Monday, September 6, 2010

Pop culture and the lure of Platonism

Come on now, be honest! Which one of you wouldn't rather listen to his hairdresser than Hercules? Or Horatius, or Orpheus... people so lofty they sound as if they shit marble!

Mozart (Tom Hulce) in Amadeus

I can remember spending many happy times observing the arrivals and departures of college boys with monocles, walking sticks, capes. They always livened up receptions and dinners, to say nothing of seminars and street demonstrations… I cannot actually report having spotted a young squire wearing a powdered wig, but doubtless there will come a day.

R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. on the early days of the conservative movement, in The Conservative Crack-Up

The Catholic Church is like a thick steak, a glass of red wine, and a good cigar.

G. K. Chesterton

Several readers of my recent post on Thelonious Monk, both here and at What’s Wrong with the World, expressed a dislike of jazz, a couple of them on conservative philosophical grounds. One of them cited Richard Weaver’s critique of jazz in Ideas Have Consequences, a classic of modern conservatism.

It’s no secret that I sympathize with the main theme of Weaver’s book, viz. that the nominalism of William of Ockham set the stage for the characteristic philosophical, moral, theological, and political errors of modernity. (This is also a major theme of The Last Superstition.) But, needless to say, I differ with Weaver at least in part on the matter of modern popular culture, and the issue is by no means as trivial as it might seem. Weaver and I agree that it was a catastrophe to abandon realism about universals, to deny that things – including, most importantly, human beings – have essences which define an objective standard of goodness for them. But realism comes in different forms, and the different forms have different moral, theological, cultural, and political implications.

For the Platonic realist, the essences of things are transcendent, existing in a “third realm” beyond both the material world and any mind. For the Aristotelian realist, essences are immanent, existing as constituents of the things themselves. For instance, the Form of Tree, for Plato, exists utterly apart from any particular tree, while for Aristotle a tree’s form (no caps needed, thank you very much) is a metaphysical component of the tree itself, not something external to it. Where they agree is in holding that the form or essence of the tree is something objective and repeatable, that this tree, that tree, and the other tree share the same nature, and that that nature determines what is good for trees as a matter of objective fact – such as that a tree that sinks its roots deep into the soil so as to give it stability and take in nutrients is to that extent a good tree, and that a tree which due to genetic defect or injury is unable to sink its roots very deep is to that extent bad and defective qua tree.

The differences between Platonism and Aristotelianism make a very real difference, though. Given the transcendence of the realm of the Forms, the Platonist is bound to regard the material world not only as second-rate but even as positively contemptible, and the body and its passions as a prison from which the soul needs to escape if it is to attain true wisdom and happiness. There is no such implication in Aristotelian realism. On the contrary, the Aristotelian regards the material world as good, and man as an essentially embodied being for whom the goods of the body, while less noble than those of the intellect, are nevertheless real goods worthy of pursuit in moderation.

I would not want to say that Weaver is a Platonist without qualification, but there is certainly more than a whiff of Platonism in his critique of jazz and of the popular culture of which it is a part. He tells us that jazz is a mark of modern civilization’s “barbarism,” “disintegration,” and “primitivism.” Why? His reasons seem to boil down to four: First, jazz evinces “a rage to divest itself of anything that suggests structure or confinement” and an eschewal of “form or ritual”; second, its celebration of the soloist’s virtuosity is a mark of “egotism” or “individualization”; third, its appeal lies in “titillation” and its themes are often “sexual or farcical,” appealing to the “lower” rather than “higher centers,” so that it fails to raise us to “our metaphysical dream”; fourth, it is “the music of equality.” Obviously, what he says about jazz applies also to other elements of modern pop culture.

