Samuel, Truth, and Me

[Updated below] I’ll get back to cats later. First, Samuel Vriezen has responded to my last post on Arthur Danto so thoughtfully that I’m moving the discussion to the blog proper (you may have already read the first exchange):

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Samuel: OTOH, when I read “is that there is really no art more true than any other” I find that just as tiresome as some modernist rant against downtown music or whatever. To me, such a statement belongs to an era that I don’t want to live in: the great age of indifference. We just have to hold some art to be selfevidently true, because we have to believe in something. At least I’m not writing the music I am writing because I think any other old style would suit me just the same! Most of those styles out there actually bore me to death, and that’s exactly why I write what I write! So I think some works are worth my attention more than others. I wouldn’t be against calling the worthier ones more true. Some idea are great, others are stupid and boring, and that’s what truth is about.

Danto is correct, though, that such preferences can’t be philosophically grounded as such. Philosophy is entirely incapable of saying what idea is great and what idea is stupid. No such criteria can be supplied. And if people do go and supply such criteria (stuffy twelvetoners or whoever), you get academicism and boredom. But we CAN say that anything boring can’t be as true as anything exciting in art.

For me, the conclusion must be that if you stick to philosophy to make your judgments, you’re indeed going to forego making the distinction between the exciting and the lukewarm. But in this case, I’d rather chuck out what is called “philosophy” here.

KG replies: Samuel, if the quote were “there is really no art more *good* than any other,” or “no style more *fertile* than any other,” I’d agree completely that both are false. But when I was young, there were styles that I would have considered “not true” that nevertheless produced pieces I came to admire. I never cared for Barber’s sentimental neoromanticism – but I sure like “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” And I always had the same philosophical distaste for neoclassicism that Cowell did, but I eventually had to admit that Stravinsky wrote some damn good pieces in it. In my personal opinion serialism was a lie, but I’ll listen to Maderna’s Grande Aulodia any day. It seems easier to make a superficial case for Zorn-type polystylistic music as being *truer* to the present day than totalism – but although I don’t really know why I find totalism such a powerful response to the present, I am no less passionate about it for all that.

In short, I don’t believe Danto’s claim (taken out of context here, and perhaps I’m doing him a disservice quoting anything when people should really read the book themselves) leads to any era of indifference. Instead, I’d rather invoke what the economist Joseph Schumpeter said: “To realize the *relative* validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what separates the civilised man from the barbarian.” I stand for my own musical idiom passionately and unflinchingly, here I stand I can do no other – but to claim that anyone besides myself, not situated as I am, must adopt it as well would strike me as intellectually fascist.

Samuel: Kyle, I certainly wouldn’t want to argue for a coercive practice. But I do want to argue for truths in art.

If you were quoting Danto out of context, so I was not mentioning the philosophical context from which I’m thinking when I would argue for truth, which is the work of Badiou, who I’ve been reading recently. And based on what I learn from his writings, I would say that artistic truths exist; they are not such that everybody has to work that particular way, but they *are* such that everybody should recognize their value.

For example, the idea “Music can be written using non-hierarchical pitch
structures” is true. It wasn’t always so clear that this was true, but the works of Schoenberg and many others were investigations into how this particular truth can be thought, and they have shown that the claim above is in fact a truth. And in the sense that this thinkig of this idea in terms of works was very important – once the idea presents itself, you can’t afford to just ignore it – Boulez was, in his particular moment, quite right to polemicize violently against musicians who didn’t recognize
the necessity of serial music.

So works of music can be investigations of how you can realize certain abstract ideas of what music can be, and that is exactly how in Badiou’s theory artistic truth can be thought. Then, works that are part of such an investigation will be more true than works that are not part of any such “truth procedure”.

Note that I formulated this truth of atonal music as “Music *can* be written using non-hierarchical pitch structures”, and not as “Music *must* be written using non-hierarchical pitch structures”. The former is quite clearly a truth, the latter is a travesty of truth, the kind of totalitarianism that any truth can engender, but which is to be avoided – in his Ethics, Badiou calls this a “disaster”.

Even in the face of this danger of disaster, it’s important to recognize that you sometimes come accross a truth and that whenever you do, you can’t just pretend it’s not there. And in that sense, yes, some works are more involved with truth than others. Schoenberg’s 2nd quartet opens up possibilities for musical thinking, and I couldn’t say the same for anything by, say, Christopher Rouse that I’ve heard. In that sense Schoenberg’s work is part of the unfolding of a truth and Rouse’s isn’t. And Badiou allows me to think this idea and Danto doesn’t.

My use of “truth” is perhaps a bit like your word “fertile”, only I think it’s worth considering that you can think that “fertility” on an abstract plane that deserves to be called “truth”, because it’s not just personal (“Music can be written using non-hierarchical pitch structures” is not merely true because I happen to feel that way, but because such music has in fact been composed.)

Now Feldman I find presents an interesting case compared to Boulez. Feldman
often polemicized heavily against Boulez and indeed, against Boulez’
coerciveness. And I would generally side with Feldman: I think the Cage circle drew the more fundamental conclusions from the truth of non-hierarchical organisation, and they seemed to do so in the absence of coercive artistic politics. However, I have been wondering about that latter bit. Feldman doesn’t really proscribe in any of his writings that I’ve read what music you should write, but he’s definitely presenting certain artistic attitudes as desirable and is very aggressive towards other attitudes, most clearly he’s against Boulez. Was his work really free from coerciveness?

(Also, I’ve often found his music to have a very subtle aggression in it. Not in the pretty surface of course, but in the demands that it makes on you. Like, you’ve got to play a sound on the piano, but that sound really shouldn’t have any attack in it. That’s not really possible, only approachable – an attitude that can lead to magical experience, but that also does violence to what it means to play the piano.)

KG replies: You haven’t said a thing I disagree with, and it’s all amazingly well put, as usual. As Harry Partch said in an old out-of-print Columbia record, “This thing began with Truth, and Truth does exist.” We just intonationists can hardly help being big believers that some rock-solid Truth does exist.

I guess, though, that I can’t imagine a style which would contain no truth at all, which is why I gravitate to the more incremental word “fertile,” rather than the black-or-white notions of truth and falsehood. For instance, if the truth of 12-tone music is that, “the derivation of all elements from the same 12-tone row guarantees some level of perceptual unity from the listener’s point of view,” then that’s just false. As far as I’m concerned, it’s totally discredited. OTOH (I’ve never used that abbreviation, but you’re right, it did save me a lot of unnecessary typing), I find in serialism a truth that might be stated as: “applying permutational systems to several different aspects of music at once (pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and so on) facilitates the creation of exciting new counterintuitive textures that would have been difficult to arrive at by more intuitive means” – and I think that’s absolutely true. It’s not one of the great, universally applicable musical truths, like “3/2 is more consonant [easier to tune] than 49/33,” or, “the reappearance of an A section after a contrasting B will create an impression of unity,” but it’s true. I would never write a 12-tone piece because the relatively petty truths inherent to the 12-tone idiom don’t move me, don’t seem *sufficiently* true or universal, aren’t truths I would feel more valuable for having expressed – even though I’m well aware that a few 12-tone pieces have been written that transcended the idea of the style itself, and achieved real, touching beauty. I suppose to this extent I would grant you that Danto’s phrase “there is really no art more true than any other” is rather overstated, at least taken out of context. Would that square us away? Although I think, *in* context, he simply means in the sense that something’s either art or it’s not. I think he’s just saying, purely logically as befits a philosopher, that there is no universal criterion by which putative art can be banished from the realm of “real” art.

