiou notes, “has always been affected by a symptom—that of an oscillation or a pulse.” Badiou makes the analogy to Lacan’s theory of the Master and Hysteric, in which the hysteric constantly demands the master to tell her her identity, and is constantly dissatisfied with every response, however well-constructed, the master gives. Badiou claims that, like the hysteric, “art is always already there,” demanding answers, but “through constant invention and metamorphoses” it is disappointed about every response from philosophy (HI, pp. 1-2).

Within this oscillation, Badiou identifies three basic modes or schemas through which art and philosophy have maintained a relationship throughout history:

  1. The first is the didactic schema, in which truth is external to art and in which art is seen only to present the semblance of truth. Since art is inadequate to the expression of this truth that is external to it, it must be carefully policed. This is shown as much in Plato’s banishment of the poets from the City as in Brecht’s alienation effect.
  2. The second schema Badiou names ‘Romantic,’ which holds that “art alone is capable of truth.” (Ibid.) Philosophy then (and Badiou singles out Heidegger here) is left to prostrate itself before a kind of mystical sublimity that art discloses without making explicit enough to be captured in the crude language of philosophy.
  3. The final schema is ‘Classical’ insofar as art is conceived as indifferent to the question of truth, and is merely a matter of affects or catharsis or good clean fun. This schema de-hystericises art and disarms art.

As far as Badiou is concerned each of these have become ‘saturated’ and ended in either disaster or in degeneration:

  1. Didacticism descended into the fetters of socialist realism (think of poor Shostakovich);
  2. Romanticism became exhausted in “unfulfilled prophecies of divine return” in one sense or another;
  3. Classicism has become a domesticated prop for the lame affects of the human animal under late capitalism. (See Hallward, 2003, p. 194)

1.1b Badiou’s doctrine of conditions

Against these exhausted arrangements, Badiou proposes what he sees as a new relationship, one which is not unlike a non-relationship. He calls it inaesthetics:

By “inaesthetics” I understand a relation of philosophy to art that, maintaining that art itself is a producer of truths, makes no claim to turn art into an object for philosophy. Against aesthetic speculation, inaesthetics describes the strictly intraphilosophical effects produced by the independent existence of some works of art. (HI, p. xiv)

This stems from a central tenet of Badiou’s philosophy that he names the ‘doctrine of conditions,’ whereby philosophy “does not establish any truth but it sets a locus of truths” (MP, p. 37). That is to say that philosophy doesn’t produce the truths of politics, art, science, or love, and nor is its thought strictly determined by these truths. Instead, it takes them as conditions for its possibility. Philosophy constructs a general ‘compossibility’ of their historical existence, to see formal connections between them, and, perhaps, to help them along a little. Let’s just note in passing that for Badiou a truth is not an eternal Idea verifiable by speculation, nor an empirical fact verifiable by sensible data or logical consistency. A truth, for Badiou is always a radical and creative procedure of thinking, such as the Classical style or serialism in the case of music, or great revolutionary sequences in politics such as 1917.

So, for Badiou, the truths of art are both found within art itself, and only found within art itself. Both immanent and singular. But there are other truths.

The assumption here is that philosophy comes late on the scene, after art is already underway. Badiou refers to the famous quote of Hegel: “Only when the dusk starts to fall does the owl of Minerva spread its wings and fly.”

1.2a Nicolas’ doctrine of conditions

Despite this, for a composer, a philosophical conditioning upon musical practice is unavoidable.

François Nicolas is adamant about this. He says, “our musicianly undertaking has for a condition of the possibility of its existence a lively and inventive philosophy” (LMM), and remarks that all great ‘musical intellectualities’ throughout history have been declared from “under the shadow” of a specific philosophy, thus seemingly inverting Badiou’s doctrine of conditions.

Importantly, for Nicolas, philosophy provides a composer with what he calls “a meteorology: philosophy clarifies a general climate [temps] of thinking, thus configuring the meaning of ‘contemporary’” (LMM).

As it is with art’s capacity to condition, but not totalise philosophy, philosophy has a capacity to condition, but not totalise art. Philosophy does not determine the creativity of musical practice: a composer should not be conceived as a philosopher whose medium of communication is that of sound (or notes).

As for whether the owl of Minerva flies at dusk or dawn, we should be clear, as Bruno Bosteels puts so succinctly: any “philosophy seeking to be worthy of the name materialism … must begin by recalling that philosophy itself never begins anything” (Bosteels, 2011, p. 45).

The point being that, despite philosophy ‘conditioning’ music, it does so under point of the fact that music is, in essence, “always already under way:” philosophy comes to condition somewhat retroactively.

1.2b The subjective orientation

If, for Nicolas, philosophy provides for the musician a clarification of the general time of thinking in a number of ways, the central point of this is that philosophy can, through this, provide a general or abstract subjective orientation. This is something like an axiom for the composer.

The point here is that, in order for a composer to think about music at all, in fact in order for a composer to engage in music, something like a minimal subjective prescription is necessary.

My argument is that this minimal subjective prescription provides an upward limit point, under which the musician can think about music. The rather banal and simple point here is that, if a composer was consistently engaging in the question of the conditions of possibility of their act of composing, always questioning the ‘being’ or ‘appearing’ of music, or even asking the stupid question ‘what is music?’, they will never get down to compose – even, or especially if those questions seem to arise spontaneously or necessarily from the act of composing itself. Or worse, if they did get down to composing, they would find that their art was inadequate for the expression of the philosophical depth that went on ‘behind it’.