Let’s consider Weaver’s concerns in order. First, it is, of course, by now a commonplace that to accuse jazz of formlessness or lack of structure is the height of superficiality. From swing to bop to modal jazz to fusion to acid jazz, it does not take much listening to discern the order underlying even the freest improvisation. Even free jazz has structure, though as I indicated in my previous post, it is so abstract that it can (in my view, anyway) only ever be of purely intellectual rather than aesthetic interest. It is hard not to see in Weaver’s criticism the Platonist’s impatience with the messiness and complexity of the real world, a desire for all form or order to be simple and evident enough to be accessible from the armchair. As the Aristotelian realizes, however (and has constantly to remind his critics, many of whom seem to think that all essentialists are armchair essentialists), to know the essences of things we actually have to get our hands dirty and investigate them empirically, in all their rich detail. If the structure of jazz is complex and unobvious, it is in that respect only mimicking the world of our experience.

Second, if like the Neo-Platonists one regards our very individuality as a kind of fallenness, remediable only by the dissolving of all duality in mystical union with The One, then I suppose the jazz fan’s admiration for virtuoso musicianship might seem to evince a morally objectionable “egotism.” But if, as the Aristotelian holds, our bodies are essential to us, then so too is the individuality that follows upon embodiment; and in that case, admiration of individual skill or achievement is not in any obvious way per se morally problematic.

Third, though I would deny that the pleasures of jazz lack any intellectual component, it cannot be denied that much of its appeal is bodily and sensual. But this too is per se objectionable only if one regards the body and the senses themselves as per se objectionable. For Plato, “each pleasure and pain is a sort of nail which nails and rivets the soul to the body” (as the Phaedo famously puts it) which is deeply problematic if the aim is to free the soul from the body. But such harrowing metaphors at least require serious qualification if we are essentially embodied, as the Aristotelian says we are.

That the “nailing” metaphor might have some application even on an Aristotelian view is of course due to the fact that since intellect and will are the highest parts of our nature, the goods of the intellect and will are the highest goods we can attain, and we can lose sight of them if we are too focused on the goods of the body and the senses. But as I have said, the latter are still genuine goods; and since the intellectual and moral endowments of human beings are not equal, these lesser goods are bound to have greater significance in the life of the average man than they are in the lives of philosophers and saints.

Now a Platonist, aware of how few men are capable even in principle of living up to the severity of his otherworldly moral vision, might well object to the “sense of equality” Weaver perceives in jazz; that the appeal of such music is broad might seem to make it ipso facto corrupt. But the Aristotelian, while certainly an elitist of sorts, need not object to the idea of lower but still genuinely beautiful forms of art and music, any more than he objects to the idea that the goods of the body and the senses are, though lower goods, still genuine goods. Just as a mixed regime with monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic elements is for the Aristotelian preferable to the utopianism of Plato’s Republic, so too is a kind of mixed aesthetic polity bound to be the natural condition of human cultures.

Though anyone with conservative instincts is bound to recoil at the excesses of modern popular culture, then, it is possible to overreact. At the very least, it is arguable that a conservative could take a more nuanced and charitable approach to modern popular culture than Weaver does. And I would argue that such an approach is actually more conservative than Weaver’s is, because it is more realistic, more sensitive to the complexity and variety of the actual human world. As I have acknowledged before, Platonism is a noble doctrine and it can be a useful corrective to the shallow materialism and hedonism that dominate modern life. But it is also prone to unconservative excesses of its own – to utopianism and puritanism, and to either fanaticism or quietism as their sequel. It stands in need of correction itself.

Within Christianity, the Augustinian tradition partially accomplished this to the extent that it sought to reconcile Platonism with the earthiness of the Old Testament. But the Platonic-Augustinian tradition itself required correction, and this was accomplished only with the revival of Aristotelianism and the fusion, within Thomism, of the best of both worlds. In its cultural and moral implications no less than in its philosophical and theological achievements, the Aristotelico-Thomistic tradition synthesizes what is good in earlier systems and purges what is bad, and has also the resources to incorporate the best of the new.

There can in any event be no question that the mainstream Christian tradition acknowledges that the pleasures of the body and the senses have their place. For that tradition, asceticism is a nobler form of life not because the pleasures of food, drink, sex and the like are bad, but precisely because they are good. The ascetic sacrifices what is natural and good for the sake of a higher, supernatural good; and for the vast majority of human beings, even approximating such an ideal is possible only through grace, not via our natural moral capacities, precisely because it is what is naturally good for us that is being forsaken.