What interests me is that we’re both instinctively locating Truth not just in individual works, but in styles, idioms. I think most musicians would rail against us for this (in a nasal, Pollyanna-ish tone: “there are no movements, there are only individual pieces”), and I think they’re wrong. Because if a style is anything, it’s a complex of assertions taken as premises for different pieces of music. Minimalism explored the truth that, say, “greatly slowing down the rate of musical change can focus the ear and mind on fascinating and previously ignored musical ephemera.” That truth was not just the truth of *Drumming* or *In C*, but of every piece that tested that hypothesis, that was built on that assertion. Mediocre pieces can be written in extremely fertile styles based on profound truths, and great pieces can be written in styles that more habitually led composers into train wrecks; and some pieces, as you imply, don’t partake of any stylistic exploration at all. There’s the *truth* of a work or style, which I’m happy to recognize, and the *skill* with which the composer expresses it, which seem to me independent.

That’s why I’d be uncomfortable claiming that a piece by Christopher Rouse (whose music I don’t like either) doesn’t embody the unfolding of *some* truth. If nothing else, maybe it expresses the truth: “if I can cobble together a raucous frisson of gestures that orchestral musicians have played a thousand times before, so they can make a big noise without much rehearsal, I’ll get this played by a hundred orchestras and make a lot of money.” It’s a truth. Boy, is it a truth. I’m being a little sarcastic, but I wouldn’t want to have to make an argument that some pieces enfold a truth and some don’t, and Schoenberg’s Second Quartet is on one side of that line and Rouse’s *Der gerettete Alberic* is on the other, and here’s the line.

As for Feldman, I think we need to make a distinction between coercion and persuasion (and perhaps another distinction between what composers say and what their music actually does?). Certainly Feldman wanted music to swing toward his direction, but I’d have trouble isolating what element in his music he felt everyone else should adopt: mystery? intuition? color? He was certainly an advocate for nonrationalism in music, but he could hardly have argued that all you have to do is be nonrational and you’re “on the right side,” the way Boulez in 1948 might have considered any 12-tone composer on the “right side.” We all regret the institutional power that certain composers have over who gets played and who wins prizes and what kind of music grad students are told is proper, but – as a critic-composer, after all – I would be very loathe to ever set allowable limits on anyone’s *persuasiveness*.

Do please continue.

Samuel: Kyle, I thought you might find something in this from the JI-pespective! The idea of JI, which you could put as “harmony can be thought in terms of
ratios”, is very much the kind of universal artistic truth that Badiou’s
thinking would be able to recognize, and the movement includes the kind of
artistic activism that he would associate with a subjective truth

Of course, JI doesn’t work together very well with the truth that is
unfolded in the Schoenberg tradition, which brings up something that is I
think a bit undertheorized in Badiou, which is the possibility that two
truths can be at the same time universal and still incompatible. But then,
his theory is more about consequences of the recognition of truths for the
world you live in than about which pronouncement is true and which isn’t -
philosophy, according to him, doesn’t give a foundation for truth; truth
happens independently from philosophy in ‘truth domains’, and he identifies
only four of those: science, art, love and (emancipatory) politics.

His truths do have to be in some sense universal, which means that they
can’t be formulated in terms of the specifics of some situation or other.
Which is exactly why your paraphase of the “truth” you could find in Rouse
isn’t a truth in the Badiou sense: it is completely and essentially
grounded in the situation as it is, which is our particular orchestral
culture. This is not true for JI, and not even for some much more seemingly
contrived idea such as atonality, or serialism the way you formulate it
very well above.

Indeed, insofar as Danto is saying, as you put it, “there is no universal
criterion by which putative art can be banished from the realm of “real”
art”, he’s completely correct, and it may be very important to sometimes
point that out. But if you read Badiou, that’s not all there is to be done.
In Logiques des Mondes, he identifies as the grand idea of our times (and
Danto seems to be part of that) under the name of “democratic materialism”,
which in Badiou’s words holds that “There exist only bodies and languages”.
So we have all this stuff around us, and lots of languages to talk about
this stuff, and they’re pretty much equal. His own philosophy he names
“materialist dialectics” – with a nod to Marx’ dialectical materialism,
albeit importantly inverted – and he summarizes its basic tenets as
“Indeed, there exist only bodies and languages, except that there are
truths”. Truths don’t exist the way bodies and languages do, but they are
there, giving direction to the things that we do and create. For example, I
think you could say that JI doesn’t quite ‘exist’ as such. There is
no work that IS Just Intonation, there isn’t even a language that IS just
intonation. JI at heart is an idea that requires that you develop works and
theories (of pitch grids or whatever).

[Comment continued in "comments," with specific reply to comments of others.]

KG replies: If, as you say in your reply below to John Shaw, the opposite of truth in this case isn’t falsehood but kitsch, that does make an interesting difference. I see I’m going to have to start reading Badiou (or give you a bad IOU to that effect) if I’m going to keep hanging out with you and Arthur Sabatini. And yes, as we microtonalists like to say, even if mankind is destroyed, and some kind of organized sound begins all over again on some other planet among beings who can hear, a 3-to-2 frequency ratio will still be an intelligible interval. *That’s* a universal truth.

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  1. says

    I don’t think Samuel is saying that Rouse’s music is false, only that it isn’t involved with opening up new (musical) truths, and therefore is less (intimately? excitingly?) involved with truth than, say the Schoenberg’s 2nd quartet. If a piece of music exists (sonicly?), then it has truth.
    I parenthetically query whether an un-realizable or un-hearable conceptual piece of music could be false in the terms Samuel is describing.
    (Although now I want to write false music!)

  2. mclaren says

    What the hell does it mean to say “one art is more true than another”?

    This is an example of the kind of critic-speak that irritates those of with some education in the hard sciences. You can speak sensibly about some things as being true, but it doesn’t make sense to talk about a lot of other things as being “true.” It’s like the crazy questions Yossarian used to ask at mission briefings in Catch-22: “Who is Kansas?” and “Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?” These kinds of questions make no sense.

    We can talk about gold having atomic number 79 as being true. If you doubt it, c’mon over and look at the goddamn mass spectrogram. You’ll see the isotopes along one spike and the atomic number 79 distribution along another much bigger spike. I can prove it to you. That’s a fact. It’s undeniably and indisputably true

    There are lots of other things we can say that are sensible, though, but can’t be objectively demonstrated to be true. “My wife is beautiful.” Or: “This composition is ugly.” These represent personal opinions. No one has succeeded in demonstrating any method for objectively proving or disproving these kinds of statements.

    The statement “no kind of music is any more true than another” sounds like a garbled scambled incoherent version of a more sensible claim: “assertions that some styles of musical composition are demanded by an elleged science of history (which supposedly makes them historically necessary) have not been supported by the available historical evidence.”

    Isaiah Berlin has an excellent essay on the impossibility of turning history into a science which bears on this issue; if memory serves, it’s “The Divorce Between the Sciences and the Humanities” in Against the Current: Essays on the History of Ideas. Berlin’s basic point is that people and nations and cultures aren’t simple entities like electrons and magnetic fields; a scientific hypothesis can be disproven by conducting an experiment that gives you results contrary to what you expect, but an hypothesis about history can’t be disproven because people and nations and cultures tend to behave unpredictably. An electron subjected to a magnetic field will always behave in the same way, but people subjected to various influences are apt to behave one way at one time, and another way in another time. (If you doubt this, just look at how Americans condemned Japanese soldiers to 15 years hard labor for the crime of waterboarding in the 1940s, while Americans in the early 2000s applaud and approve of American soldiers commiting the war crime of waterboarding.) Berlin’s argument seems sound, and works as well for the various pseudoscientific theories of music propounded by Zarlino or Schoenberg as for Berlin’s usual targets, namely, social Darwinism and German eugenics theory and Marxist dialectical materialism.

    To revisit an old saw, the 19th and early 20th century up to around the midpoint was an era of hedgehogs, including musical hedgehogs; the 21st century seems to belong to the foxes. Talking about music as being “true” seemed to make sense to the hedgehogs…it doesn’t to us foxes.

