Sticking to the Real

The second half (that I suppressed from publishing) of the below paper began to outline some of the possible ‘modes of continuation’ for the composer today, and in particular, the mode(s) of continuation that Alain Badiou suggests. We should think about this in terms of the Real. Badiou is certainly a philosopher for whom ‘to continue’ means ‘to stick with the Real’, and while it is apparently impossible today to stick with this Real, its impossibility makes its injunction all the more compelling.

So, for Badiou (and us, if we disagree that the semblance or pleasure principle as such is all we need) the question is, how do we in music (as in politics and philosophy) continue with the Real after all of the 20th Century’s attempts and disasters? The 20th Century, for Badiou was characterised by a violent ‘passion for the Real’ that is neatly summarised by Badiou thus:

I think the crucial point (as Hegel grasped long ago with regard to the revolutionary Terror) is this: the real, conceived in its contingent absoluteness, is never real enough not to be suspected of semblance. The passion for the real is also, of necessity, suspicion. Nothing can attest that the real is the real, nothing but the system of fictions wherein it plays the role of the real. All the subjective categories of revolutionary, or absolute, politics – ‘conviction’, ‘loyalty’, ‘virtue’, ‘class position’, ‘obeying the Party’, ‘revolutionary zeal’, and so on – are tainted by the suspicion that the supposedly real point of the category is actually nothing but semblance. Therefore, the correlation between a category and its referent must always be publicly purged, purified. (The Century, pp. 52-52)

Stravinsky was enacting an early (and somewhat contradictory) expression of this when he “sent them all to hell” in his 1913 Rite of Spring. Despite all his more or less statist and serene detachment, John Cage expresses this violence in his (now cliché) 4’33” by holding all music as such in this state of suspicion. Helmut Lachenmann’s musique concrète instrumentale is likewise an attempt to (often quite violently) refer the semblance of musical sound back to the Real of its material basis (its ‘means of production’).

Zizek notes that this is in fact a figure of the Real-Real. He adds another dominant form of the 20th Century, not mentioned by Badiou: the Symbolic-Real, which could be seen in the various attempts of the Century at radical formalisation, exemplarily that of ‘integral serialism’. The attempt to build a new system entirely from scratch in all its mathematical glory certainly shows the desire to create a musical world that is water-tight with regard to semblance. In early Boulez in particular the destructive impulse and the constructive one were, of course, intimately fused.

Badiou, in this sense, is no simple Modernist (if 20th Century Modernism expresses itself in either one of the above two modes), despite being immensely fond of the destructive impulse for all its authenticity. Instead his new affirmative art would be something that enacts a ‘minimal difference’ or ‘subtraction’, as can be found in its nascent form in the 20th Century (and Mallarmé before). In particular Badiou sees this in Malevich’s painting ‘White on White’. Zizek points out that this is something like the Imaginary-Real, entertaining a shimmering gap or lack as “the mysterious je ne sais quoi,” which constitutes the Real as such.

To be sure, Badiou is a little less than clear on this point, since for him this modality is located in

the staging of a minimal, albeit absolute difference; the difference between the place and what takes place in the place, the difference between place and taking place. …

Why is this something other than destruction? Because, instead of treating the real as identity, it is treated right away as a gap. The question of the real/semblance relation will not be resolved by a purification that would isolate the real, but by understanding that the gap is itself real. Ibid. p. 56

The problem of course being that we seem to have a reduplication of the Real, since we have “what takes place in the place” which is code for the event (Real) and the “place” itself (semblance) but also the gap between this Real and semblance as the Real itself. Badiou presupposes the former in order to have the latter, and would no doubt find himself back in the game of reading the gap as symptom of Real rather than the Real itself (not necessarily a bad game!).

Nonetheless, does this third approach to sticking to the Real offer anything to the composer today? It would appear to since the destructive approach to Western Art Music has been thoroughly saturated for the moment and expresses nothing but statist nihilism, and the rigorous formalist approach is also obscure since the heady days of integral serialism. So why not aim for this minimal difference? Shall we see if it bears fruit?

François Nicolas has discerned this third approach in Schoenberg himself, too often associated with either the destructive Real-Real (his expressionism) or the constructive Symbolic-Real (his serialism). Nicolas believes instead that Schoenberg inaugurates a ‘diagonal style’ (and retroactively clarifies previous more obscure instantiations of this style). This diagonal style seems to aim for demonstrating how the Real inheres in semblance and traces effects upon it, without ever being presented as such. How the attempt is made to put this into musical practice will be a matter of examining closely Nicolas’ analyses of Schoenberg as well as Nicolas’ own musical works, whose thoroughly bizarre and disorienting character seems to suggest that diagonals are being traced throughout it, and if something “takes place in the place” it bears a minimal difference from the “place” itself.

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