In light of all this, there is no reason to condemn some form of popular culture merely because it deals with this-worldly themes rather than raising us to “our metaphysical dream,” as Weaver puts it. This is not to deny for a moment that much of contemporary popular culture really is evil and corrupting. Nor is it to deny that even the best in popular culture is inferior to high culture, and that it ought never to intrude into sacred contexts. (As a lover of the Tridentine form of the Roman rite, I am stridently opposed to the use of jazz, rock, or folk music in the Mass. If I were somehow elected pope, this would be my first official act.) Nor is it to deny that even the best in popular culture can, like all the good things of this world, become a snare if we allow them to distract us from the higher and nobler things. Conservatives can definitely take too optimistic a view of pop culture – I think Brian Anderson does so in South Park Conservatives, to take one prominent example. But they can take too pessimistic a view as well, and see only bad where there is in fact much good. Weaver does so, as does Roger Scruton in some of his moods, though he seems to have mellowed a bit. (I say this as someone who admires Anderson, Weaver, and Scruton.)

As I have argued before, while conservatism should not be populist, neither should it be snobbish. The conservative or Christian who insists on Weaver’s Platonic hard line cannot fail to come across like one of the oddballs in Tyrrell’s anecdote quoted above, or the bores targeted by Mozart in the line from Amadeus – eccentric, cranky, nostalgic, uptight, unappealing, inhumane, ineffective, and irrelevant. More to the point, he is just wrong, refusing as he does to see man as he truly is, as nature made him, as God made him.

56 comments:

Ilíon said...

"For the Platonic realist, the essences of things are transcendent, existing in a “third realm” beyond both the material world and any mind. For the Aristotelian realist, essences are immanent, existing as constituents of the things themselves."

And yet you get all pissy when I characterize Plato's metaphysic as "Unthought Thoughts," and Aristotle's as "Unintended Intensions."

Tom Van Dyke said...

You were dead on about Monk, Ed. I'm a lifelong rocker, I hate friggin' jazz, but I bought Monk even when I was a snotty late-teen. There was something about him...

Some things---truths---transcend genre, fads. Thomas, for instance. You're in the zone, dude. Keep on.

Jeff said...

A provocative critique of Weaver. It needs digesting. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

The Indefatigable Ilion - witness him jeer without bound! Blessed be his thinly-veiled buffoonery!


Seriously, though, I and many other readers have no idea what your post is supposed to be about, so unless you just came here to sneer and level off a quick, obscure "criticism" in a condescending, diagnostic way, please explain yourself.

James said...

Platonism doesn't hold that material creation is inherently bad. In fact, Plotinus criticized the Gnostics for exactly this view.

Patrick H said...

And yet the massive force of advertising--the supreme art form of our age--tries to inflame precisely those lower aspects of our nature such as appetite, while ignoring or even ridiculing higher aspects. They can make more money by hacking into our appetitive and passional souls, irritating them into pathological and compulsive levels of activity, by positively bombarding everyone everywhere with an unceasing flood of messages that tell us, "Eat, Spend, Screw".

Popular culture is a mono-culture of singular aggressiveness, a kind of socially darwinistic competition-driven soft totalitarianism that simply cannot permit other cultures to exist alongside it (these would be seen as "market opportunities" to be "exploited", i.e., replaced by the mono-culture).

Given that so much of popular culture is transmitted in this pervasive, aggressive and manipulative manner, it seems sanguine to the point of naivete to say that one can pick and choose those aspects of it that fit into the scheme of a philosophically well-ordered soul.

Weaver's generalized horror of pop culture seems to me the only way most people will be able to prevent their minds from being colonized by it. It doesn't matter that much pop culture is valuable. How do you even become aware of that part without having to plow through oceans of filth to find it?

Edward Feser said...

Ilion,

What are you talking about?

Tom and Jeff,

Thanks!