  3. Samuel Vriezen says

    McLaren: I have some education in the hard sciences – I spent quite a few years studying mathematics, and in fact, so did Alain Badiou, whose ideas of truth I was referring to here. It’s in fact Badiou’s very serious use of maths that attracted me to his work in the first place. Badiou is an advanced student of Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory, and it provides a theoretical background to his first big book, translated into English as Being and Event. The sequel to it is Logiques des Mondes, and his notion of logic is grounded in certain post-intuitionist models for logic and on category theory, with some forays into topology. Philosophically, his notions of truth go beyond the notion of the correctness of assertions. Rather, a truth is something that you dedicate yourself to; a universal that isn’t just sitting there but that needs to be brought into this particular world, through what he calls the subjective truth procedure. His work is worth reading. It presents an idea of truth in art that is worth considering. And he most certainly presents a strong case that not everybody in the 21st century needs to be a fox.
    John: I don’t think an art that is not concerned with truth is best described as “false”. At best, you might think of words like opportunistic, or kitsch.
    Truth in Badiou is less the opposite of false that being marked by undecidability: if a new truth comes to town, nobody in town can even have the language needed to prove or disprove it, which is why such a truth needs advocates who are willing to change (critical) language, among other things. In his Ethics, he does provide three figures that oppose real truth: simulacrum (a ‘truth’ that is not really universal, such as the Nazist exclusion of Jews), betrayal (opportunistically giving up advocacy of a cause) and disaster (totalitarian excess of terror in advocacy). And in Logiques des Mondes, he identifies two other figures that are opposed to the truth procedure: the reactionary (unwillingness to help change the world for opportunistic reasons) and the obscurantist (the attempt to eradicate some truth procedure in the name of a mythical whole – persecutions of protestant heresies in the name of the unity of the church, for example).

  4. says

    If, as Mr. Vriezen says, “a truth is something that you dedicate yourself to,” then the truth I’d like to dedicate myself to is “Music can be written using ______” in which I fill in the blank with whatever I feel like. I don’t see why some answers would not be true. Isn’t that one of the things we learned from Cage? Can’t we just write the music that moves us, and stop pretending that we’re right and you’re wrong? It’s all true; it’s all false. Anything that anyone claims to be universal can be rationally debunked by anyone else. I know it’s a fun sport and all, but back to Mr. Vriezen’s original argument, it gets tiresome. Let’s talk about what’s true for onesself without forcing it down one another’s throats and see how the Venn diagram pans out. That never gets tiresome. I mean, I’m not trying to be all sweetness and light, here — I just get motion sick from driving around in circles.

  5. says

    I sympathize with Andrea’s vexation. I fail to see how Badiou’s dragooning of the common vocabulary into a private definition-system has brought us any clearer understanding. I was willing to go with Schoenberg having a more intimate or exciting relationship to musical truth because his early work was involved in discovering new musical truths, but the system of antonyms that has since been revealed here makes me regret my acquiescence to the initial thrust of vocabulary-initiation.
    What’s wrong with “innovative”? Why will that word not suffice to describe an artwork involved with aesthetic/stylistic discovery? “Truth” in this context is argumentative and quasi-moralistic. “Simulacrum” to describe the “truth” of the “Nazist exclusion of the Jews”? The words “catastrophe” and “abomination” will do just fine for me, thanks. “Disaster” for “totalitarian excess of terror in advocacy”? That sounds right, though I wonder what a judicious amount of terror would consist of, as opposed to an excess. “Obscurantist” for “the attempt to eradicate some truth procedure in the name of a mythical whole — persecutions of protestant heresies in the name of the unity of the church, for example”? Why is “oppression” not a clearer word to use here? “Reactionary” and “betrayal” — who besides a saint lacks opportunism? Does anybody taking part in this discussion do so from a public computer? To the extent that few if any of us are unwilling to give up our creature comforts in the effort to help change the world, we’re all reactionaries according to Badiou, and I don’t see what that human truth has to do with Schoenberg’s music versus Rouse’s music (which I’ve never heard).
    As for “kitsch,” that is a European-style insult that results from a tendency to look at culture from a top-down, abstract, contemplative perspective that disdains participatory musical traditions (such as music for social dancing or Christmas carols). Most pop music is kitsch, from this perspective. I happen to love all sorts of pop music, and in fact I objected to Alex Ross’s use of the word “kitsch” to describe the dance rhythms in Revueltas’ “La noche de los Mayas” in his book “The Rest Is Noise.”
    To the extent that classical music depends on and defends a hierarchical notion of culture and culture-making, it is reactionary — politically and economically. As Cage put it, telling others what to do is an unattractive way to live, and Daniel Barenboim unexpectedly echoed Cage when he reported, in his book of dialogs with Edward Said, that orchestral players have among the lowest job-satisfaction of any of the professions.
    Similarly with neo-vocabularist philosophers. “Neo-vocabularism” is my brand new coinage. It describes philosophers who dragoon words from the common vocabulary and give them specialized meanings that require initiation but do not provide new understandings commensurate with the effort required to become initiated. Neo-vocabularism has a long and distinguished history, deeper than I know. Historically it has thrived in elite, state-supported educational institutions. Successful neo-vocabularists lead economically comfortable lives, and I suspect some of them of bottomless irony, as they acquire disciples, call for others to make radical changes in themselves and in society, live comfortably supported by the state, and hurl insults at the uninitiated.
    KG replies: John (the writer here) sent me a separate note advising that I not post this if I find it too hostile. I love arguing aesthetics – I almost did a self-defined major in aesthetics at Oberlin, but got tired of the paperwork, and did it only informally – but it’s difficult when everyone doesn’t start on the same page. I don’t know anything about Badiou, and I gather that making sense of his terminology depends on knowing the system he builds up in his writing. Danto, whom I’ve read a great deal of, does not use specialist terminology, yet even in his case these quotes fall easy prey to misinterpretation, sometimes because he’s actually making a simpler, more legalistic point (as philosophers of language do) than practicing artists are likely to assume. I won’t judge Badiou out of context, and I’ll be careful about quoting Danto, though I like what he says and am, admittedly, probably expanding the sense of what he’s saying to make my own points. It would be gratifying if these discussions led people to read the books.

  6. says

    Andrea, you would do better to read what I wrote before tiring of it. I was, I hope, quite explicit that it was not about ‘forcing things down one another’s throat’. I don’t feel taken very seriously.
    John: there is no such thing as a ‘common vocabulary’; that is, words like ‘truth’ may have an intuitive meaning but it’s hazy; any more clear meaning always will have to be constructed theoretically. Badiou gives us a notion of truth that is actually theorized, which is not the case in ‘common vocabulary’ with its hazy meanings. Yes, it’s different from the mere notion of ‘correctness of assertion’. But yes, it’s also worth looking at.
    Also, a simulacrum is not a truth. It’s a particularism posing as truth.
    Kyle: I agree, it’s great if people read some more. My reading of Badiou has been more extensive (in the past few months) than my reading of Danto (by whom I did read some essays or book excerpts, but no full books). I do think I can see where Danto is coming from and in what way you find him useful. I guess you use Danto if you’re going to take on the snobs and Badiou if you need to take on the world.
    As to reading Badiou, my own starting point was his Ethics, which is a relatively easy read. Hard-core theory you can find in Being and Event, and his theory there is supplemented in Logiques des Mondes. I’ve found his work to be clearly written, intriguing, frustrating, at times disturbing, but ultimately invigorating. I’ve also found that reactions of the type John shows, above, are not uncommon when people first encounter his work. My own were a bit like that!
    (his views of music, BTW, very much follow a Boulezian account that I believe can use some more subtlety – it’s really his theory itself that is powerful)
    KG replies: Done and done. I’ll take care of the snobs, you handle the world.

  7. says

    I’m very curious to know more about what resides in the “love” domain of Badiou’s universal truths. I’ll be looking for his Handbook on Inaesthetics.

