15 December 2021

Tensions, Releases, Unities

Christopher Lasch
The Minimal Self (1984)
The fundamental importance of the distinction between self and not-self—the source of all other distinctions, it has rightly been said—might suggest that it serves as the first principle of mental life, the axiomatic premise without which mental life cannot even begin. In fact, however, it is a distinction that is accepted, in the infancy of life, only with the greatest reluctance, after fierce inner struggles to deny it; and it remains the source of our existential uneasiness, as well as the source of our intellectual mastery of the world around us.
(p. 163)

[it] presents itself, at first, as a painful separation from the surrounding environment, and this original experience of overwhelming loss becomes the basis of all subsequent experiences of alienation, of historical myths of a lost golden age, and of the myth of the primary fall from grace, which finds its way into so many religions. Religion, like art at its best, seeks precisely to restore the original sense of union with the world, but only after first acknowleding the fact of alienation, conceived as original sin, as hubris followed by divine retribution, as existential loneliness and separation, or in the arts (especially in music, which conveys these experiences at their deepest level), as the rhythm of tension and release followed by inner peace.
(p. 164)


When even a thinker of Lasch's caliber can succumb to the most threadbare, sentimental cliches about music, surely we are up against something uniquely insidious. What on earth could it be?

The assertion that this whole drama of human development is played out anew in each cycle of musical
tension and release followed by inner peace
through which the artwork
conveys these experiences at their deepest level
this raises myriad questions and answers none.


How close is the correspondence,




might any of this be

And what,

any given level of convey[ance]



Whatever truth or untruth there is in the psychoanalytic account of primal alienation as against an original sense of union , it seems absurd to claim that this drama is played out anew, even metaphorically, with each ensuing cycle of musical tension and release. Or, if it is not absurd, then I can at least say, speaking only for myself, that the mere implausibility of all of this is only the second most harrowing concern which emerges from the above. The first is that the mere thought sounds harrowing, exhausting, and ultimately, monotonous. What fresh hell would this be, to pass through

fierce inner struggles

overwhelming loss

divine retribution

existential loneliness





over again


I thought the whole point of the Freudian angle was that


pass through

if you're William James
Billy Graham,


but not more than that

(And not never.)

Debussy: "Let's leave, he's starting to develop." A terrible way to encounter new music, perhaps, but nonetheless totally understandable once a certain kind of development has become (too) familiar.


These days, much music does not fit neatly into either the fact of alienation on one hand nor the original sense of union on the other. Much of it certainly does not fit into some metaphorical journey between the two. And I can't imagine that elevating these concepts to archetypes of musical or artistic experience gets us any closer to understanding anything that is significant or even real about all but a handful of exceptional works. Of course, it depends on how you look at it.

When music became individualistic it became stylistically pluralistic too, and this was the death knell for the universalistic pretensions of such venerable constructs as tension and release, although, as we see above, they have not gone quietly. They do not need to go at all, actually, but we do need to be responsible about any claims made on their behalf. Certainly they may remain valid analyses of the historical eras to which they belong, and they remain available for artists to make use of, part of the postmodern grab bag of styles and aesthetics; all such proof as historians or artists may seek being, of course, in the proverbial pudding.

But the fact remains that today (and for some long time now, it must be said), music may seem to do both or neither of these things depending on how it is thought to work, how it is described phenomenologically, how it is actually/materially made, distributed, and consumed, etc. So, if Lasch's "participatory democracy" cannot afford "double standards," it would seem, even in the area of society where the very notion of unitary standards is itself most problematic, then either his is a far more reactionary program than it purports to be, or, more likely I think, the institution of art has been treated too much like any other social institution without accounting for what is different about it. Perhaps also the metaphorical level has, as it so often does, become conflated with the material one.

The same flattening effect follows in the wake of Lasch's deterministic tendencies, which show themselves sporadically but consistently throughout his whole writing career. Having elevated classical ideals to normative ideals, not only are other kinds of music non-normative, they are not even strictly speaking individualistic; rather, they are determined by social conditions. I am not the right person, and this is not the right place, to undertake a broad consideration of the philosophical discourse surrounding determinism and free will. I can approach this topic only with a very narrow focus on the place of art under "participatory democracy." In that department, and with apologies to any more philosophically sophisticated readers, I take it as axiomatic that in the area of art, the social fiction of agency and free will has many benefits and few drawbacks.

There is, coincidentally enough, a much more literal, functional, material aspect to the way this dialectic between determinism and free will is played out in the late modern and "postmodern" art milieux that Lasch considers explicitly in The Minimal Self. The elision of selfhood and of the will which Lasch finds so symptomatic of a desperate "survivalist" mentality has, whatever else one thinks about it, nonetheless proven itself many times over to be an unusually fruitful generative strategy. That many of these artists have also generated eloquent and learned rationalizations for their work might less easily be taken at face value, especially by someone of Lasch's sensibility, on the grounds that vehemence of rationalization can just as easily be evidence for an element of denial as for an element of truth. But the fact remains, I would argue, that not only have the ideas survived the passing of the milieu with which Lasch identifies them, they have also added a new drama to the artist's toolbox in the form of this dialectic between determinacy and indeterminacy, between letting sounds be what they are and wilfully organizing them into higher-order agglomerations.