James,

I know. I didn't say that Plato, much less Plotinus, regarded matter as evil. But they obviously took a much more dim view of the body and of material reality than Aristotelians do, which is all this needed for the point of the post.

Patrick H,

Yes, but "X is seriously problematic" does not entail "X is inherently bad." In dealing realistically and seriously with a problem, it is crucial to characterize it with precision, and Weaver does not do so vis-a-vis modern popular culture.

Ilíon said...

E.Feser: "What are you talking about?"

This, which is about this (directly) and this (indirectly).

alexi de sadesky said...

Sooo we should try heroin? or no?

All kidding aside, jazz is just an extension of the liberal ideal. The destruction of order and the spread of chaos. It functions as a stepping stone to this. Surely there is value to it and I actually enjoy it, but it must be asked, "Is that joy worth what you are sacrificing?" That is to say, if you remove enough of the stepping stones you don't end in gaga land doused in neon.

If we're in Wittenberg in 1517 do we look upon the church doors and give a polite nod and say, "Cool man. I dig." Or do we rip down that sheet of heresy, set it ablaze and take off Luther's head? Stepping stones...

Warren said...

Ed,

As a born, knee-jerk Platonist who has been at least partially converted to a more Aristotelian view of things (largely through your own writings), I say: many thanks for this post! Very clarifying.

Jime said...

Off-topic:

Stephen Hawkings' new book "The Grand Design" argues that the laws of physics (and not God) created the universe "from nothing".

Read the article here:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/7976594/Stephen-Hawking-God-was-not-needed-to-create-the-Universe.html

mpresley said...

First, is jazz really a popular artform in any sense of the word? A recent article from NPR (an outfit that is to news as Velveeta is to cheese, but I'm guessing they are correct in their stats) shows that jazz is about 3% of music sales. How "popular" is that?

Second, while it is true that certain giants of jazz were lacking in moral self-control, their music was, at the same time typically quite organized and disciplined.

I'm reminded of a scene in a documentary I once viewed on Sun Ra and his band--the Arkestra. Mr Ra (Sonny Blount) complained that the problem with black youth was that they'd been brought up on the idea of freedom, which was altogether wrongheaded. Instead, Ra taught discipline. In fact, he lived as a monk, and expected his band to do the same--no sex, no drugs, no alcohol, but only communal living and constant rehearsal.

I don't know about today, since I'm out of the scene, but back in the day, jazz musicians (the elite, anyway) always took the stage in suits and ties. There was nothing casual about their appearance.

It is sometimes said that the term "jazz" was Negro dialect for sex, but I've not ever seen this proved. I personally never considered the music to be sexually evocative--certainly it is not in the same league as rock and roll and the various modern-day derivatives that are mostly sexual (and violent) in content.

By the late 50s, and early 60s some musicians turned inward in attempts to express transcendent spirituality. While this was not necessarily (or even closely) Christian in form, its intention was spiritual. The most known example is probably the music of John Coltrane, and alumni such as Pharaoh Sanders. So it would be wrong to conclude that the music was simply an outgrowth of material thinking/desire.

Tony said...

Ed, good article.

My main theoretical concern with jazz as a positive form of its own right in music is to identify an order in it that is specifically a musical order. I agree with your statement Even free jazz has structure, though as I indicated in my previous post, it is so abstract that it can (in my view, anyway) only ever be of purely intellectual rather than aesthetic interest. It is just that I am not confident that the "appeal" of Monk's jazz manages to thread the needle between the purely intellectual, on the one hand, and the kind of aesthetic appeal of hot pepper & clam flavored ice cream: narrowly drawn solely for those who have managed to acquire a taste for it by repeated exposure.

It is certainly possible to acquire a taste for something that is unusual and not to everyone's taste. This acquired preference is seated in the appetite and senses, not in the intellect, surely, but nonetheless does not appear to constitute any kind of perfective disposition in the sense powers or the common senses. It is kind of like holding the world record for picking up tiddly-winks while standing on one foot and balancing a 10 lb. can of ham on your neck: well, sure, it is very difficult, and requires great "discipline" of a sort, but it is not a distinct "skill" that is of itself perfective of a man's capacities.

