On John Cage’s 4’33”

We naturally ask what was Cage’s intention, and a plausible answer is that he is drawing our attention to music – its nature and value – by denying us music. We are led to listen to the non-musical sounds in the environment with the kind of attention we normally reserve for music and to reflect on what we’re missing. The work is an opportunity to consider what we want from music.

One thing we want, typically, is to hear sounds that a composer has determined will reward our attention. Perhaps we imagine a kind of contract between us and the composer: we give the composer our time (and money), and she gives us enjoyment. In return for complete control over what we hear for the duration, we receive a meaningful expression. 4′33″ defeats these expectations – neither Cage nor the performer has any control over what we hear – and in that way makes them available for inspection. Is this “contract” the best way to imagine the relationship between composer and listener? Cage certainly didn’t think so.

According to Cage himself, 4′33″ dramatizes the distinction between traditional and modern music. He says that modern music “accepts” sounds that, when heard during the performance of traditional music, “interrupt” it. Because it consists only of such sounds, 4′33″ affords an opportunity to reflect on how our perceptions are shaped by our expectations. When we are listening to a Beethoven piano sonata, a cough is perceived as noise. When we are listening to what Cage regards as a modern performance, and certainly when we are listening to 4′33″, it is perceived as sound.

For Cage’s comments on traditional and modern music, see Conversing with Cage by Richard Kostelanetz.

On the ending of Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” (1971).

At the end of the film, Alex has agreed to publicly support the ruling party in exchange for a cushy job. Listening to Beethoven and reflecting on his good fortune, he thinks: “I was cured all right.”

The Ludovico Technique had cured Alex’s love of violence, but from his point of view the cure was worse than the disease: he thought it would get him released from prison and that he would resume his old way of life, but it left him powerless and suicidal. During the period of unconsciousness after his suicide attempt, however, brain surgeons “deconditioned” him so that hearing Beethoven’s Ninth no longer caused him to be violently ill.

That’s part of the irony of Alex’s final statement: he has been cured of the cure. But the irony is more complex, because we also see what Alex is imagining as he makes that statement. Continue reading

What would Hegel think about hyperrealism as an art form?

The short answer is that Hegel would find hyperrealism too conceptual, too ironic, and too grotesque to convey the truth about the wholeness and unity of human life. A longer answer follows.

There are various ways to unify and reconcile what seems contrary, contradictory, or out of place. Unification takes place in philosophy, which understands the process as an act of thought. It takes place in religion, where unification is accomplished by the universal love of God. And it takes place as art, which exhibits unity in the form of sensuous objects produced by creative activity. The ideal work exhibits beauty, and its ultimate expression is the individual human being in his or her integrity, agency, and self-confidence.

This is best seen in classical art.

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Truthfulness and Realism: Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.”

I’ve been teaching a course on philosophy and film. As it nears the end, I’m thinking about films that didn’t make it into the course but that could have and perhaps should have. This version of the course (I’ve taught it a few times) focused on the problem of identity and moral personhood: numerical identity in Inception and Solaris, for example, and differences between persons and what Harry Frankfurt calls “wantons” in A Clockwork OrangeThe Servant, and Vertigo, among others. We tended to focus more on content than form, but we were never very far from issues of truth, reality, and the art of film.  

Which made me want to identify films that bring these epistemological and ontological themes in both life and art together with personhood. In the films of Stanley Kubrick, there’s something of a dialectic between truthfulness and realism. Realism can reveal truth but also obscure it, and be obscured by it. And “realistic” isn’t the right word for the film I have in mind; “truthful” is closer to the mark. Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) portrays intimate personal relationships truthfully. What does that mean?

The film is about a couple, Alice and Bill, who, although they’ve been married at least seven years, still seem to be adjusting to the transition from passionate love to a companionate marriage. When we first see them, as they are preparing to leave for a Christmas party, they are very much in the companionate mode: intimate and trusting, but something less than passionate. Continue reading

Time Travel and Temporalizing in Chris Marker’s “La Jetée”

Knowingly or not, Chris Marker’s metaphorical use of time travel in Ja Jetée (1963) elegantly exhibits Heidegger’s view that the human way of being is temporalizing. And it directs our attention to a phenomenon that is central to Heidegger’s argument in Being and Time, namely that temporality is the fundamental condition of intelligibility as such.

