Music and Negativity
Boundaries, and what they show us from beyond. (1)
From the many forms in which the audible appears to us, I have always been particularly interested in those who in a sense make us speechless. Areas that defy words, but which we definitely experience as 'something', not as 'nothing'. Many forms of the audible come close or come to meet language, others seem to elude or even oppose language. But while a certain remoteness to language seems to be almost natural for music, this remoteness for philosophy becomes the deepest possible abyss. The opposite of language coincides for philosophy with silence and nothingness.
Georges Bataille's argument with Hegel's negativity is also a confrontation with his teacher Alexandre Kojéve, who introduced him to Hegelian thought. Kojéve thinks it is romantic or mystical, to quasi ontologize 'the Nothing', so that 'the Nothing' is granted a status of existence. This 'too big' Nothing tears open the unbridgeable rift between the thing in itself and the human being and introduces a split between us and the world, which is a dead end. (The latter formulation could probably have come from Bruno Latour as well.)
Music, on the other hand, seems to have no problems with nothingness. It exactly seems to settle in those areas that can not be reached by words. What is the negative of thought is the realm of music. When the words fall silent, the music can begin. Is music romantic or mystical therefore? Does it contribute to the unbridgeable split?
Even more than the object-subject split, which is underpinned by the 'nothing' that has become 'something', I am particularly interested in the nothing becoming something, or the becoming of the something out of nothing: a something that is palpable, concrete, perhaps even tangible, but definitely differentiable beyond boundaries of language. In this case, the split becomes exactly what allows a transition. The dividing becomes the connecting.
My favorite idea of music (or art) is that of complementarity. Music as something that spells out its own borderline, in order to simultaneously make this border readable the other way round: as the outer edge of the unspeakable.
This metaphysical question may seem a bit removed from the theme of our symposium. However, the bridge between the unspeakable and the metamorphoses of the audible exatcly is complementarity.
The criticism of the principle of complementarity is obvious, because it presupposes that there is always more than what 'is'. That it situates the known in a sea of unknown. This will inevitably be doo[o]med as a dusty metaphysics. Or with more luck as a necessary metaphysics, its necessary minimum. The asceticism frequently practiced by philosophers of modernity, to not to think beyond what can be said, leaves music unexplained.
For the time being, let's stay with the border, with the question: where do we end. What is actually more metaphysical: to say, "where we end, beginns what we are not," or to say, "behind this end is absolutely nothing; and where we end, ends everything"? Is not the prohibition of thinking negation at least as metaphysical as the "yes to no", the affirmation of negativity, its repeatedly risked traversal in all its multifaceted constellations and its cultural impact on our positivity? At the very least, wanting (or needing) to think beyond is something like a human constant, that is, a positive, a given. Yet, the Parmenidean prohibition to think the negative, or Wittgenstein's asceticism towards the unsayable, is something like a compulsion, such as self-castigation, such as forcing oneself to sit on a nail board. The question about the beyond does not stop, even though we were told a hundred times and 'proved' that there was nothing behind it. From psychology and philosophy to religion and art to lotteries, this question is what urges us. The thought of the negative is not negative itself. The greatest achievements of humanity - from the pyramids and cathedrals to space travel and heart transplantation - are embossed by the 'beyond'.
After all, in the case of music or art, even the thought of a hereafter is not necessarily "mystical." The beyond of art is not the other side of the positively given, to which art can not be as easily attributed. In a way, art is more of a parallel world, something that is added to the given. And thus it negates the assertion of the given to be the totality of the positive. Art shows us the incompleteness of the world. Of course, again and again, philosophy has tried to demonstrate, that the attempt to think the complement of the given, leads us to the negative. But art has other alternatives to offer here.
From the different modes of operation of art I prefer the one to set a frame - not to fill it, but only to set it, as a suggestion, as an invitation to perception. Within the frame, something appears that is not art itself, but is made visible by it. The simplest example of this is the rectangle I shape with my fingers to enclose a frame. The rectangle is that what is made, staged: art, my suggestion for perception. But what you see through the rectangle is: the world? - maybe the world from a certain point of view. So the complement of art might be - and at least in this case: the positive, the given.
The choice of my subject matter partly stems from those conversations with Gabriel (2), in which we - generalizing - discussed the theorizing of music, and where we asked ourselves how far a theory about music can reach. Whether it 'just' protrudes a block far into music, or whether it intends to grasp the whole thing. Or if we have to assume a fundamental border of the sayable in respect to music. But while the border of what can be said is its outermost edge, the same boundary is the center of music, the very place where we must fall silent, and also want and celebrate this silence, building for it music palaces, opera houses, and philharmonics.
Bataille also tried to contrast the "too big" Nothing of Hegel with another dimension of falling silent and non-intelligibility: in the idea of the sacrifi[ei]ce. And perhaps there is even a secret connection between opera and sacrifice in this respect (german: Oper und Opfer). In respect to Hegel's negativity, Bataille speaks of the clarity of Hegel's "coherent" speech. This is not formulated as an appreciation, but is meant as a contrast agent, which could be held against the "dark", "not intelligible emotion" of the sacrifice (53). I am mentioning this, to ask myself, if not also in music, much of it, must appear to us as dark, not intelligible emotion. However, it can not be overlooked that both the sacrifice and music have an absolute 'razor-sharp' precision at work that performs the most complex actions, which belong to the highest degree of differenciation, that can hardly be obtained from language.
A sort of linguistic boundary is already evident where the pianist exercises nothing but fingerings. [Brian Kane has spoken about techné / embodied knowledge] The capability of the body to store fine mechanical functions, the complexity of the physically memorized processes, mocks any description. (We know, that there's no better prevention of Alzheimer's than playing the piano ...) But it would take a whole Rg Veda to register what takes place in a single second of a more recent, only moderately complex ensemble music - especially when we consider not only what can be written in a score, but also the fine motor skills that make such a second sound.
At this point it turns out that the beyond of language, in music does not have to mean a beyond, but that it is about things that are just as 'tangible' as a piano chord.
Before we devote ourselves entirely to the tangible, I would like to further describe the transcendental principle of complementarity in art by using a paragraph from an older text.