Historicism, Gnosis & Event Horizons

Historicism, Gnosis, Event Horizons

Don't read, just listen:

My setting of Djuna Barnes' "Pastoral". In "Pastoral", Barnes finds comfort with animals. In her novel Ryder, in her wonderful story, "A Boy Asks a Question", Barnes uses words to take us away from words. From "A Boy Asks a Question"--Do you observe animals? Do you? What would all your troubles mean to an animal?

We grew up thinking historically—one paradigm supplants another, enfolds and transcends.

We survived into an age that is offended by historical narratives. They grow too grand and too oppressive; they are foisted on us by entrenched authorities. Notions of a linear path are deconstructed, reduced to power plays.

I approach the problem by considering aesthetic event horizons.
Here are three examples—

—the air of other planets
“Atonality” is still maligned and despised after 115 years.

—the conspicuous 3:2 polyrhythms in John Adams’ music strikes me as a message, a gesture of fealty to Phillip Glass. An artifact of a capitulation and a rallying cry for a rebellion.

—noise in German music

Please add to the list.

Capitulation to any of these is a gnosis. We see something that we cannot un-see, hear something we cannot un-hear; we cannot un-experience. The experience touched the core of our being, becoming an essential part of us.

The flip side of this gnosis is that it was readied by a shared exhaustion from entrenched paradigms—the classic Alexandrine, the bad habits of late Romanticism, the bad habits of high 20th C. Modernism, the bad habits of early 21st C. German noise music.

A transformational gnosis is real, and part of that is motivated by exhaustion, an overwhelming need for something different. The collective aspect is important. This becomes of firestorm of desire.

Air of other planets: “atonality” (not the best word, but the one that has stuck) creates its gnostics and its agnostics. For both, “atonality” becomes an ideology. Entrenchment ensues, bad habits develop.

3:2 polyrhythm: consonance (a backlash against dissonance and modernist bad habits) becomes an ideology, but this is not merely reactionary. Some of us experienced various gnoses, for example, a phasing gnosis, a supply-side phenomenon; we never knew we wanted to hear 16th phase into 32nd notes. We were taught to want something.

Noise: Many of us in the US can get an idea about how Taruskin feels. Taruskin says, Schoenberg—No, rather—Tchaikovsky! Oddly, minimalists and maximalists are unified in their shared noise agnosticism. Not Schoenberg or Tchaikovsky; one is blue, one is cobalt. Those who defend “tonal/atonal” music might bear in mind that those who are alive to noise are no less vehement, passionate.

A demonstration, using my own reaction to some writing about Schoenberg.

Fredric Jameson loses my respect here—

“….It would therefore begin to seem that Adorno’s prophetic diagnosis has been realized, albeit in a negative way: not Schoenberg (the sterility of whose achieved system he already glimpsed) but Stravinsky….”—Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism, page 17.

He goes on to say that Stravinsky is the true precursor of postmodern cultural production. That point is well taken. Jameson flaunts his agnosticism regarding Schoenberg’s project, speaking from inside Adorno’s head.

I have no respect for someone who can say that about Schoenberg. I am ideologically committed to my Schoenberg experiences. I am willing to fight for the cause.

Also, like Mann, Jameson leans too hard on Adorno. But unlike Mann, Jameson misreads Adorno.

I have to reread all that Adorno says about Schoenberg, but I do not remember Adorno accusing Schoenberg of sterility.

Maybe I am wrong.

The “sterility” schtick is anachronistic—it reeks of Taruskin.


“The Dialectical Composer”

Adorno uses “inhuman” to describe Schoenberg’s 12-tone work. That is different than “sterile”. “Inhuman” is flattering. And we remember the title of Ortega y Gasset’s book about the inhumanity of art.

I thought of Reich’s phasing gnosis as a sideways move. Music from Bach to 1918 involves developments that demonstrate something more about the history of desire than about music’s evolution along technical lines. Techniques answer the call of desire.

Musical techniques, evolving unmoored from human desire is what Hermann Broch complained about in his essays and his fiction. He attacked art for art’s sake. He blamed the Great War on values running amok, no longer connected to human needs.

The critics of late capitalism draw our attention to armies entrenched around failed revolutions. Fraught micro cultures, incommensurate with one another and out of sync with one another creates the postmodern condition.

“Imagine a radical movement which had suffered an emphatic defeat. So emphatic, in fact that it seemed unlikely to resurface for the length of a lifetime, if even then. The defeat I have in mind is not just the kind of rebuff with which the political left is depressingly familiar, but a repulse so defininive that it seemed to discredit the very paradigms with which such politics had traditionally worked. It would now be less a matter of hotly contesting these notions than of contemplating them with something of the mild antiquarian interest with which one might regard Ptolemaic cosmology or the scholasticism of Duns Scotus. They, and the language of conventional society, would now seem less ferociously at odds than simply incommensurable -- the discourses of difference planets rather than of adjacent nations…..”

Then Terry Eagleton (in The Illusions of Postmodernism) goes on to explain how, in such a horrible situation, some, in love with their chains, rearranging the furniture on the Titanic, etc., might project utopia back into the system itself, creating a new aesthetic. This is one of Eagleton’s creative ways to get our heads around postmodernism.

To free myself for some impending zoom meetings, a sprint to a finish—

Rooting history in desire is consistent with unreconstituted structuralism, symbolism, Wagnerism, Pre-Raphaelitism, imagism. For many of us, poststructuralism was a slap in the face. It pulled the rug out from under us. We could be grateful. Did we know what we had until it was yanked from under us?

I am part of group of meliorist modernist stalwarts, artistic equivalents of meliorist liberals with roots in Protestantism—

To bow and to bend we will not be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.

—Perhaps we are rearranging the chairs on the titanic.

—We are in love with our chains; we are yoked to the air of other planets,

—but we are united with the minimalists in our noise agnosticism; we accept the liberation of dissonance, but now we take on the tricky business of negotiating between unfamiliar and familiar (familiar diatonic harmonies and scary non-diatonic harmonies).

I am a bit unusual in that I am vehemently rebelling against ver libre.

This conclusion is too sketchy, but the case against vers libre is here—


Please correct my errors.

—William Anderson

Share Post
Subscribe Now!