The test of a distinct music form that harbors a kind of disorder should be drawn from a couple of considerations: is the disorder with a specific purpose that is itself a musical value? Does that value communicate itself to those come to this form of music fresh, neither expecting it to be "like" what it isn't, but open to experiencing a pleasant new type of music.

I myself listened to the Monk pieces hoping to enjoy them, and found them wanting. With respect to my tastes, that is. I have trouble identifying how the disorder adds up towards something delightful. I enjoy some older, simpler jazz stuff, but I don't often listen to jazz because I can't enjoy the disorder. So, I ask you: is there delight to be found by people who are NOT ALREADY molded and acclimatized toward jazz?

mpresley said...

Tony wonders: ...is there delight to be found by people who are NOT ALREADY molded and acclimatized toward jazz...

I remember two instances that I can relate. When I was a kid, maybe 8 or 9, my parents gave me a hand held 9-volt transistor radio. At night, in those days, one could catch the so-called clear channel stations (local broadcasters powered down allowing AM reception from a few select stations across the nation). I first encountered jazz on one of those nights. I'd never heard such a thing, but was transformed (as much as an 8 year old could be, I guess). I wanted to buy the records, but that was out of the question.

I never enjoyed opera. When I was in my 30s I fell ill with the flu, and couldn't move from the sofa--that's how sick I was. I'd been listening to a jazz show, when unexpectedly the Texaco Met aired (I'd dialed into a local college station). That Saturday was Levine's Rhinegold. I swear, from the first movement until the gods entrance into Valhalla I'd never experienced anything like it. It was as if the hand of God had come through my living room, picked me up and then smacked me back down.

After I'd recovered I immediately went out and bought every version of the Ring I could find, spending another 10 years attempting to understand.

So, in the first instance I was "intuitively" inclined, and it was never a problem. In the second instance, I was not unlike a horse to water, but forced to drink.

Interstellar Bill said...

1. My simplistic rule:
If I like it then it's not jazz.
Brubeck's very popular 'Take Five' would therefore not be jazz because it doesn't have its a-melodic 'essence'.

2. However gross and barbaric are the 'excesses of popular culture', rock music itself is not one of them (though rap and hip-hop obviously are).

I went to about 50 concerts in the late 60's, including Hendrix, Joplin, BB King, Steppenwolf, The Who, Quicksilver, and the Doors. Nobody could every persuade me of my overwhelming perception that God approved of all that music, although many weak and imperfect humans were harmed by their excessive devotion to rock's grandeur.

Poor Janice and the two Jimmies, dead so many decades--every time the exalted Concert was over they had to go back to their little, ordinary selves, so drab in contrast to the perfection of their grand God-Time on stage, brains awash in crowd-pheromones and primitive body-rhythms, if not stronger stuff. Their music was too grand for their own good, since nobody in their lives had ever taught them the value of moderation and prudence. After the acid high they would run to the Bottle or the Needle. Reminds me of the Serpent's Apple.

Carbondale Chasmite said...

I have to confess that politicizing jazz to liberal ideology is a little ludicrous. Consider for a minute Kant. Kant's unity of the transcendental subject has to be maintained through time. As such, there is a continuous synthesis of identity that makes possible the unity of Kant's transcendental subject (under one interpretation continually synthesized through the imagination which binds both sensibility and understanding together). Now, consider jazz, the spontaneous free form of jazz is a constant unfolding of spontaneity that acquires unity of a composition. Some beautiful things arise in their unfolding immanently in our presence of them. Improv is another example.

Improv is very hard. I sometimes practice with an improv group on campus, and when you are participating within the experience, you only respond to the locution of another participant on stage. You don't compose beforehand what you will do. The audience, however, has the experience of observing this performance as a synthesis of the participants trying to create something spontaneously. The group either hits it or misses it completely. Rarely, is a skit "kinda funny."