Here is the raw material for all the existential metaphors any critic could ever hope to read into an artwork; except that in this case, for technical reasons, it is easy enough for the artists to render the dialectic comprehensibly, right on the artistic surface. There is then no need to outsource the overlay of tortured metaphors to a pretentious, self-dealing, parasitic critical establishment, and there is every reason to expect that even people who don't like it cannot fail, nevertheless, to get it. Frankly, I myself don't like it very often, but fortunately enough for me, I came along at a time when these ideas were neither old nor new in art-historical terms but rather somewhere in transition between the two, and I think this might be the ideal location from which to consider, at least for myself, what they may or may not have to offer.

The faux-drama of tension and release, meanwhile, has been enshrined a few times over in abstract schemata of reductive analysis from which, as with Lasch's determinism, the ultimate product is an intensely normative kind of thinking which makes a hash even of what narrow individualism did exist in the common practice era. The virtue of these analytic systems is that they are at least functional, or so I am told, for certain practitioners to hone their craft. The proof of that is also in the pudding. I find that it usually tastes rancid. In any case, Lasch's existentialist schema of tension and release has not even this paltry claim to practical application.


To give just one close-at-hand example of a level of analysis which is totally oblique to Lasch's thesis of infantile "alienation" yet ultimately speaks more concretely and usefully, I think, to the issues raised by it, Dean MacCannell has pointed out that
Modernized peoples, released from primary family and ethnic group responsibilities, organize themselves around world views provided by cultural productions. The group does not create the world view, the world view creates the group.
(The Tourist, p. 30)
Strangers who have the same cultural grounding can come together in a cultural production, each knowing what to expect next, and feel a closeness or solidarity, even where no empirical closeness exists. Their relationship begins before they meet.
(ibid, p. 32)
Now, it seems to me that Lasch is more interested in recovering (selectively) certain pre-modern social conditions than in working within the postmodern conditions which MacCannell has spent a long and fruitful career wrestling with; and at that point it is merely talking past him to suggest that MacCannell here has pinpointed a much more pervasive and tangible instance of this basic "alienation," perhaps alienation's archetypal postmodern variant. Unfortunately, Lasch's various defenses of religion and of "lower-middle-class morality" are, while eloquent and persuasive, nonetheless wholly impractical, at least in absence of a truly radical regression to pre-modern technological, political, and social structures. The same goes, I think, for much of what he says about art in The Minimal Self.

By the time that Cagean experimentalism and process-oriented minimalism, to name only two of the more recognizable brand names, had passed from the cutting edge into recent history, the classic regime of tension and release had necessarily passed along with them from aspiring universal to elective stylization. Lasch invokes no such explicitly universalistic or scientistic language to make his case here (nor, as far as I can tell, elsewhere either), but the implication that minimalism, especially, is irrevocably tainted by the social conditions out of which it arose, is very strong. The sad state of the world explains the sad state of art. We have been here before, though rarely with such a fully-developed psychoanalytic account of precisely how these social conditions ramify on the level of artistic form and content.


In Steven Mithen's The Singing Neanderthals there is a chapter entitled "Language Without Music," and within this a subheading "When Singing Sounds Like Shouting." Here Mithen relates the case of a stroke victim, HJ, for whom "music now sounded 'like awful noise', and that of an unnamed twenty-year-old man who, following the emergency "clipping" of a hematoma, found that "sounds had become 'empty and cold', while singing 'sounds like shouting'." It seems clear from the verbiage chosen that neither gentleman found the "noise" or the "shouting" particularly pleasant, or at least that they found it much less pleasant than they formerly found "music." The question arises, then, of whether music which lacks the linguistic basis subsequently expounded by Mithen (which may simply be music which does or could be said to possess it in its construction but which is heard by a hearer who lacks or has lost the relevant linguistic faculties to make it possible for them to experience "music" as such) can ever be anything but "empty and cold."

Given what Mithen has to say on the hard-science side of things, it does seem unavoidable that even a successful achievement of a nonlinguistic music, whatever we can agree makes for "success" in that arena, would indeed be a music which achieves some sort of severance between the body and the artifact such as Jones thinks he detects in the playing of white jazz musicians and in Euro-American art and music generally. But I wonder if such an achievement, as I am calling it here, would not also lead unavoidably to the conclusion that even something so seemingly rooted in (and exalting of) the common practice era as tension and release is, in the end, largely subjective, or at least more subjective than, say, a "Generative Theory of Tonal Music" or Mithen's "Singing Neanderthals" hypothesis or a Pinkerian appeal to "human nature" would suggest.