    This is all very fascinating to me. The model Samuel describes opposing universal and situational truths is one I grappled with, with great angst, about twenty years ago. I emerged from that time with the then-heretical realization that I found situational truths to be more interesting and more profound than so-called universals. And I mean heretical to myself – I never would have guessed that I would prefer the situational to the universal, but a hard, critical look at myself proved otherwise. Up to that point, I took it as a given that universal truths resided on a higher shelf in the bookcase of value systems. Now I realize that placing universal truths above situational truths is completely subjective – that universal systems are not more objectively precious or true or meaningful than seasonal allergies.

    I guess I had that crisis many years ago when I realized I needed a higher artistic objective than merely influencing the music that other composers write, which is what this search for universals often boils down to – composer A is great because composers B-Z used his once-new techniques. Suddenly that seemed like the most superficial kind of artistic impact.

    I’m more interested in the potentials of cultural constructs. For example, if enough people agree on what the word “table” means, then it doesn’t matter that the string of letters t-a-b-l-e has no intrinsic connection to a flat surface raised by legs. Instead of questioning the truthiness or kitschiness of the word itself, we can focus on using that situational truth as a building block to communicate more interesting concepts.

    In the same way (although I usually avoid preaching that music is like language – they are very different) there are many cultural agreements we can have about music that free us to operate on a higher plane than the search for new techniques, new ways of saying “table.”

    That’s where I am now, and where I’ve been for the better part of twenty years. Which is not to say that it’s where I’ll be twenty years from now – again, it’s a fascinating topic to come back to over and over throughout ones lifetime.

  8. mclaren says

    Since Samuel has studied mathematics, it makes his claims even more baffling, since Goedel’s 1931 second incompleteness theorem,"Ueber formal unentscheidbare Saetze der Principia Mathematica und verwandter Systeme," along with Cohen’s 1964 paper "The Independence of the Continuum Hypothesis" and the Zermelo-Fraenkel axiomatization of set theory assures us that

    "…By 1930, four separate distinct and more or less conflicting approaches to mathematics had been expounded, and the proponents for the several views were, it is no exaggeration to say, at war with each other. No longer could one say that a theorem of mathematics was correctly proven. (..)

    "The science which, in 1800…was hailed as the perfect science, the science which establishes its conclusions by infallible, unquestionable reasoning, the science whose conclusions are not only infallible but truths about our universe and, as some would maintain, truths in any possible universe, had not only lost its claim to truth but was now besmirched by the conflict of foundational schools and assertions about correct principles of reasoning. The pride of human reason was now on the rack." [Kline, Morris, Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty, Oxford University Press: 1980, pg. 257]

    When Zermelo-Fraenkel theory axiomatized set theory, it allowed mathematicians to develop set theory on a formal basis given a set of axioms since they could now derive ordinal numbers. This let mathematicians prove many results in set theory — provided that we accept all the ZFC axioms. However, as Samuel knows well, and as Luitzen Brouwer and his intuitionist followers contended in the 1920s, it is not necessary to accept all the axioms in mathematics in order to prove propositions. In particular, as Cohen showed, the Axiom of Choice is independent of the Zermelo-Fraenkel axioms. This means that it’s a matter of personal taste whether we choose to use the Axiom of Choice. And depending on which fundamental axioms of mathematics we choose to include in our system of mathematics, some propositions will become decidable which were undecidable in other systems of mathematics with other axioms; and vice versa.

    There is no way to objectively prove that any given system of mathematics with its particular set of fundamental axioms is any more "true" or "correct" than any other system of mathematics with a different set of axioms. If we include the Axiom of Choice we can prove one group of propositions; if we don’t, we can prove another different group of propositions. All we can do — as Goedel and Cohen showed — is realize that we must choose between mathematical consistency and mathematical completeness. If we choose completeness, then our system of mathematics will contain an unbounded quantity of propositions which are inconsistent with one another, and this will introduce paradoxes and perplexities into our system of mathematics. If, however, we choose to purge all inconsistent propositions from our system of mathematics, then there will exist infinitely many propositions which are true but which can neither be proven nor disproven within the system of mathematics which uses the particular axioms by means of which we jettisoned our mathematical inconsistencies.

    This blows the alleged universals in Badiou’s "truth procedure" and "sutures" right out of the water, and as a result

    "For centuries mathematics has been seen as the one area of human endeavor in which it is possible to discover irrefutable, timeless truths. Indeed, theorems proved by Euclid are just as true today as they were when first written down more than 2000 years ago. That the sun will rise tomorrow is less certain than that two plus two will remain equal to four.

    "However, the 20th century witnessed at least three crises that shook the foundations on which the certainty of mathematics seemed to rest. The first was the work of Kurt Goedel, who proved in the 1930s that any sufficiently rich axiom system is guaranteed to possess statements that cannot be proved or disproved within the system. The second crisis concerned the Four-Color Theorem, whose statement is so simple a child could grasp it but whose proof necessitated lengthy and intensive computer calculations. A conceptual proof that could be understood by a human without such computing power has never been found. Many other theorems of a similar type are now known, and more are being discovered every year.

    "The third crisis seems to show how the uncertainty foreshadowed in the two earlier crises is now having a real impact in mathematics. The Classification of Finite Simple Groups is…something like the basic elements of matter, and their classification can be thought of as analogous to the periodic table of the elements. Indeed, the classification plays as fundamental a role in mathematics as the periodic table does in chemistry and physics. Many results in mathematics, particularly in the branch known as group theory, depend on the Classification of Finite Simple Groups.

    "And yet, to this day, no one knows for sure whether the classification is complete and correct.

    "As Davies puts it:

    We have thus arrived at the following situation. A problem that can be formulated in a few sentences has a solution more than ten thousand pages long. The proof has never been written down in its entirety, may never be written down, and as presently envisaged would not be comprehensible to any single individual. The result is important and has been used in a wide variety of other problems in group theory, but it might not be correct." [Davies, Brian, "Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty," 2005,

    At this point, Samuel, you can probably see why it appears that what you describe as "Badiou’s very serious use of maths that attracted me to his work in the first place" is far from serious. In fact, Badiou’s use of math seems the very opposite of serious — it seems trivial and meretricious. In short, Badiou appears to engage in classic pseudo-science. Badiou invokes a particular philosophy of mathematics (post-intuitionism) dressed up in the smoke and mirrors of the Zermelo-Fraenkel theorem in order to convince us that the math somehow carries its golden aura of wonderfulness over into the particular personal aesthetic belief system Badiou espouses — namely, his eccentric variant of existentialism dragged kicking and screaming into the arts (except with post-intutionist mathematical philosophy as the motive instead of existential despair).

    But that doesn’t work, because

    “Mathematicians [have incorrectly claimed] that mathematical knowledge is more certain than other forms of knowledge. (..) Mathematical knowledge may, just like our scientific knowledge, be deep and broad, it may be subtle and wonderfully explanatory, it may be uncontroversially accepted; but it cannot be certain.” [Deutsch, David, The Fabric of Reality, Allen Lane: The Penguin Press, 1997]

    In fact, you don’t even need mathematics to do what Badiou calls "truth procedures." Which means, yes, you guessed it…you don’t even need math to do valid science. I’m sure you’re familiar with the mathematical philosophy of fictionalism, which Hartry H. Field introduced in his 1980 text Science Without Numbers: A Defence of Nominalism.

    As you know, Field proved that mathematics is entirely unnecessary for doing science, and he did it by axiomatizing Newtonian mechanics without reference to numbers or functions. And having shown that mathematics is unnecessary to do science, Field proceeds to recategorize mathematics as a pack of lies which form a (temporarily) useful fiction.

    So where does this put Badiou’s invocation of ZFC in his so-called "truth procedure," huh? Right up the creek, that’s where. Badiou constantly appeals to mathematics as the ideal model in truth procedures, but as Field has shown, math is a pack of lies. Useful lies, but still lies. And Field wasn’t the first. "There is strictly no such thing as mathematical proof: we can, in the last analysis, do nothing but point; proofs are what Littlewood and I call gas, rhetorical flourishes designed to affect psychology, picture on board in the lecture, devices to stimulate the imaginations of pupils."[Hardy, G. H., "Mathematical Proof," Mind, Vol. 38, 1929, pp. 1-25.]