It is in this obscure space that Nicolas defines ‘under the shadow’ of a philosophical-axiomatic upper limit, that a composer might conduct their real efforts.

1.3 Love: art and philosophy

If this position, under the shadow of a philosophical axiomatic, is obscure it is because it sits perilously close to what Badiou calls the didactic paradigm: the truth of art lies outside it, in this case in philosophy, and art has the function of simply attempting, and failing, to live up to this external truth.

How does Nicolas resolve this bind? He does so by way of the structure of love as analysed by Alain Badiou who takes his bearings from the Lacanian dictum “there is no sexual relationship.”

This structure is immensely difficult – as we have all experienced ourselves in love – but I will try to summarise.

There are seven aspects of this amorous structure, as put forward in Badiou’s stimulating essay ‘What is Love?’ that I would like to bring up here:

1. Love proceeds from an absolute disjunction, the ‘man’ and ‘woman’ positions are totally unrelated.

So there is one narcissistic view where the other is reduced as an object of desire, and another narcissistic view where the other reduced as an object of desire and the two are totally disjunct: “nothing in the experience is the same from the position of man or from that of woman,” Badiou says (C, p. 183).

For us this means philosophy seeing what it wants to in composition, and composition seeing what it wants to in philosophy.

2. There is no mediating term. As Badiou cleverly says, “there is no outside sex.”

There is absolutely no position that could arbitrate between the two and render their experiences intelligible to each other. In fact, the two conceived as a single unit as such does not exist.

For us this is means that there is no other discourse outside of philosophy and composition that could bridge the gap between them, or count them as ‘one’.

3. Love reveals this non-relation; it does not reduce it.

Love sets out from the disjunction, makes its existence emerge most clearly as a pure unpresentable Two, and at no point reduces it into a fusion, a One.

Let us take love in our context to mean a kind of creative procedure ‘between’ philosophy and composition. This procedure in no way reduces the abyss that separates the two spheres.

4. Love makes a truth of the disjunction itself.

Love sets out from an unforeseeable encounter that reveals the Two as such, from then on, love is a procedure based on the supposition of the Two.

For us this means that an encounter between philosophy and composition reveals the disjunction and takes as its starting point this disjunction.

5. Love is a constructive process of the possible effects of the hypothesis of the Two

Love has no ‘being’ as such, nor does it construct a ‘being’ of the two. It does not proceed towards dialectical synthesis of the two terms. Love is a process. For Badiou it is “an exacting series of enquiries into the disjunction” and, as such constructs a ‘scene of the Two’ as its very movement.

For us this is simply to say that the only way of thinking composition and philosophy together is by way of their mutual interrogation, through conceptual construction, of their non-relation.

6. Love is not getting to know one other, but getting to know the possible effects of the Two in the world

Again, to uphold that there is an absolute disjunction between the two pairs means that there is no capacity for one to actually ‘know’ the other qua other. Instead, the knowledge that emerges from the love relates more to the construction of the love process and to the disjunction than to the sexual other.

For us this means that the knowledge gained by composition from the love procedure, is not a knowledge of philosophy as such. In a certain sense, composition will never know philosophy. The knowledge gained by composition relates to their procedure and their non-relation.

7. Finally, the knowledge produced by love is equally disjunct

Since love never fuses the Two into One, and always maintains the disjunction of the Two, the knowledge produced by the Two remains just as disjunct. This means that what one lover ‘learns’ from their love is not what the other ‘learns’.

For us this is simple, what a musical intellectuality gains from its creative procedure with philosophy is only what a musical intellectuality gains from it. Philosophy will learn other things.

This kind of disjunctive dialectic seems to me very adequate to the relationship of philosophy and composition, and is the precise structure necessary in order to avoid lapsing back into the three different types of relationship between philosophy and art that I outlined at the beginning of the talk.

So with Nicolas, we might say that there is no sexual relationship between philosophy and music, but sometimes they love each other very much!

1.4a Dialectic, fusion, declaration, imaginary: music and musical intellectuality

As a point of clarification here, I might just add that for the purposes of this paper, we are assuming that the composer’s discourse, or their ‘musical intellectuality,’ is equivalent to their compositional practice. This is not to say that their words explain their works, but that there is some kind of organic unity between the two qua practices. I wanted to discuss this, but it requires a paper of its own. The point about the space that Nicolas carves out for musical intellectuality is that is most certainly in the interiority of the creative musical procedure itself. It does not stand outside the creative procedure in order to ‘understand’, nor does it have anything to say about ‘music’ in any objective sense (LMM, p. 10). We could also say, as an aside, that the existence of philosophy qua externality to musical practice allows for the fundamental immanent unity of musical theory and practice.

1.4b Conclusion

To some up so far. We arrive at the following abstract schema.

Art functions as a condition for philosophy. Reciprocally, philosophy acts as a condition for art. Philosophy’s conditioning of art is a matter of providing a kind of axiomatic subjective orientation in order that the composer may continue to engage with the material of music. However, so that this schema doesn’t collapse into the didactic paradigm, the absolute disjunction of the two paradigms must be asserted. That is, the autonomy of the realms of philosophy and the realms of composition must be upheld. The two enter into a process predicated upon their absolute non-relation in which composition gains an understanding of the possibilities of this very non-relation itself.

For the artist the demands a certain renunciation of the desire to treat music philosophically, but also to avoid an anti-intellectual dismissal of philosophy, which one does at their peril.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s