Saturday, February 09, 2019

Jacques Ellul on the prevalence of theory in technocratic society as applies to music

One of the things that has stuck with me after reading The Classical Revolution a number of times is that in some important ways Borstlap's polemic merely recapitulates things that were written decades earlier about total serialism by, of all people, Theodore Adorno.  We'll get to that topic in time.

But if I set aside the lack of definition of what music even is in Borstlap's book, I've been struck by the fact that the best elements of his criticisms of high modernism of a 20th century variety were said more forcefully by Jacques Ellul in his book The Empire of Non-Sense back in the 1980s.  Ellul even made a point of name-dropping a number of the composers who Borstlap regards as perpetrators of inhuman sonic art.

Jacques Ellul
Copyright (c) 2014 by Papadakis Publisher
translated by Michael Johnson and David Lovekin
ISBN 978-1-906506-40-7

page 112
Now, the decisive importance of theory is found in all the arts.  In music, we have serial music, which at first glance is simply theoretical, especially since its extension, beginning with Arnold Schoenberg and Milton Babbitt, among others, to the domain of measure and dynamics. It becomes a type of mathematical composition. But, from another point of view, the systematic search for analogies between visual symbols and sonorous symbols is also theoretical. The same can be said when one undertakes to reintroduce freedom into musical play: here again this is the result of taking a theoretical stance (John Cage). At any rate, we now have a non-figurative music without reference to either history or to the existing body of sounds.  The influence of theory is, one could say, greater in music because it is nonrepresentational and better reflects the forms of thought. A perceptible order of pure theory emerges from the random improvisations of Andrei Markov or in the use of statistical law in certain works of Iannis Xenakis. It becomes a matter of assembling sonorous objects according to a rule or a group of rules that one has set down. Types of experimental music are also formed on a theoretical basis because the composers create their experiment on the basis of precise ideas. This experimental music is also divided into schools as a function of theoretical differences: concrete music, electronic music, music for tape (Vladimir Ussachevsky). In all cases, it is a matter of creating new sonorous objects, of not taking account of natural sounds or of customary compositions. Music becomes a procedure for organizing new sounds that are totally abstract. Ultimately one could say that theoretical validity is what makes music.  It goes without saying that architecture, like music, lends itself particularly well to this triumph of theory. ... 

The overall verdict Ellul provides about the hermetic technocratic approach to the arts was

page 118
... We stand in the presence of art of elites for elites. A moderately competent intellectual who does not have the "key" is left out in the cold.  ...

Ellul even got around to Boulez, too. But first he had to note that there was an irony in technocratic artists denouncing the bourgeois, namely that without this class the art simply continued the ideals of the class whose sensibilities the daring artist was supposed to transgress.

page 127
... Art has been reduced to being only a game by an efficient utilitarian ordering of technical society. But one must also realize that, by affirming this audacious and revolutionary claim, our theoreticians are exactly adopting the bourgeois attitude toward art, which, as we have already noted, formed a part of the pleasures and amusements of that class. By denouncing the spiritualization and idealization of art by the bourgeoisie, they are merely condemning, unknowingly, their own reverence for theory. Indeed, the only value recognized for art by the bourgeoisie was that of play and entertainment.  ...

The hermetic, technocratic art that Ellul described was, he declared, ultimately the equivalent of a crossword puzzle for the sorts of people who need advanced degrees in order to solve them.

pages 128-129

... After having constructed a very complicated theory with the utmost scholarship, and after having written the deepest reflections of writing on writing or on language, one is finally left with nothing more than ridiculous mouse talk. It is clear why these same critics ardently challenge the very idea of a work of art. Clearly, nothing of all this grandstanding has duration or permanence just as crossword puzzles done on a train are not worth saving any more than episodes of a television game show hosted by Guy Lux. Now, this is the level of our descent. These are crossword puzzles for highly qualified intellectuals or Guy Lux programming for dyed-in-the-wool aesthetes. But since we are considering a game, there must be interest and amusement. If one plays, it is to escape the grey, dull boredome of the everyday. But what is proposed is not at all playful. One is invited to agonize over incomprehensible material. This is not play for me.  I will even claim that I am more bored and frustrated when I read Robert Pinget or Claude Simon, and when I hear Boulez or Victor Barbeau, and when I look at Vera Molnar or Mondrian, than when I am in the metro.

This is not an issue of intellectual difficulty. I can read rather difficult texts, more difficult than Roussel; it's really a question of boring exhaustion and emptiness after an initial moment of curiosity. ...

page 129

... When one sees the results of theoretical art-play--and there are always results--one is bored to tears by an explanation of how they are obtained, and one is faced with the famous questions: do they paint that way because they are incapable of painting? Do they poetize in that way because they are impotent? Sadly, yes. And the gravitas, the depth of the theory is there only to hide these incapacities and impotence. Technical society renders the creator of art impotent. He can only be an entertainer.   ...

While at one level I disagree with Borstlap about several things to do with music, if his aim is to criticize esoteric technocratic art that only appeals to specialists of the 20th century high theory variety then I can appreciate that.  It's just that, having said that, Jacques Ellul far more directly explained what was at issue with this sort of high modernist 20th century art, that it was all technocratic formalism for its own sake to shut out the "uneducated" and that the arts in question were paradoxcially antihumanistic to the extent they forsook symbolism, communicative/affective goals, and insisted that art had to be liberated from traditional/bourgeois values by way of daring modernism.  But there was an additional step Ellul took, which was to discuss how critical, journalistic and educational establishments were necessary for technocratic art cultures to survive and that is properly the topic of another post.

I think that where there is a core idea in The Classical Revolution that could be promising it is in a criticism of technocracy as applied to the arts.  The trouble is Ellul was far more direct in making that case back in the 1980s.  Now that there's an English language translation of Ellul's book I would suggest it as a sturdier alternative to a case that I am not convinced Borstlap has managed to make against technocratic art.  Borstlap's book might be useful as a lay person's version of the argument that art should not be dominated by technocracy and technique as a self-perpetuating solipsism ... but Ellul's book, though ore difficult to read, does a more compelling job diagnosing the problem under the problems that Borstlap hears in the sonic art, getting at the ideological patterns that lead to the creation of sonic art, if you will.

But then both Adorno and Ellul ended up writing about the paradox that artists who embraced avant garde techniques to supposedly defy the cliche sentimentality of the romantic era ended up creating inhuman techniques that are their own justifications, a paradoxically antihumanist embrace of technique perpetuated by men and women who convinced themselves that by so doing they were continuing humanist traditions.

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