    When you assert that "Philosophically, [Badiou's] notions of truth go beyond the notion of the correctness of assertions. Rather, a truth is something that you dedicate yourself to a universal that isn’t just sitting there but that needs to be brought into this particular world, through what he calls the subjective truth procedure," this just flatly contradicts the basic realities of modern mathematics revealed by Goedel’s second completeness proof and Cohen’s 1964 continuum proof, for what these proofs demonstrate is that there are no universal foundations in mathematics. You can’t talk about "universals" in the post-Cohen-Goedel world of mathematics. A proposition which can be proven true in one system of maths with one set of axioms becomes undecidable in another system of maths which uses a different set of axioms. And there is no way to prove that one set of axioms is any more "true" or "universal" than any other set of axioms. What Goedel and Cohen have shown us is that axioms are like seasonings on food — one group of mathematicians prefers one kind, another group prefer another kind.

    This is why Badiou’s use of mathematics is so deeply unserious, and in fact appears wholly trivial. Badiou’s flirtation with pseudoscientific math-speak seems like just what you’d expect from an old Maoist who got marinated in Lacan and Derrida — it looks to me like nothing but vacuous word-salad. Contrary to the assertion that "Badiou’s work most certainly presents a strong case that not everybody in the 21st century needs to be a fox," Goedel’s and Cohen’s proofs proved irrefutably and conclusively that there is no such thing as a "universal" system of mathematics which is valid everywhere and for all time, so those guys made mathematics as a whole untenable for hedgehogs. Instead, mathematicians found themsleves forced to choose between axioms which give you an incomplete system of mathematics which is consistent, and an inconsistent system of mathematics which is complete. You cannot have both. This means that ever since 1931, all mathematicians have been foxes. Hedgehogs like David Hilbert, whose formalist pipe dream of the Entschiedungsproblem held out the fictitious hope of providing a universal and complete foundation for mathematics free of logical contradictions, got blown out of the water. Moreover, Kurt Goedel proved it mathematically…which is quite diabolical, if you think about it.

    You go on to say, Samuel, "I don’t think an art that is not concerned with truth is best described as `false.’ At best, you might think of words like opportunistic, or kitsch."

    But this is the very oldest and most jejune modernist canard of all — Clement Greenberg’s yowl that "All art is either high art, or kitsch." We now know that this just doesn’t hold water, and at least five different bodies of evidence converge to debunk Greenberg’s howler.

    1. Much that is today considered "high art" was not long ago judged "kistch." For example, the Salon de Refuses to which the impressionist painters were consigned, while painters like Bougereau were considered the true masters. Today, this judgment has completely reversed. Moreover, we see signs that this artistic consensus is once again reversing, as Tom Wolfe points out in his wickedly funny essay, "Picasso: The Bougereau of the 21st Century?" Bougereau and other 19th century realists have skyrocketed in critical esteem of late, while the critical ranking of the abstract expressionists has recently plummeted.

    2. In music, we get the same claim from Schoenberg: "If it is art, it is not for the many, and if is for the many, it is not art." But Schoenberg obviously failed to realize that this is a self-contradictory variant of Epimenides’ Paradox — for once the crtitics and the elites of society judge a particular composer’s work to be high art, it gets taught and promoted as great art, and as a result it becomes extremely popular among the audience of serious listeners — but once this happens, it cannot be art, since it is now popular among serious listeners! Thus we arrive at the bizarre paradox that Bach’s music cannot be true art, for Bach remains the most popular of all classical composers. But wait…it gets worse! No classical music (according to this crazy self-defeating reasoning) can be true art...for once any piece of classical music becomes popular, it ceases to be art. Therefore the only classical music which qualifies as true art is the music of complete nonentities like Francesco (not Frank, Francesco) Zappa — but as soon as we all realize this, we recognize it as true art and it therefore becomes popular, and thus ceases to be true art. Therefore Schoenberg’s bizarrely incoherent claim is inherently self-contradictory and must be thrown out as ludicrous.

    3. Ethnomusicological studies have shown that music is highly culture-bound, and the perceived quality ("truth"?) of music is highly dependent on intimate familiarity with the cultural milieu in which the music was produced: "I once attended such a concert in Bangkok that was totally mystifying. I could see that the audience was utterly enraptured, swooning at moments of apparently overwhelming emotional beauty that made no impression on me whatsoever; not only that, I couldn’t distinguish them from any other moments in the piece." [Eno, Brian, "Resonant Complexity," The Whole Earth Review, 1995, pg. 42]

    4. Judgements of who are "great" (read: true) composers have changed radically throughout Western history — even very recent Western history. For example, one book in my library dates from the 1910s and contains a frontispiece showing a pantheon of the great composers. At the top we find Handel (!) flanked by Bach and Beethoven…but then below them we find Weber (!) and Gounod (!!). Bach has risen markedly in critical esteem since then, and Weber and Gounod have both tanked. So in the 1910s, Weber and Gounod produced "high art" but today we would judge them to be producers of something closer to kitsch. This poses real problems for any effort to draw a hard-and-fast distinction twixt "high" (read: true) and "low" (read: kitsch) art.

    5. All high art, upon close examination, contains substantial elements of kitsch, and all low art (or kitsch) contains significant elements of high (or "true") art. Examples abound. For instance, Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2 quotes kistchy pop tunes like "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean" and "Pig Town Fling"– but it’s indisputably high art. On the other end of the spectrum, a close examination of the mixdown and DSP effects used in many rap songs reveals musical structure of astonishing sophistication. In fact, the entire trend of the past 50 years has been a massive radical move away from the infantile and meretriciously failed Clement Greenberg-style effort to enforce a Soviet-style distinction between "high" (or "true") and "low" (or kistch) art, and toward a blending of both the beaux arts and kitsch.

    The most obvious recent example of this radical contemporary blending of so-called "kistch" and so-called "high" (or in your words, true) art would be Bang On A Can’s Lost Objects, which crunches together in a kind of musical nuclear fusion a Baroque oratorio with a libretto by Barbara Artman, performed by a choir and original baroque instruments courtesy of the Concerto Koeln, with live synths and electronics remixed by D. J. Spooky.

    If you’re going to try to tell me BOAC’s Lost Objects isn’t "true"art, I don’t have much patience with that.

    So the entire effort to pigeionhole music into two ghettos, one labelled "high art" ("true" in your terminology) and "low art" (kitsch in your terminology) is an intellectual cul de sac. Moreover, it’s not even a new fallacy. This modernist fallacy is as old as the hills. Clement Greenberg made his ridiculous claim in the 1950s, but before him Schoenberg made his absurd pronouncement in the 1930s, and before him, Alban Berg made the same faulty claim before WW I: "The artist of genius is the student of nature. His words are lessons, his actions, examples to follow, and his works the revelation of the truth." [Berg, Alban, Ecrits, Paris: Bourgeois, 1985, original 1911: pg. 22]

    So Badioui’s argument is just the old Alban Berg claim with some mathematical pseudo-science slapped on top like new chrome on an old junker car to sucker in the rubes in a used car lot. But, as we have seen, Badiou’s appeal to mathematics fails because

    "Modern compositions, like all earlier music, must affirm themselves or disappear by their musical merit, without the intrusion of pseudo-scientific speculation." [Lloyd, L.S., "Pseudo-science in Musical theory," in: Proceedings of the Muscial Association, 70th session, March 1944, pp. 35-51, pg. 47]

    And consequently

    "It is only, in my opinion, about how to renounce an illusion: the illusion that consists of believing that the scientist can guarantee the value of a musical creation." [Nattiez, J. J., La Relation Oblique Entre Le Musicologue Et La Compositeur, pp. 121-133]

    Just as Badiou’s contemporary appeal to math fails, Berg’s much older appeal to nature likewise collapses because

    "For two thousand years music theorists searched for a
    `natural’ explanation of musical pitch systems and syntax. Their point of departure was, as a rule, some sort of acoustical data — the lengths of vibrating strings, the overtone series, or some other natural property of sound. Using such data, an attempt was made to show that this or that system was natural, hence, by extension, necessary and valid. (..) The development of new tonal systems in the West, the study of the history of Western music, and research in comparative musicology made it clear that musical styles are not natural…but are learned and conventional."
    [Meyer, L. B., Music, The Arts and Ideas, 1967, pg. 288.]