Now Lasch:
What distinguishes contemporary art from the art of the past, at least from the art of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is the attempt to restore the illusion of oneness without any acknowledgement of an intervening experience of separation. Instead of trying to overcome this separation and to win through to a hard-earned respite from spiritual struggle, much of the literature and art of the present age, and much of our "advanced" music as well, simply denies the fact of separation. It sees the surrounding world as an extension of the self or the self as something programmed by outside forces. It imagines a world in which everything is interchangeable, in which musical sounds, for example, are experienced as equivalent to any other kind of sound. It abolishes selfhood in favor of anonymity.
(p. 164)
If this passage marks out the opposite pole from linguistic music (what else to call it in this connection?), mustn't there also be an intermediate (or perhaps bastard) case whereby this assumption is operative only on one or the other side of the musical transmission (artist and audience), and/or where the experience of the music itself (defined ultimately as the experience of a specific listener) can/does move in and out of the linguistic mode on a moment-to-moment basis?

Much of the music Lasch specifically mentions isn't likely to succeed very well in the linguistic mode, but nor is it definitionally devoid of any such elements nor of the possibility that a few people here and there may well succumb to their own "linguistic" musical moments in among the "awful noise" (leaving aside of course the unthinkable idea that the "noise" might not be so "awful").

The fact that this possibility is mostly just a possibility is often raised in objection to the arguments I am advancing here. But at that point we are again, I think, thrown back on the related questions of whether this failure to conform has any of the same moral implications in the area of connoisseurship as it might have in politics, commerce, or social control; of whether art can in fact afford a certain "pluralism" here that "democracy" cannot; and whether it is not precisely in giving aesthetic voice to such exceptions to dominant sensibility wherein art makes much of its unique contribution to society and to life.

To be sure, much Common Practice Era music can be (dare I say it usually is now) heard merely as noise, i.e. by listeners who lack the conditioning (would even Mithen not admit that there is much conditioning involved?) to hear linguistically. I for one have never ceased dearly missing my former non-linguistic, non-theory-knowing self, the self that existed for the few short years between the first flower of my self-guided listenership and my first exposure to the post-Schenkerian world of roman numerals and figured bass. Suffice it to say that the Common Practice Era hasn't sounded the same since, and in fact that it sounds (it would for once not be wrong to say also/instead that it feels) much, much worse. For me, both as a composer and as a listener, this is precisely what makes it necessary to work against the linguistic conceit.

For a time I had developed and clung to a theory, based on this need to outpace the linguistic part of my brain, that one must constantly be seeking out new music which one cannot quite keep up with "linguistically" in real time. Much unlike actual language, which can be uniquely stressful when a native speaker of a language one knows only patchily speaks too quickly, I have often found myself needing to be gently outpaced by music in order to enjoy it. What a surprise to learn, against the received wisdom of the musicologists and critics, that much music in fact lives in precisely this space not (or not only) by having become ever more complex but simply by wilfully defying the linguistic imperative.

This is the technical side of my defense of an interest in modernist aesthetics, the side which Lasch, presumably a well-intentioned amateur or non-musician, can be forgiven for undertheorizing. For the moment, I too must leave it a bit undertheorized pending further research. Provisionally, I would suggest a connection between these types of observations and Psychology proper, particularly (this is just what comes first to mind) the Big Five traits and the presence among them of something called Openness to Experience. For this tuba player at least, it is quite daunting to consider assembling a responsible academic argument in favor of considering the non-linguistic mode as something which certain among us are bound to be open to, regardless of whether it is "natural," while the desperate clinging to linguistic-ness evinces the contrary tendency. Ditto with the bodily/corporeal aspects of the separation-union issue. But this is what I would tentatively propose, subject to further elaboration. The elegance in this explanation, potentially, is that we can accept both that the "linguistic" mode is somehow "natural," as Mithen and Pinker would have us believe, and that just because something is "natural" does not mean, necessarily, that it is "natural" for everybody, nor that it needs to be, nor that it is necessarily good or bad. (Pinker himself makes precisely this latter point about "human nature" generally, and this seems to have gotten lost in much of the chatter surrounding The Blank Slate.)

1 comment:

Stefan Kac said...

Christopher Lasch

The World of Nations (1973)

Ch. XVII, "The Social Thought of Jacques Ellul"

"Neither science nor art any longer communicate anything except, in the one case, information required to solve technical problems—and even this is conveyed in symbols accessible only to specialists—and in the other case, inner experiences incommunicable by definition. Modern art, by opposing to technological domination a cult of the irrational, "guides us in the direction of madness."
(p. 275)

And, from endnotes:

"Increasingly events seem to point to the conclusion that it is precisely the premises of modernism that are being rejected in, say, rock music and street theater. If art traditionally has been an interplay between tension and its resolution, the new art banishes tension and seeks to dissolve all oppositions in direct, unmediated experience, non-verbal states of being, trancelike euphoria. Performers alternately assault their audiences, whipping up moods of subdued violence, and make "love" to them, in both cases hoping to merge the performance with "life" and to put both art and life safely "beyond interpretation."
(p. 334)