Tuesday 7 March 2017

Trump Supporters and Susanne Langer on Music and Expression

Langer’s “Philosophy in a new Key” has sat on my bookshelf for years, but it’s been one of those books I have always had trouble getting into, whilst at the same time knowing that it is an important book. Although it makes plenty of musical references, not just in the title, it is not a book about music. It is a philosophical book about expression and aesthetic communication. Langer deals with expression in art, religion, primitive society, politics.. and music. She sees the world through a musical lens - and I believe this is very important for our time now - particularly our politics.

This is a fascinating and entertaining interview with two Trump supporters by Evan Davis:

There's a lot of emotion going on there. Now here's Langer:

"Whenever people vehemently reject a proposition, they do so not because it simply does not recommend itself, but because it does, and yet it's acceptance threatens to hamper their thinking in some important way. If they are unable to define the exact mischief it would do, they just call it "degrading", "materialistic", "pernicious" or any other bad name. Their judgement may be fuzzy, but the intuition they are trying to rationalize is right; to accept the opponent's proposition as it stands, would lead to unhappy consequences.
So it is with "significant form" in music: to tie any tonal structure to a specific and speakable meaning would limit musical imagination, and probably substitute a preoccupation with feelings for a whole-hearted attention to music. "An inward singing" says Hanslick, "and not an inward feeling, prompts a gifted person to compose a musical piece". Therefore it does not matter what feelings are afterward attributed to it, or to him; his responsibility is only to articulate the "dynamic tonal form".
It is a peculiar fact that some musical forms seem to bear a sad and a happy interpretation equally well. At first sight that looks paradoxical; but it really has perfectly good reasons, which do not invalidate the notion of emotive significance, but do bear out the right-mindedness of thinkers who recoil from the admission of specific meanings. For what music can actually reflect is only the morphology of feeling; and is it quite plausible that some sad and some happy conditions may have a very similar morphology." (Philosophy in a New Key, p 238)

Langer’s philosophical foundation is the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus. She takes Wittgenstein’s “picture theory” of meaning (whereby the logical form of a proposition is seen as a representation of things in the world), and adapts it to say that artistic expression is a “picture of emotion” - or here, a picture of "the morphology of feeling". Of course, this was written before Wittgenstein’s attention shifted to the way that language is used in everyday life – and to the role of expression of language. However, I think Langer makes a contribution which is also helpful in considering Wittgenstein’s later view of communication. For Langer, the logical expression of feeling is not of the individual artist’s feeling; it is an epistemological position about feeling in general. In other words, composers (and other artists) express what they know about how emotions work through the creation of an artefact of homologous form.

I think this could be right – it makes a key distinction about emotion and expression which would take the cry of a baby as “I am feeling unhappy” to the artist’s representation of that cry as “this is what I believe feeling unhappy is”. Artists are epistemologists working below the level of language. Ironically, Langer’s Wittgensteinian approach digs into precisely what he famously said “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”.

I'm not blaming Wittgenstein for Trump (how unfair would that be?!), but we have passed over too many things in silence, only to concentrate on the rational and technocratic. Trump is a technocratic and rationalised response to the alienation which this silence has produced. 

Of course, many questions remain: What Langer doesn’t deal with is how these artistic epistemological propositions are communicated. How is it that we read the artist’s proposition? How is it that on being moved to tears, we might learn something of what it is to be moved to tears? And, perhaps most importantly, is her theory of the "communication of the morphology of feeling" universally true? It might work for Rigoletto or Beethoven's 9th, but does it work for design or architecture? I might prefer to talk about the "morphology of being" rather than feeling...

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