Sunday, 21 February 2010

Buzzing (1) Schopenhauer, amusia and the fly

Music is as direct an objectification and copy of the whole will as the world itself … Music is thus by no means like the other arts, the copy of the Ideas, but the copy of the will itself, whose objectivity these Ideas are. This is why the effect of music is much more powerful and penetrating than that of the other arts, for they speak only of shadows, but it speaks of the thing itself. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea trans. Haldane & Kemp, 1964 (I, III: 333)

It is the same will which objectifies itself both in the Ideas and in music, though in quite different ways (333).

According to all this we may regard the phenomenal world, or nature, and music as two different expressions of the same thing — Music never expresses the phenomenon, but only the inner nature, the in-itself of all phenomena, the will itself (338).

We might just as well call the world embodied music as embodied will (340).

The fly ought to be used as the symbol of impertinence and audacity; for whilst all other animals shun man more than anything else, and run away even before he comes near them, the fly lights upon his very nose. Arthur Schopenhauer, Studies in Pessimism (137).

Unlike his Romantic contemporaries … Schopenhauer views this abstract Wille as impersonal, blind, and indifferent to our wants and desires. There is no nature-for-us, much less any being-on-the-side of nature. Furthermore, the wille is, in itself, ‘nothing’, a gulf at the heart of the world as Vorstellung. Eugene Thacker, ‘Three Questions on Demonology’ in Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Theory Symposium I edited by Nicola Masciandaro, Open Access, 2010.

Neither will nor Idea, music occupies a strange position in Schopenhauer’s philosophical system as the world’s uncanny double. The will is that mythical, noumenal (quasi-)force that is the in-itself of all things from physical forces like electricity and gravity to human desires and affects all of which are imperfect copies of Platonic Ideas. The latter are pure objectifications of the will, but they are not the will itself; the will is essentially in-different to Ideas just as it is indifferent to both humans and nature, that is to say both different from and indifferent to these things even as the will is objectified in them. The will as such is the in-human force of human striving, human ‘will’: ‘the nature of man consists in this, that his will strives, is satisfied and strives anew, and so on for ever’ in an interminable process that condemns human beings to continual dissatisfaction, suffering and ultimately death – the will wills its own death in human form in its own way. The will becomes a force in humanity and nature through becoming objectified (that is, objectifying itself) in Vorstellung: chains of ideas, concepts, presentations and representations, of which the ‘human’ is one among others. The world consists purely in ideas and representations that circulate, as Eugene Thacker suggests, a void, an effect of the will’s own self-negation, a ‘“nothing”, a gulf at the heart of the world as Vorstellung’ (HG: 188).

Music is heterogeneous to all of this, even as it repeats it, with a difference. Music is not Vorstellung; it is not an Idea, a concept or representation. It is, however, some form of objectification of the will, a copy of the will, but a copy that is so close it is able to express not phenomena or nature, but ‘only the inner nature, the in-itself of all phenomena, the will itself’ (338). Since this is exactly what the will does, vis-à-vis phenomena, music is an exact copy of the will. It is the double of the will and the same. As Schopenhauer also shows, music acts on the human subject in the same way as the will, exerting powerful effects directly ‘on the inmost nature of man’ in a way inaccessible to the other arts, reason and even mathematics which are bound up in the Vorstellung of ideas and concepts (329, 336). Music bears on, indeed articulates an unconscious knowledge of the ‘inner nature of the world’ which is beyond rational comprehension and verbal expression but may be expressed in musical composition: ‘the composer reveals the inner nature of the world and expresses the deepest wisdom in a language which his reason does not understand; as a person under the influence of mesmerism tells of things which he has no conception when he wakes’ (336). Notwithstanding all these ‘figures of speech’, language has no place here: knowledge of the inner nature of the world consists in wordless articulations of sound beyond even mathematical formulation – and Schopenhauer is adamant about this, music is not merely exercitium arithmeticae occultum nescientis se numerare animi [an exercise in arithmetic in which the mind does not know it is counting]. Music is thus not an aesthetic object whose formal consistency is guaranteed by mathematics, although Schopenhauer elsewhere hesitates about this, since it would be if music were to be regarded as a closed system. As a closed numerical system, music would not be able to ‘free itself from numbers without entirely ceasing to be music’ (331). This seems to be why Schopenhauer must regard music as an open system continuous with all the music of the world, all its buzzing and twittering, its sound and fury, from the birds and the bees to thunder and lightning: ‘we might just as well call the world embodied music as embodied will’ (340).