Moreover, Aristotle and a craft analogy might help here. Each craft has its own norms that exemplify excellence. The better the guitar player is practiced, the more he will see that the craft generates norms appropriate to that activity. Within jazz, perhaps, some norms are suggestive. If a band had an inability to not attune itself to each other and only do "covers", then I would probably not think them that accomplished as "jazz musicians." Of course, I am only speaking about experimental jazz.

James said...

Well, all right-thinking people of the time hated jazz. So, I don't think one can argue that it was due to Platonism. For example, Oswald Spengler thought jazz was an example of how ". . . the Age has itself become vulgar, and most people have no idea to what extent they are themselves tainted."

By the way, I'm enjoying "The Last Superstition."

romishgraffiti said...

I'd like to second the link to Hawking's recent stuff because perhaps more interesting than the shop-worn, "God isn't necessary" schtick, Hawkings also more or less declares philosophy is dead because it hasn't caught up with M-theory.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Feser: "(Platonists) obviously took a much more dim view of the body and of material reality than Aristotelians do, which is all this needed for the point of the post."

Forgive my ignorance, but I have to ask: Are Thomists not allowed to take a dim view of material reality and to believe that the world we inhabit is a "wounded" world at its very depths? More to the point, is it logically impossible for one to hold to Thomism while holding to the following overarching interpretation of The Fall, which is that the reality we inhabit is, in some way, a "fallen" reality - that, to quote a noted Orthodox theologian, "all of nature is a shattered mirror of divine beauty, still full of light, but riven by darkness"? Can a Thomist view reality as a shadow of what it was supposed to be, not just with respect to human beings, but to the whole of material reality as we now know it, including even the kind of time we inhabit?


At the moment, I'm torn. Philosophically, I'm pretty sure that I lean towards something like Thomism, but theologically, I find that something like Platonism makes the Christian narrative more sensible. Is there a middle-ground I'm unaware of?

Edward Feser said...

Anon,

What's at issue is how precisely to interpret those ideas. My point is that from an Aristotelian-Thomistic POV, the body and the senses are essential to us, not some prison we've gotten ourselves locked into and need to be released from. Hence any view that says otherwise is to that extent incompatible with A-T. (Also incompatible with Christianity, or at least with Catholicism, since the Catholic view is also that our bodies are essential to us. That's why there is a resurrection.)

James,

Weaver and others seem to object to jazz simply because e.g. its subject matter is earthly rather than transcendent. Hence, whether they realize this or not, their critique to that extent presupposes something closer to a Platonic rather than Aristotelian view of human nature. They may have been "right-thinking," but they were not clear thinking, at least not if they are willing to acknowledge that earthly goods are real, if lesser, goods. (As I have said, whether jazz or other aspects of modern popular culture might have other drawbacks is not at issue here. The question is whether it is somehow inherently bad because of its this-worldly themes.)

Edward Feser said...

I'll get to Hawking before long.

Edward Feser said...

Tony,

A taste for Scotch, gin, or Guinness needs to be acquired. (With Guinness it took me a long time.) The same thing is probably true even of wine, or at least of some wines. Are these things somehow suspect for that reason? Are we supposed to stick to grape juice or at most port, lest we immerse ourselves too deeply in a corrupting cultural milieu? (And don't forget, jazzmen like to drink! And come to think of it, Sartre liked jazz, whiskey, and women too! Oh dear!)

James said...

Edward Feser,

But, you acknowledge in the original post that Weaver had other reasons for rejecting jazz. In any case, I don't see why acknowledging earthly goods requires us to approve of Jazz anymore than it requires us to believe that pornography is a valid form of literature. I could still argue that, although earthly goods are real, the purpose of music is to bring us closer to the transcendent and that the Dionysian impulse goes against this purpose.

Tony said...

Ed, you missed my point, or rather I didn't make it clear enough.

First, I don't object to jazz altogether. There are some jazz pieces I like.

I don't object to jazz as being geared to "lower faculties". In some sense, ALL things having to do with touch, taste, smell, sound, and color have to do with lower faculties. I don't object to that. Rock also tends to lower goods (as music goes), and I don't think rock music fails to be good music for that.