    Given your admiration of Alain Badiou, Samuel, I’m surprised you didn’t cite Guerino Mazzola, since his mathematical pseudo-science proves even more sophisticated than Badiou’s. The gaping chasm in both Mazzola’s and Badiou’s work, of course, is the lack of a credible connection between mathematics and aesthetics.

    "All `scientific justification’ of such [musical] practices is outlandish. It assigns quite unduly the descriptive prerogative to science (..) We already know that the abusive invocation of the supposed scientificity of a purely arbitrary contingent social system can be enormously dangerous: such `scientificity’ helps justify the recourse to terrorism to implacably impose an `ideal’ orthodoxy." [Risset, Jean-Claude, Le Compositeur et les machines, in : Musique Contemporaine, comment l'etre? Revue Esprit, No. 3, 1985, pg. 71.]

    Samuel goes on to claim that "Some ideas are great, others are stupid and boring, and that’s what truth is about." But music isn’t about ideas, it’s about sounds. If music were all about ideas, the composer would walk onstage, announce, "Here’s my idea for the composition," and the audience would listen and applaud and go home. Nobody does that. The delusion that a piece of music amounts to an "idea" remains the bane of the 20th century. It’s a deadly all-head, no-heart dementia that Harry Partch correctly railed against when Partch condemned the definition of music as "a theory that exists seventy miles above the earth." Music is sound. What we need is more kick-ass sounds in music, and a lot less goddamn ideas. To hell with ideas. Give me a combination of sounds that holds me by the nose and kicks me in the ass. That’s what makes music great, not some abstract vaporous idea. Moreover, the devil’s in the details. If Samuel will give me 5 ideas he claims are boring, I bet I can cite at least 1 composition based on each allegedly boring idea that’s nonetheless great music. I don’t even buy the fantasy that there’s any such thing as a "great" or a "boring" idea for a piece of music. There’s great and boring music…but there’s no necessary connection between the quality of the idea, and the quality of the music. I mean, this is common sense — what’s the "idea" behind the Mona Lisa? It’s some babe sitting in a chair. That’s a great idea? Please! But it’s a great painting! Clearly you don’t need a great idea to do great art.

    Samuel continues with "Philosophy is entirely incapable of saying what idea is great and what idea is stupid. No such criteria can be supplied." But that’s exactly what Alain Badiou is doing! Badiou’s post-intuitionism is a branch of the philosophy of mathematics. Mathematics has split into a huge civil war of competing philosophies over the past 100 years: Platonism, empiricism, logicism, formalism, fictionalism, intuitionism, constructivism, cognitive-process theories,
    social realist theories…mathematics is now a great big Mexican fire drill with all these guys running around at war with all the other guys, and depending on which philosophy you buy into, you get a certain set of axioms which allow you to prove certain propositions, but which leave other propositions undecidable. Badious’s turgid tomes are all about philosophy — the philosophy of mathematics applied to the creative products of culture. So when you talk about Badious’s idea of "true" music, kiddo, don’t you realize it’s all based on the abuse and misuse of the philosophy of mathematics?

    Since Samuel evidently reads French, I’d recommend two French authors as a corrective for Badiou’s pseudo-science — J. J. Nattiez’s Le Combat De Chronos Et D’Orphee, 1993, and Laurent Fichet’s Les théories scientifiques de la musique XIXe et XXe siècles, J. Vrin: Paris, 1996. These books will serve as potent Drano to clean out all that turgid mathematical pseudo-science coming out the Ecole Normale Superieure.

    Last but far from least, Samuel remarks that "Schoenberg’s 2nd quartet opens up possibilities for musical thinking, and I couldn’t say the same for anything by, say, Christopher Rouse that I’ve heard. In that sense Schoenberg’s work is part of the unfolding of a truth and Rouse’s isn’t. And Badiou allows me to think this idea and Danto doesn’t." This claim is something I disagree with so vehemently there are scarcely words in the English language to express it. Leaving aside the putative value of the Schoenberg piece, Samuel may want to check out Christopher Rouse’s compositions Ku Ka Ilimoku (1978) and Ogoun Badagris (1976). These are not only tremendously fertile pieces of music, they’re part of a long and vibrant tradition of dynamite percussion muisc that reaches back all the way to Varese’s Ionisation (1931) and forward to John Cage’s Three Constructions (1939-41) and further forward to Partch compositions like Daphne In the Dunes (1955) to Iannis Xenakis’ Persephassa (1969) to Gwyn Pritchard’s Earthcrust (1980) and even further forward to pieces like David Lang’s So-Called Laws Of Nature (2001) and John Luther Adams’ The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies (2006).

    Rouse’s Ku Ka Ilimoku and Ogoun Badagris, aside from being hugely & perenially popular pieces of modern music, have served as an immense inspiration for a lot of people. For one thing, these pieces are intensely physical. For another, they blow open the door to an incredible sound-world of wild sensuousness and hair-raising intensity. And then there’s the meticulous rhythmic construction, which continually repays study. Lemme tell ya, I’ll die a happy camper if I can compose something as good as Christopher Rouse’s Ku Ka Ilimoku.


  9. says

    Hi Lawrence, I can’t fully answer here because the bits of Badiou that I studied have been mostly his grand theory works, less his critical works addressed to particular “truth domains”. I’ve yet to read the Manual of Inaesthetics (which I do think is a wonderful title!) and any more profound study on his theory of love (though snippets of it appear in the examples given in the big books).
    What I do know is: in true love, everything changes for the lover once he or she has admitted that there is somebody outside themselves that they don’t have anything in common with, yet with whom they participate in a new “impossible” subject, a body-of-two which they form. Love is based on ‘a foundational Two’. This acceptance of the complete otherness of the other with whom you’re going to be the love couple is not thinkable in terms of the world such as it was before you met this other who becomes your lover, so love changes every aspect of your life – and that’s how love is universal in Badiou (universal for him means: not determined by anything limited or particular that existed before).
    I also know that Badiou puts all this in provocatively un-politically correct terms, which may make some of his work hard to accept. His theories are utterly unusable for any type of gender activism or sexual identity activism; and by stressing this Otherness, we find Badiou gravitating towards a language of heterosexuality. He doesn’t so much say that homosexual love is not possible, but he’s making otherness his central theme and calling this love-for-otherness heterosexuality.
    As to the universal and the situational: Badiou does try to bridge these two a bit. The universal is for him the exception to the situation, but on the other hand, universals have to unfold in some world, so he does think the situational as well. An intricate sketch for a theoretical account of how universal and situational interact is given in Logiques des Mondes. Briefly, within a situation, an Event can appear which is something totally unforeseeable but which gives a glimpse of a universal that is missing (such as equal rights for some repressed group in our society shown by a revolt, or an understanding of noise, or silence as a positive material in the musical language shown by a radical work, or a concept of ‘gravity’ shown by – oh well – a falling apple). If you witness such an event, you have the choice to be part of its consequences, which means you enter the ‘truth subject’, which is a process that attempts to bring into the world a new body. It does so by treating everything it encounters in the world “point by point”, deciding how the new truth changes things in the world. For example, if slavery is to be abolished, you have to change the way plantations are run, and there is no choice here.

