Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Where the material transcends itself and ceases to be material

Tue 15 May 2007 Music to My Ears Posted by larvalsubjects
Lars and company have invited me to speak at Newcastle University in the UK for the 3rd Symposium in the Music, Philosophy and Vernacular series in November. I suppose I’ll finally have to get a passport now and come up with something to say about music from a suitably hip continental perspective. Actually I’ve been wishing to discuss the symptomatic role that music plays in Plato’s Republic and up through the writings of Augustine and Plotinus for some time now, as there music seems to occupy an odd position between the fallen material world and the world of logos or the intellect.
Music, in this view, inhabits the edge of materiality or that point of materiality where the material transcends itself and ceases to be material. Not only is music the most mathematical of all the arts, but it is that art that is least attached to the five senses due to the unique temporal structure that renders a musical refrain simultaneously something that unfolds in time while nonetheless being a unity with itself that can only be grasped through operations of thought. As such, the musical requires an operation of the intellect to be grasped or a movement beyond appearances. It will be recalled that Plato, in the Phaedo, will argue that all philosophy is a preparation for death and that the philosopher lives his life as if he were already dead.
By this Plato is referring to the necessity of cultivating the soul through a purification of the soul that separates it from the body, where the body refers to anything having to do with the sensations and the passions. This will lead to elaborate discussions of what sort of music and poetry is permissible in the Republic, and a categorical rejection of certain rhythms and the flute due to the manner in which these meters and instruments excite the passions and incite a sort of madness. Augustine will later make similar points about music, discerning the study of certain musical structures and grammatical patterns as a necessary stage in the cultivation of the soul that separates it from the body.
You didn’t think Catholic church services were so somber and boring because the early founders of the church lived in boring times, did you? Of course these are only vague thoughts and I’m not sure what the cash value of all this would be. The question would be one of pushing past this dualistic tradition and discerning, in this strange relation to music, a symptom that both belongs to a certain metaphysics and upsets that metaphysics. I’ll have to wait and see what the actual theme of the series will be this year. It appears I need to send Lars, the Newcastle staff, and the students even more love letters than I already do. Perhaps Anthony will stop being angry with me and we can share a pint. I’m both tremendously excited and honored. It’s nice to be appreciated. Especially when it isn’t deserved.

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