I don't object to things that tend toward requiring a habituation before one can enjoy them. I believe that people ought to listen to classical music enough to be able to enjoy at least the more accessible pieces of it, the easy stuff that doesn't require deep adjustment.

What I am concerned with (and, really, asking a question about, rather than simply rejecting out of hand) is whether the particular distinctness of Monk-type jazz is jazz pushed toward the outer limits of disorder, and whether the value perceived by those of you who enjoy that music is a value that is musical as such : does the chaos lend itself to bringing forth some OTHER rightness that is a musical sort of rightness? I think that it can be said of certain truly modern atonal pieces that the disorder intentionally introduced does indeed lead to another sort of order, but that order is an intellectual one rather than one that is perceived in the senses or the vis cogitativa. I don't think that is a hallmark of true music: the disorder ought to resolve to an order that is perceived in the human power in which music itself rests, the power in which music is enjoyed as a sensible, as heard.

So, I am asking a question: is the fittingness you apprehend in Monk's stuff something that is sensed or known ? I don't sense the fittingness in it, so I CAN'T TELL.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

I admit my love for jazz combined with my groping profession of traditional conservatism makes me uneasy. For example, Cdl. Ratzinger was quite critical of rock music and the infiltration of pop-music-ness into the liturgy (citations escape me but the memory abides). Chesterton himself was notoriously a huge antagonist of jazz: "On the Prison of Jazz". And then it is taken as a given among most conservatives that hip hop is the demise of higher culture, but insofar as hip hop evolved from jazz, it follows that jazz is to blame in some way for that demise.

The problem is that when I hear these critiques, they have no traction in my mind. "Jazz is bad"––what in the world does that mean? I can't get my mind around it. I find myself utterly at a loss when asked to "defend" or "justify" jazz as a social good. My inclination is to say, "Can't you just hear how brilliantly jazz functions?" If jazz doesn't appeal to someone, is that *because* it embodies social degradation? I doubt it. In many cases, it seems a distaste for jazz is because it's "lazy" or "confused" or "confusing" or "elitist" or "too intellectual" or "formally insufficient" and so on, complaints which are then buttressed with sophisticated (but, to me, sometimes very contrived) cultural analyses.

I'm unabashedly biased. Jazz transformed my sense of time and rhythm and tone, which not only deepened my emotional consciousness but also had effects on my entire cognitive "style". Jazz made me a big-picture, synthetic thinker, and I suspect it has had similar benefits for many other people. Jazz is about unity amidst chaos, which is largely what life is about, as well. It constantly escapes me how "jazz" can be so easily cast aside when, for example, it was a major force in the life of someone like Ralph Ellison, no mean writer and hardly a liberal in the bad sense.

My point is that I am frequently truly anxious about whether my taste for jazz, despite the criticisms of various role models and superior thinkers, is an objective indication that I am philosophically depraved. Does the fact that I can't even begin to fathom how the mainstream of vintage jazz embodies the decline of the West simply mean I am disordered but don't know it?

Incidentally, has anyone seen the film *Collateral*? I love that film and jazz plays an important allegorical role in it. Perhaps just more proof of my metaphysical lowliness.

Edward Feser said...

Well, I'm with you, Codge, except without the doubts.

Here, it seems to me, is what I'm hearing from the critics: Jazz is bad because it appeals to our lower faculties and the taste for it has to be acquired; except that, yes, we agree that there's nothing wrong with the lower faculties, and that acquired tastes can be good. So the real reason it's bad is that it isn't ordered enough, and is too much like pornography. Except that we can't rally tell you why it isn't ordered "enough" or in what respect it is like pornography, even though our failure to do so just begs the question against you and even though many people with conservative instincts find plenty of order in it and find the comparison to pornography ludicrous. Also, jazz is the music of licentiousness, except that, as Chesterton says, it's really so much a music of slavery that it doesn't even rise to the level of licentiousness. Or something like that.

In short: "Ed, give us a little more time, we'll come up with some reason to object to it!"

