10 November 2014

Reports of My Demise (viii)

As the seminal "sociobiological" account of the origins of many contemporary gender differences, anthropologist Lionel Tiger's Men In Groups is guaranteed to leave a bad taste in the mouth of social constructionists everywhere or their money back. This notwithstanding, his sidebar on the question of decoupling the notions of violence and aggression is, in my opinion, worth taking seriously. In it, he seeks to establish a "statement of difference between effective action which is part of a process of mastery of the environment, and that particularly intimate form of mastery which involves the violation of an organism's personal space and the infliction of physical pain." (159) This distinction, he continues,

allows more general use of the term 'aggression' so that it refers to a process rather than an event. Sociologically it implies a mode and direction of social organization rather than an actual circumstance of intimate intrusion. I want to regard aggression as a 'normal' feature of the human biologically based repertoire, a type of behaviour intrinsic to man's being and to his effective interaction with his social environment. Violence is not necessarily part of all or any of these. (159)

In short, all violence is aggressive but not all aggression is violent.

There are at least two important lessons here for musicians. First and foremost is that the mimetic "violence" of late-period Beethoven or Coltrane is generally overstated. Real musical violence lives in the realm of conceptual pieces which call for the destruction of instruments onstage or the lobbing of explosives into the audience; it lives where acoustic instruments and electronic playback alike are amplified to the point that they become irreparably injurious to the human sensory organs at which they are literally and figuratively aimed; and it lives anywhere lyrical content is introduced which is, relative to its audience, disturbing enough to inflict lasting emotional harm. Interstellar Space certainly is aggressive, but played at a reasonable volume for voluntary audients, it is not injurious, and so I would argue not inherently violent; neither people nor instruments are irreparably damaged by it. Saxophone reeds and drum heads are, after all, consumable items; I have heard colleagues liken the former to tampons.

Now, perhaps all of this is relative. Perhaps there are indeed people whose expectations of what music, art, and public deportment ought to be can be so traumatically violated by "dark," "angry," aggressive music as to emerge from the experience with permanent emotional scars. But when such mimetic or metaphorical violence of a player "attacking" an instrument has become so disturbing as to be received as real violence by the spectator, has a breakdown not occurred, certainly in cultural convention, but I would not hesitate to ask in common sense as well? The seeking of a perfect allegorical resemblance between the technical parameters of an art form, the physical-technical gestures necessary to execute it, and an imagined utopian world without violence is one of the less constructive inheritances of postmodernity. It is a textbook case of left becoming right, a faux-liberationist tack with a decidedly repressive outcome.

The second and final point I want to draw from this is hinted at by Tiger's use of the term "mastery" and the distinction he makes between gaining it over one's environment and over one's fellow (wo)man. I am admittedly a bit out of my league here, but it seems that the notion of mastery has taken a similar deconstructionist beating as that of aggression, and for not much better reasons. Here, though, I think it is at least possible to grant the relative nature of the concept without disavowing its usefulness. Indeed, the political problem peculiar to the art world of very particular aesthetic values being installed and enforced on the institutional level often relies on culture- and ideology-specific notions of mastery for its rudder, but I would argue that this is something of a separate question from that of mastery's abstract value and potential. Baby > Bathwater.

If cliches about the two kinds of music ("good music and the other kind") have worn thin by this stage in the game, so be it, but at least for me this one only resonates more deeply with age and experience. There are whole genres of music I loathe whose masters nonetheless get over to a certain degree, and for me that is why mastery still matters. Do what you love and invest the entire fabric of your being in it. It won't beget a perfect world, but it might at least make our time left in the one we have a trifle more enjoyable and fulfilling. As a child of the 80s, I was weaned on this kind of motivational talk; now I often feel as if I have lived, for not all that long, to see it deconstructed out and compromised away. Perhaps this is just an inevitable rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. The self-esteem stuff was always overbearing and precious, but frankly I think it might be the last line of defense against a marauding nihilism that is the inevitable consequence of a post-rationalist, post-aestheticist, post-purpose society. Certainly if even art cannot be a safe outlet for aggression, there is little to look forward to.

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