For Heidegger, the distinctively human way of being (“Dasein”) consists in making sense of things. We do this, he says, because things matter to us, and they matter to us because they make sense. To make sense of something is to take it as a certain thing – for example, as a tool, say a hammer, with a certain use (hammering), connections with other tools (nails, planks of wood), and connections with various ways of being (being a carpenter, being a handyman).

Intelligibility – that something is “disclosed” as something – depends on what Heidegger calls “finitude,” which is a characteristic of human temporality. Things show up to us as X rather than Y or Z; to take a hammer as a tool for hammering is to not take it as a paperweight (as we might do under certain circumstances). To exercise any given possibility of being is to refrain from exercising many others. If we were not finite, all of our possibilities would be accessible to us at all times, nothing would matter more or less than anything else, and there would be nothing to disclose because everything would be disclosed. Temporality and finitude thus go together as the possibility conditions of intelligibility, and because finitude is exhibited in mortality, it may be said that death gives life meaning. Continue reading

Michael Oakeshott, Susan Wolf, Conversation, and Louis Malle’s “My Dinner with André.”

Some characterizations of My Dinner with André1.

Wally feels obligated to dine with André but dreads it because he has heard that André is deeply troubled and feels there is nothing he can do to help. Wally is also overwhelmed by the pressures of practical life: he can’t do anything but worry about how he will pay his bills. He settles on a solution to his immediate problem: he’ll merely ask questions of André, something he enjoys doing. That works, but in the course of his dinner with André something more happens: the meal ends with Wally a little less overwhelmed than he was when it began.

André wants to live each moment as intensely as possible, but he seems to think that this requires him to eschew any sense of a quest for larger, objective value. Wally, on the other hand, indicates that he values stable and committed relationships and his contributions, however small, to the theater, and expresses an identification with the scientific enterprise and so with a central narrative tradition of Western Civilization. But he doesn’t find many moments of passionate intensity in his day-to-day life, which, in contrast to André’s, seems to have isolated him from others. The film, narrated from Wally’s point of view, conveys his renewed appreciation for the quality of immediate experience for those with whom he shares his world. On his way home after dinner he’s noticeably more attentive to what his city means to him, and he resolves to share his experience with his girlfriend Debby.

André and Wally have different views about the meaning of life. André wants to live each moment as intensely as possible and believes that he can accomplish this by undergoing extreme experiences. Wally values stable relationships and commitments and takes pleasure accomplishing the everyday tasks they require, hoping also to occasionally contribute to the theater. As the film begins, however, Wally doesn’t take any pleasure in ordinary life and doesn’t have time to contribute to the theater. André is passionately engaged with his activities, but they don’t seem to make sense to anyone but him. Wally’s values and aims are perfectly intelligible, but he doesn’t find them fulfilling. As he listens to André’s exotic stories, Wally realizes how much he loves his life and he reminds himself of this on his way home. We’re left wondering about whether the conversation has had an impact on André. Continue reading

Philosophy and/or Literature: The Case of Nietzsche

Which is more important: the artistic merit of Nietzsche’s writing, or its philosophical content? A similar question could be asked about Plato. Dialogues such as the Apology and Republic are works of art that also convey philosophical arguments.

Let’s take a look at a passage from The Anti-Christ §11. (I’ve compressed it a bit.)

A word now against Kant as a moralist. A virtue must be our invention; it must spring out of our personal need and defence. In every other case it is a source of danger. That which does not belong to our life menaces it; a virtue which has its roots in mere respect for the concept of “virtue,” as Kant would have it, is pernicious. Quite the contrary is demanded by the most profound laws of self-preservation and of growth: to wit, that every man find his own virtue, his own categorical imperative. Nothing works a more complete and penetrating disaster than every “impersonal” duty, every sacrifice before the Moloch of abstraction. Continue reading

Art, Adorno, and Communism

In Negative Dialectics, Theodor W. Adorno famously wrote that “[p]hilosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.” He’s alluding to Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” (I like Baudrillard’s riposte: “activists have only changed the world in various ways; the point is to re-interpret it.”)

