Sunday, 21 September 2014

Status, Science and Music: An analysis of the relationship between creative acts and their impact on social hierarchy

This is a very short paper I've been working on with a view to exploring the nature of the relationship between the content of things which are created (art, music, scientific theories, etc) and the social structures which form around them. It needs more work and greater elaboration, but this is a central theme of considerable importance to which I will keep returning!

Scientific theories and artistic works, if successful, can increase the status of scientists and artists. How might this be theorised? I consider a relationship between institutional hierarchy and creative content using Searle’s recent work on status functions in conjunction with category theory. Music is chosen as a focus because its content is without reference, yet it participates in social communication. The way that logical pictures of status can be compared with empirical evidence drawn from information theory are described as a consistent theoretical approach which applies equally to the content of an idea and to its social context.

Introduction: Searle’s status functions

Any artistic or scientific creation results in a declaration: "this is a new theory for x" or “This is a piece of music”. Such declarations have been recently characterised by Searle[1] as 'status functions': particular kinds of speech act by which the reality of society is determined. Searle argues that the entities of the social world - institutions, money, monarchs and nation states all manifest as status functions. He argues that it is the declaration of a status function which, if the person making it has sufficient 'deontic power' then that status function will be binding within the context within which it is made. The deontic power of a person declaring a status function is also subject to status functions: “she is a scientist”, “he is a composer” and so on.

Searle situates status functions as those speech acts which articulate different parts of social reality. Declarations are oriented in practices and conventions involving people and technologies. In the case of science, practices involve the investigation, corroboration, falsification of new work. In the case of art, practices involve performance, criticism, recording, and so on. As Feyerabend[2] indicates, scientific practice involves not only the rational evaluation of theories, but also the individual egos of scientists, some of whom often have more power and defend theories which are effectively falsified. Artists similarly make status declarations about their work. Music is particularly interesting in this regard, where the status function “This is music” can even be applied to silence[3]. The way that status functions become established emphasising the “deontic power” of those making them, and how they remain resistant to falsification or critical attack requires an explanation of the dynamic relationship between the content of work and the structure of society. How is it that both in the sciences and the arts, there remain plenty of naked emperors?

Constraints and status functions

Any declaration is a declaration of what is and what is not. Just as the closed system conditions of scientific experiment serve to exclude interference in the production of regularity[4], so artistic status functions manipulate the boundaries of what is and what is not acceptable. Even Cage’s 4’33’’ which declares all sound as ‘music’ challenges a more conservative view of music as deficient. The identification of what is left out in a declaration has as much causal bearing as the positive determination of the subject of a status function in the first place.  But does absence have any kind of empirically observable manifestation? Might its efficacy in status mechanism be described or studied?

The study of music is instructive with regard to this question. Absence in music is integral to its content and expression. It is not just the silences without which music is unimaginable, but in the way that constraints appear to shape the contours of musical line, and of expression itself. Music of all cultures is characterised by a sinuousness where limits are approached, tension built and then released[5]. Musicologists such as Huron[6] have characterised this ebbing and flowing of tension as relating to anticipation and expectation. With regard to scientific experiment, Meillasoux[7] similarly characterises Hume’s regularity theory in terms of expectation.

The possible relationship between expectation and absence invites an examination of the applicability of information theory[8] to an empirical investigation of content and status. The fundamental question with regard to this process, as Meillasoux indicates, is the problem of being unable to determine the parameters of totalities from which the probabilities of events might be calculated. Meillasoux, following Badiou[9], argues that an ordering of reality is connected with mathematical structures and fundamental truths. Through Badiou’s use of mathematical Category Theory[10], this ordering appears logically knowable as a network of relationships between objects. Most interesting among these networks are the “knotted” relationships that exist between personal ambition, professional contexts and new theories or artistic works where mutual constraints serve to maintain particular positions. An elegant way of representing this kind of situation is the Trefoil knot:

Alongside this logical structure, there is also an empirical correlate in the measurement of Shannon redundancies, and this is particularly applicable to the study of musical content and its relation to social structure. With music we see both a logical (analytical) construct and a measurable practical component. Each of these (the analytical and practical) results in a status function: there are two status functions – one of empirical evidence and the other a logical characterisation. With these a new ‘critical orientation’ can be formed which can form the basis for new scientific or artistic thinking. In this way, naturalism is characterised as a process of comparing and assessing the status of the empirical with the status of the logical. In this process, there is a dynamic between the content of ideas and the communicative processes of society. Music provides an illuminating case-study for understanding this relationship.

The Communicative Relation between Internal Content and Status

With regard to the content of music, analysts make status functions about the parts of music: "harmony", "counterpoint", "melody", "form", "tonality", "instrumentation", "rhythm", and so on. Sometimes these declarations of parts are then used to reconsider the status of the music itself: Schenker[11] famously thought there was no great music after Brahms – largely because he was not able to fit any music after Brahms into his analytical scheme. The relationship between these declared components and the way that music articulates itself against its constraints reveals a structuring which appears to be universal: music, like mathematics, reveals orderings of content which appear to exist outside convention or social context.