  10. says

    John: one more thing about kitsch – it’s not at all necessary to see pop music as kitsch by those Europeans who use that word. A lot of it is kitsch, of course: derivative cheap tawdry nonsense which is easy to distribute. And a lot of it isn’t, of course. Personally, I hardly ever would hold up examples from pop music as kitsch. I’d rather target Rouse’s trombone concerto – the one piece of his I heard. It was conducted in Amsterdam to end a concert that also included Ives’ 4th symphony. Prior to the performance, Slatkin had been interviewed in a newspaper, and he had said that Ives was of course very interesting but really an amateur composer who didn’t really have an ear for balance and blah, blah, blah, so Slatkin was so kind to also bring us the work of a Real Composer, which turned out to be a work of intolerable turgidity and false profundity. As Feldman puts it, “In music, when you do something new, something original, you’re an amateur. Your imitators – these are the professionals.”

  11. says

    Samuel, while I appreciate the equanimity of your response (an equanimity which my comment lacked), I am not at all convinced that Badiou’s “truth” will be a better word for describing the “innovation” and “fertility” of Schoenberg’s musical discoveries.
    A word’s meanings and “aura of associations” (if I may borrow Kyle’s phrase from a different context) are analogous to a Venn diagram when used in communication. That is to say, nobody’s understanding of a word overlaps completely with anybody else’s. The higher the degree of overlap, the easier the communication. The “overlap” of the Venn diagram represents the commonality of the vocabulary. Obviously, this commonality is not universal, but many words overlap enough with enough other language-participants that I believe it is an overstatement to say that there is no common vocabulary. If there were no common vocabulary, we could not converse. I also agree with the poet and linguist Jack Spicer’s apothegm that everybody has their own language; because: anybody’s vocabulary and aura of associations with their vocabulary are unique.
    Badiou’s “truth,” in your first accounting, overlapped enough with my understanding that I was willing to entertain it. Badiou’s “simulacrum,” “disaster,” “obscurantist,” “betrayal,” and “reactionary” overlap a lot less, and, to my uninitiated eye, they look for the most part like un-helpful substitutions for perfectly serviceable already-existing words and concepts. I believe that “neo-vocabularist” is a useful shorthand term for describing this procedure; I’m not surprised that it is meeting with resistance. In Baudrillard’s work — where I first encountered neo-vocabularism — I felt a distinct sense that he was snickering at the misunderstandings his re-defining of words would engender in the uninitiated. I have not read Badiou, so I can’t accuse him of such triviality, but that is the association which I bring to the neo-vocabularist procedure, which no doubt colors my response.
    I do take exception to Marxist university professors (for such Badiou is, according to the internet) condemning others for not doing everything they can to improve the world. Such professors have “bad faith” in the legalistic, not existential, sense. In their condemnations of people’s failures to theorize and enact the total transformation of society, they implicitly demand a standard of behavior that they have no intention of meeting themselves. Perhaps Badiou communicates this paradox in the most forgiving and humane way imaginable; perhaps the standard he espouses he recognizes as saintly, as an ideal which few humans meet. I’m doubtful, but pending further investigation I should give him the benefit of the doubt.
    Lawrence, I agree that music and language are different, in that music does not “communicate meaning.” I need to study sociolinguistics. Years ago I worked in a homeless shelter. The director was an ex-SDS radical who left a sociology professor-ship to work in homeless services. I won’t forget a training he gave in which he said that some huge percentage of the communication-content of oral communication is non-verbal. I don’t remember the percentage; it was something like 75%. Only 25% (if I remember correctly) of the communication-content came from the meanings of the words; the rest of the communication-content came from:
    * volume;
    * tone of voice;
    * rate of speech;
    * physical stance.
    In other words, a huge percentage of the communication-content of an oral communication came from its music! From its:
    * volume;
    * timbre;
    * rhythm.
    In any musical style, its rhetorical system — its “common vocabulary” — makes possible a range of experiences. These experiences cannot be reduced to a “meaning,” but they do communicate; to use an example at hand, the “After” movement of “Sunken City” communicates mourning.
    Music is not only “about” feeling. But the way it communicates feeling is not altogether dissimilar from how oral communication does — because the similarities of language and music are reciprocal. “Language is like music” sounds a lot different than “music is like language”; logically, similarity should be reciprocal, but that’s not how people experience analogies.
    Sorry if I’m beating the dead obvious here.

  12. richard says

    “If you wish to converse with me, define your terms” Voltaire
    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,’ it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’
    Alice in Wonderland

  13. richard says

    “I do believe that there is such a thing as ‘Truth’; I just don’t think we’d see it even if it came up and kicdked us in our collective butts!”

  14. says

    Mclaren: you get your maths information right and Badiou wrong. Badiou’s idea of maths is not that “maths is true”, but rather that truths are undecidable. For that, he uses set theory and model theory, and he reads Cohen’s forcing method as an analogy to his *philosophical* notion of the truth procedure. The basic decision that his theory makes (and please note the word ‘decision’: the fact that the axioms themselves are decisions figures importantly in his theoretical framework. ) is that mathematical set theory is a theory that thinks being qua being, which is his famous dictum “mathematics equals ontology” – which is NOT saying that “mathematics is truth”. In Badiou’s philosophical system, ZFC set theory is a theory that thinks being qua being – a philosophical DECISION, I repeat, but no less serious for it – or more generally, maths (insofar as it is based on ZFC) is a theory of existence.
    From that first step, he then READS mathematical reasoning for its implications, incompleteness being one such very important implication, and his notion of the truth procedure has much more to do with incompleteness than with the validity of the axioms as such. In fact, the account of the truth procedure in Being and Event is closely modelled on the technical details of Cohen’s forcing method.
    All this then allows him to write critiques of notions and theories from past philosophers. Infinity, for example, was often invoked by philosophers from the past, who did not yet have a theory at their disposal that actually treats infinity on quite the level of ZFC theory.
    ‘Event’ is the other basic notion in Badiou, but he is very careful to make the ‘event’ something that can NOT be theorized in his theory of existence, because the way he constructs the theoretical notion of the event contradicts the Axiom of Foundation, making the existence of events literally unthinkable, given the primal decision that the thought of being qua being is given by ZFC. Yet they happen.
    For further details, please read Being and Event. It will a.o. clarify the notion of universality the way Badiou constructs it, which is not contradiction, as you say, by Gödel and Cohen, but in fact based on their work. It may of course not be to your taste, and you will probably find problem areas in it – if you want to attack the theoretical structure, you will find a way in. It’s, after all, never difficult to disbelieve a philosophy, since any philosophy is based on decisions that you can challenge; and therefore it’s never difficult to be unimpressed. It’s always more difficult to be impressed.
    For the rest, you are overinterpreting. “If you’re going to try to tell me BOAC’s Lost Objects isn’t “true”art, I don’t have much patience with that.”?????? Well partner, I’m sorry to disappoint, but I wasn’t going to try to tell you that.

  15. says

    John, well, I think that ‘neo-vocabularism’ as you put it can be a very good tool for philosophy – and I would say all philosophers do it. It’s part of the trade to use words in a way that is coherent, which the words in their everyday existence simply are not. But some philosophers can do it in a way that makes us feel they’re using our language. This has lots of advantages: they will be easier to read or accept, but those advantages are mostly rhetorical. The more open “neo-vocabularists” are at least making no bones about what they’re up to: which is formation of thought. They don’t do it behind your back, so to say.
    Your point of moral practicality I can understand, but I have not studied that aspect of Badiou’s biography, so for the moment I just stick to what I know of his theories.

  16. says

    Oh, and Mclaren: I’ll give those percussion pieces a try some time. I’ve heard people say that before. But the trombone concerto: if you threaten to play it to me, I’ll give you all the names you need and more!

  17. says

    John, why does language communicate meaning? Because we decide it should. The point of my example was that there is nothing meaningful about t-a-b-l-e, except for the cultural contract we’ve made to let it signify a surface supported by legs. In the same way, music’s ability to communicate meaning is completely a matter of our collective decision to let it happen or not let it happen – if we decide minor is sad and major is happy, then that’s what they are. If we don’t like those kinds of connections, then we will avoid making them. Of course, we run the risk of folly in trying to convince a listener that t-a-b-l-e spells Indigestion, which probably won’t be very successful, as far as communication goes.