The realization of philosophy was the reconciliation of theory and practice, i.e. concrete, real-world freedom for all, a “polis without slaves.” The missed opportunity – the point at which freedom for all could have been achieved – was presumably the Bolshevik Revolution, which led to totalitarianism.

Personally, I’m skeptical of the idea that the Bolshevik Revolution would have resulted in a worker’s paradise but for the perfidy of the West, which Adorno seems to have believed at least as of his discussions with Max Horkheimer in 1956 (see Horkheimer and Adorno’s Towards a New Manifesto, 2011). But that’s another matter.

Adorno appears to have settled down in the view that although capitalism was bad, “actually existing communism” was worse, and the best we can hope for is the life provided by the liberal democratic welfare state – what Herbert Marcuse called the “smooth, comfortable unfreedom” of “one-dimensional society.” We can forget about the reconciliation of theory and practice. Instead, we should devote ourselves to alerting the victims of one-dimensionality to their oppression, from which they are distracted by the culture industry. There’s no viable path to communism, and attempts to act on the delusion that there is will provoke the “system” to turn from the soft power of consumerism to the coercive instruments of the police state – as Adorno thought the student movement of the 1960s was causing it to do.

Communism, then, was a failed dream, and political utopianism of any kind was downright dangerous. Are Adorno’s views on art analogous? Continue reading

Why is there no 21st-century avant-garde?

Renato Poggioli’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (1968) identifies the ideological and mythic building blocks of the avant-garde more or less as follows.

An avant-garde is a movement, one that has identified an enemy – the public, popular culture, the old, tradition, institutions – and is dedicated to destroying it and bringing about an improved future, usually indicated by an “ism” of some kind and explained in a manifesto. It acts with a spirit of adventure, but it also suffers for the cause, which the public inevitably fails to appreciate. Avant-gardes are alienated from all aspects of society, culture, popular taste, and style. They condemn and denounce, using images of revolution, subversion, violence, and destruction. They shamelessly proselytize and promote themselves, advocating experimentation in technique and form and tending towards hermeticism, obscurantism, exhibitionism, and shock.

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Wallace Stevens and the Cognitive Value of Form

There’s a tendency to find the cognitive value of art in its content rather than its form. This can focus the discussion on theme, which is one reason for skepticism about the cognitive value of art. When we paraphrase the theme of a poem, for example, it often looks rather thin. It may be cognitive, but it’s of little value.

Wallace Stevens’s poetry has cognitive content, but the cognitive value of his poetry is not only a matter of content. Stevens is interested, you might say, in the form of thinking.

Stevens is often accused of being emotionally cold, as if his attention to thinking came at the expense of feeling. But there’s a way of understanding what can seem like coldness as a device for encouraging us to reflect on an important mode of cognition, namely the experience of imaginative identification.

Much poetry solicits imaginative identification by means of empathy and sympathy. In empathy the reader is invited to share the point of view of the speaker, and in sympathy the reader is invited to share the goals of the speaker. Consider a classic of Romantic poetry: Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.”

The poem provides many details about the speaker, which individuate him and invite us to imagine his point of view. We know that it’s been five years since he was at the river Wye, we know the impression the region made on him (“steep and lofty cliffs”), what it meant to him (“thoughts of deep seclusion”), and that it sustained him (“in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din/Of towns and cities”) over years of suffering. Having aroused our concern about what caused the speaker to suffer, we are led through the rest of the poem and finally see his point of view, that of a widower addressing his lost beloved.

Contrast this with Stevens’s poetry. In it, we typically learn virtually nothing of the speaker’s personal history, there is little effort to arouse our curiosity about him, and the feelings aroused or named are harder to get at compared with the drama of love, grief, and healing. The effect is to de-emphasize sympathy, empathy, and identification. Continue reading