Music therefore for Schopenhauer offers a different relation to the world, to the ‘inner nature of the world’, than to the world as Vorstellung. This is because music is always double; it is both mimetic and anti-mimetic at the same time. On the one hand, since it is a copy of nothing but the will it is heterogeneous to all Vorstellung; it lies beyond all chains of signification, beyond all aesthetic and mathematical systems, and therefore beyond any possible discursive knowledge of the world. On the other, as a copying of the will in articulated sound, music sublimates and negates the will thereby producing and presenting the void within itself, the structural ex-nihilo out of which sprang the will in the first place, into which the will dissolves in its self-negation. It therefore establishes a position for itself outside of the will. How is this position exterior to both will and Vorstelling ‘known’ or experienced? Unconscious knowledge of this position is signalled by the experience of amusia relative to the world as ‘embodied music’ (340). The ‘void’ is signalled when the world as embodied music is experienced as a violent dissonance.

Appropriately, Schopenhauer does not discuss this in any other way than through recourse to his own experience. Helen Zimmern writing in 1876, 16 years after his death, comments on Schopenhauer’s acute sensitivity to the music of the world and its propensity to produce a degree of discordant agony that cuts him off from all ideas and representations. Describing his thought processes in terms of a hunt for ideas, Schopenhauer says,

Those ideas which I capture after many fruitless chases are generally the best. But if I am interrupted in one of these pursuits, especially if it be by the cry of an animal, which pierces between my thoughts, severing head from body, as by a headsman's axe, then I experience one of those pains to which we made ourselves liable when we descended into the same world as dogs, donkeys, and ducks.

The cry of an animal – Schopenhauer evokes, in the barking of dogs, the braying of donkeys and the quacking of ducks, the bucolic music of the countryside – literally severs his head from his body, placing him at the very limit of being in acephalic agony at complete variance with the world even as he enjoys the suffering of animals as his own. This radical disconnection, then, is also a profound connection with the ‘otherness’ of the animal in the inner experience of dissonant amusia.

In a famous comment in The World as Will and Idea on the higher capacity of suffering in complex beings relative to apparently simpler life forms, Schopenhauer notes that every time a man swats a fly, he implicitly ‘acknowledges that the fly suffers less from being killed than he suffers from being annoyed by it’ (see also Anders, Evolution of Evil : 195). Here, we see that the relation between man and animal is organized by an economy of suffering /jouissance, articulated by the locus of sound, in which the fly’s buzzing signifies a sovereign indifference that is ‘enjoyed’ at the expense of the philosopher. In Studies in Pessimism, Schopenhauer writes, ‘The fly ought to be used as the symbol of impertinence and audacity; for whilst all other animals shun man more than anything else, and run away even before he comes near them, the fly lights upon his very nose’ (137). The killing of the fly acknowledges that it represents a good that is inaccessible to him. The satisfaction gained from killing it is supposed to compensate for the suffering brought by the fly’s buzzing presence. It is another way in which man’s suffering /jouissance is located in the earth and violently extracted from it in a struggle over goods and satisfactions. This economy is at the same time also an ecology; they are, at root, almost the same words (oikos + nomos or logos). While ecology may or may not condemn killing flies, it is itself nothing other than a promise to redistribute the world’s goods based on knowledge of the world as Vorstellung of good and bad goods, an allocation of resources in which scientific-ecological knowledge assumes the force of law.

But killing the fly fails to compensate for anything. On the contrary, the gap opened up between man and fly is incommensurable even as it pitches on the philosopher’s nose, thereby presenting an idea of audacious freedom and impertinent autonomy relative to human knowledge. In Schopenhauer’s amusia there is an unconscious apprehension of a profound dissonance, resonating long after the death of the fly, that resounds from a place heterogeneous to any possible economy or ecology of suffering. There is no possible compensation. Accordingly, it is only from such a position of ‘audacious’ freedom and ‘impertinent’ autonomy, recognised in the dissonant music of the fly, that speaking beings can begin to address the problem of their relation to the world.