    So I avoid comparing music to language because my cultural context treats them differently – which, by the way, is fine with me, since it allows music to be just as specific or as general as I need it to be.

    Samuel – I’m not sure how your last sentence follows the one that precedes it. First you speak of choice, then the absence of choice. I’m missing the connection. As to universals and situationals, I’ve found it more fruitful to focus on situationals, shedding light on universals as the situations unfold. Shakespeare begins with an old king divvying up his lands; Beckett begins with a vaudeville pair’s silly banter. The universals that emerge from these situations are far richer in associative power than if they had begun with more abstract concepts. In that sense, the artist and the philosopher may proceed from opposite directions.

  18. says

    Lawrence: the idea is that if you accept for a political truth that every man should be free, that in itself is a choice (and in this case, because of universality, the only true choice – its opposite, “it should be such that some are slaves and others free”, would not be a truth). But if you do choose to accept that truth, you will have to be part of abolition, and it follows that you must change the way you run plantations. You can’t submit to the doctrine of universal freedom and keep slaves. That’s not an option. If you do keep your slaves, you commit treason to the cause of abolition.

  19. says

    Oh, and, Lawrence, re: your second point: in Badiou, art is not a part of philosophy either, and the universals of art are not “messages” or pre-determined abstract concepts from which to derive a work. In Badiou, something is universal because it is not governed by particulars that are reducible to the situation as it was found. Existing concepts are part of the situation just as much as anything else. A true art in this sense is based not on existing concepts (which is exactly why Kyle’s description of the “truth” in Rouse’s orchestral pieces failed the criterium of universality), but it is an investigation that can lead to the formation of concepts of its own.
    Beckett’s theatrical vision has a strong comic dimension and so happened to naturally allow for vaudeville banter: this was part of his situation that he could use in his art. At the same time, Beckett’s work is not just vaudeville. Beckett’s vision is not determined by this particular pre-existing style. On the other hand, Shakespearean high drama could not be a meaningful part of Beckett’s theatre – it just has no room for kings dividing up lands and daughters warring over them, since his is not a theatre in which that type of big things can meaningfully happen.

  20. peter says

    Further to mclaren’s post, there is a deeper and longer-standing problem in relying on mathematics to talk about “truth”: that is the reliance of most of 20th-century mathematics on a purely formal understanding of axioms and deduction. In other words, the systems of symbols studied and explored by pure mathematicians need have no relationship to anything outside themselves, and certainly no necessary relation to anything in reality.
    The origin of this approach to mathematics lay in the proliferation of geometries that arose in the 19th century — as Frege said, these geometries were inconsistent with one another, so they can’t all be true. The response of mathematicians (starting with Mario Pieri in 1895) was to forget any connection with reality and to treat geometry as nothing more than a symbol manipulation system. In other words, geometry was no longer construed as a description of an aspect of reality, but as a very sophisticated formal game, played from an arbitrary starting point (the axioms), using rules of play agreed between the players (the rules of deductive inference).
    Interestingly, the mathematician who gave this approach wide credence, with a book published in 1899, was none other than David Hilbert, the same Hilbert whose program of a formal foundation for all mathematics would later be destroyed by the work of Kurt Godel.
    Since 1895 then, most pure mathematics has had nothing to do with representing reality. To invoke modern mathematics in the name of a theory of “truth”, as Badiou seems to have done, is bizarre in the extreme.

  21. says

    Samuel: I don’t think we’re at cross-purposes here – saying that Beckett’s theater is not just vaudeville is like saying Shakespeare’s theater is not just about kings and daughters – nobody here would argue otherwise. What I have found is this: while it is important for an artist to explore universal concepts in as many ways as possible, in creating a work of art, I am best served by starting with particulars, the investigation of which, as you put it, will lead to larger concepts.

    Again, I don’t think that’s in disagreement with anything you’ve said here.

    If an artist paints a horse one day, then the next day wonders how the horse’s head would catch the light if it was turned a bit to the left, what flecks of color would emerge, what variance in temperament the change would work on the composition, and then paints the same horse with these slight adjustments, it may be that the rest of us would say he has painted the same painting twice, while for the artist, the almost imperceptible changes would reveal a truth of enormous proportions.

    And now I see what you are up to with the word “choice.” Reminds me of Lincoln’s words, which still have nice relevance: “With some, the word “liberty” may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself and the product of his labor; while with others, the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men and the product of other men’s labor.”

  22. says

    “To invoke modern mathematics in the name of a theory of “truth”, as Badiou seems to have done, is bizarre in the extreme.”
    Peter, see my response to McLaren, above.

  23. says

    Hi Lawrence, I agree we’re not at cross purposes there. And that Lincoln quote is spot on. With respect to freedom and choice, there’s also this Feldman quote that I’ve used very often now over the years (in discussions, in a poem, and most recently in an article on Tom Johnson):
    “But it is not at all true that the more one is free, the more things one has to choose from. Actually, it is the academician who has the alternatives. Freedom is best understood by someone like Rothko, who was free to do only one thing – to make a Rothko – and did so over and over again.”

  24. says

    I read a book on Saussure’s linguistics in college, and don’t remember it much, but his view that the meanings of words are arbitrary does hold the field. I can’t argue against it, though I would quibble with how you characterize the nature of our relationship with language: You imply a much more conscious relationship with it than I believe we have. For instance, we don’t “decide” to call a table a “table,” we “agree” to. The decision was made before any of us was born for most words. Similarly, we don’t “make” the social contract, we “enter into it” through education and acculturation; or, perhaps, we “re-make” that contract every time we agree to recognize meanings. The contract pre-exists any individual’s ratification of it. On the margins of language, subcultures negotiate neologisms and new meanings for words (a friend was hurt when her teenage son referred to her religious beliefs as “sick”; he was intending the current slang meaning, which is, approximately, “cool”). Sometimes subcultural meanings wash out over into the mainstream (“cool!”), more often not.
    When philosophers do it, I want to feel that the new meanings bring fresh understandings. When Freud adopted Groddeck’s term “das Es” (“the it,” translated from pain German into Latinized English as “the id”), he brought forth a metaphor for looking at emotional and mental life that resonates for lots of people (me included). I don’t find myself resonating with Samuel’s descriptions of Badiou’s redefinitions. I coined “neo-vocabularism” to distinguish un-resonating from resonating redefinitions. Samuel took “neo-vocabularism” to refer to any philosophical redefinition of words, a not unreasonable view of the matter. And now we’re negotiating. (I’m not optimistic about the longevity of my neologism.)
    I agree with McLaren that “kitsch” is a dated pejorative, a highly subjective insult that doesn’t translate across subcultures, with, historically, a train car full of elitist baggage.

  25. says

    Typo alert: That should be “plain German,” not “pain German.”
    But given that there’s a lively discussion on aesthetics going on over Ange Mlinko’s poetry blog regarding the place of cruelty and discipline in artistic practice, maybe “pain” is right.
    And given that “pain” is French “bread,” I’m glad it’s almost time for lunch in Seattle.

  26. says

    “Kitsch” is valid as a private category, but in public discourse it’s nothing more than an unilluminating insult. As long as an artistic experience is valid on its own terms for any potential audience or participant, it is not kitsch on its own terms.
    But I have to give it to you: That example you linked to is outstanding in the field, and I wonder if anybody who worked on it thinks of it as valid. In any case, fascinating quotation for a corporate promo: Originally a charity song in which the wish for universal charity easily slips in the listener’s ear into solipsistic cultural imperialism, claimed by a multinational oil company to promote its own empire in clothing that flickers between sheep-ness and wolf-ness. “Kitsch” as a descriptor doesn’t touch it. It’s amazing they went through with it. Thanks for the link.