Whilst, as Stravinsky famously remarked, music expresses nothing but itself, it communicates in the interaction between its social context and its intrinsic qualities. In this process of interaction, what emerges are shifting patterns of expectation between players. For Alfred Schutz, musical communication deserves attention because music has no “conceptual scheme”: communication in music, Schutz argues, occurs through a mutual ‘tuning-in’ between participants[12]. “Mutual tuning-in”, for Schutz, means that music offers the chance to share in the lived experience of others. Schutz argues that the grimaces and the bodily contortions associated with the engagement with music-making are as much part of the means by which we gain access to each other’s lived experience as the sound itself.

Schutz’s musical communication contrasts with the view of communication established in information theory[13]. Both Schutz and those sociologists influenced by information theory, including Parsons[14] and Luhmann[15], share a concern for “expectations”. In information theory, expectations are shaped between ‘figure’ and ‘ground’ of information characterised by the relationship between the 'negentropy' of 'information' and redundancy. Redundancies are particularly important, since they frame messages in the same way that grammar frames language. The role of redundancy in artistic expression and patterning has been explored by Ernst Gombrich[16], but music is particularly striking for the amount of redundancy it presents. Whilst in information theory, redundancies constrain, they also tend to go unnoticed: redundancies may be ‘absent’ from conscious deliberation.

Schutz’s description of mutual tuning-in also suggests the ebb-and-flow of tension as physical contortions give rise to expectations about reaching limits at points of climax or physical virtuosity. The limits of artistic expression have a social correlate: for example, there are limits encountered in moral dilemmas, in crises of personal identity or (most relevantly) in the limits of acceptability of a prevailing theory. Limits, like information, exist against a background. Feyerabend argues that paradigm shifts in science may occur not only with critique of different theoretical positions, but when the background to those positions changes. The musical correlate of this is when a melody played with one harmony acquires an entirely different character with a different harmonisation.

The relationship between the synthesis and analysis

In a musical work, redundancies are multi-layered. Levels of redundancy in rhythm, harmony, tonality, melodic contour and accompanimental pattern are revealed and wash over one another. As they overlap, so the tendency towards resolution and finality - the arrival at unity - change over time. The truth of music is revealed in a process of establishing a limit which converges to resolution. This process both specifies ordering of ideas and at the same time it configures the relationship between a possible initial starting point and a likely end-point. The attached status declaration "This is music" is analysable as a limit between social relations, personal identity and musical content. The role of the musical content in presenting shifting patterns of expectation is dynamically connected to slower-moving dynamics within the social and personal domains.

Whilst the shifting patterns of redundancy within the musical content are both synthetically and analytically  (or empirically and logically) determinable and give a sense of the ordering of the musical structure, the characterisation of the logical structure can extend beyond the music content to the social matrix within which the status function "this is music" is made. Richer and more contextual descriptions can be made about the relationship between the content of a creative process and the social structure within which claims (status functions) might be made about it. More broadly, there is a possibility for articulating contextual assessments of status functions relating theories as creative acts with experimental results in the context of a social matrix also characterised by status functions and limits.


The characterising of the relationship between social status and the content of ideas – whether artistic or scientific – demands a consistent theoretical approach which can be applied equally to the content of an idea and to the social structure within which it is presented. This paper has presented the case for considering information theory in conjunction with the logical articulation of status functions and limits as an approach to naturalistic inquiry using music as an example. In taking this approach, theory and practice become representable as both logical structures of limits and absences and empirical evidence of redundancies. Understanding the relationship between creative musical works and status focuses the challenge on formulating explanations whose coherence at a deep level might provide a deeper basis for both theoretical development and practical innovation.

[1] Searle, J (2010) Making the Social World: The structure of Human Civilization, Oxford University Press
[2] Feyerabend, P (2010) Against Method, Verso
[3] Cage, J (1961) Silence Wesleyan University Press
[4] See Bhaskar, R (1977) A Realist theory of Science
[5] For example, see D’Indy, V (1898) Cours de Composition Musicale and D’Indy’s description of increasing and decreasing tension in harmonic modulations, melodic contours and rhythmic patterns
[6] Huron, D (2008) Sweet Anticipation: Music and the psychology of expectation
[7] Meillasoux, Q (2006) After Finitude: An essay on the necessity of Contingency
[8] Shannon, C; Weaver, W (1949) A Mathematical Theory of Information
[9] Badiou, A (2005) Logics of Worlds
[10] Badiou, A (2014) Mathematics of the Transcendental Bloomsbury
[11] Schenker, H (1992) Beethoven’s 9th Symphony: A portrayal of its musical content with running commentary on performance and literature as well Yale University Press
[12] Schutz, A (1964) Making Music Together, in Schutz, A (1964) Collected Papers Vol 2: Studies in Social Theory The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff
[13] Shannon, C ; Weaver, W (1949) A Mathematical Theory of Communication
[14] Parsons, T (1951) The Social System Routledge
[15] Luhmann, N (1995) Social Systems  Stanford University Press
[16] Gombrich, E (1979) The Sense of Order Phaidon

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