Really, this is the kind of sloppy, subjective "Watch me turn my personal dislikes into metaphysical verities" stuff that gives conservative cultural criticism a bad name.

Edward Feser said...

Tony,

If I understand your question rightly, my answer would be that I think that at least many people to whom Monk appeals at all find him appealing right off the bat. I certainly did, and I did so as someone who at the time (20+ years ago) was hardly "into" anything avant garde. I don't think anyone would say that this is true of atonal music or of people like Ornette Coleman; those would be better examples of the kind of thing that requires habituation that works on the intellect and (arguably) has no distinctive musical appeal.

Speaking for myself, I have always found Monk extremely attractive affectively, intellectually, and aesthetically, and I think I am hardly alone. (I recall friends at the time who came to love Monk around the time I did, all of us being very culturally conservative, and one guy in particular being so much so that he thought that jazz violin of the Stephane Grapelli sort was "demonic"(!) He still loved Monk, though. Take that for what it is worth -- personal and anecdotal, but perhaps worthy of consideration given that your own objections seem personal and anecdotal.)

Edward Feser said...

James,

I'm not asking you to approve of jazz. I'm asking for an actual argument in defense of the claim that there is something inherently wrong with it (as opposed to the mere assertion that it is comparable to pornography, etc.), and in particular an argument that doesn't presuppose the more or less Platonist view of human nature that Weaver seems to be operating with.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

Dr. Feser ("Ed"),

I was being too melodramatic, perhaps, in expressing my anxiety, but it's a genuine worry. "Am I missing something obvious here?"

While we're slinging around grandiose cultural analyses, I hereby proclaim that disliking jazz is not only a sublimated form of bourgeoise hatred of Negro culture but also a capitalist reactionary stance against a form of art that eludes total commodification. (This is fun, and so easy!)

If I can ever get my tail to the States again, west coast especially, I'd love to enjoy a Guinness with you over some jazz (or jazz over Guinness, for that matter). Frankly, I'm glad "jazz is dead"––it removes the stigma that jazz lovers are just cultural poseurs. I admit, having Woody Allen as a major figure in the jazz ranks doesn't help our standing. ;)

Have you seen *Collateral*? I'd be interested in your response.

Best,

Leroy Lamar III said...

Dr. Feser,

Great post and great responses to objections to jazz. I too have found the arguments against jazz to be wanting, but I have also found the arguments against hip-hop to be wanting for similar reasons. Like you said, X's being seriously problematic does not make X inherently evil. Many conservatives assume that because most hip-hop is evil that all hip-hop is evil. But the reasons that most hip-hop is evil has nothing to do with hip-hop as such, but only with the particular content of some of the songs. Hip-hop as a genre is well ordered. The rhythms are complex and the use of words and phrases requires great skill.

Anyway, I have to get to class so I'll cut this short. Great work!

James said...

Edward Feser,

I'm not arguing that jazz is inherently bad. Only, that one doesn't need to be a Platonist to believe that it is.

Tony said...

Speaking for myself, I have always found Monk extremely attractive affectively, intellectually, and aesthetically, and I think I am hardly alone.

Ed, I can accept that. Basically, people with different sensibilities can appreciate different kinds of good that others cannot appreciate. That's OK.

But it does raise a question: don't some of the people who appreciate free jazz of the sort from Ornette Coleman say exactly the same thing: they find it extremely attractive affectively, intellectually, aesthetically? On what basis is one to suggest that their experience is somehow less right, or farther away from core musical standards, than yours? (I am not trying to pick on you alone here: the same question comes up with people who enjoy rock music that is farther out there than the early Beatles music I enjoy, too.) Is there any possible argument against the pro-Coleman person's affirmation of his affective and aesthetic pleasure? What specifically is it about his experience that makes it possible to undermine it as reflecting a real musical good?

alexi de sadesky said...

I happen to like jazz as well. Particularly the man in question and a few other luminaries. BUT, like Mr Codgitator (Well done, sir. I really enjoyed that post.), I too have a sneaking suspicion that we are listening to "the horns of hell."

Now, admittedly, I am a bit of a troglodytic layabout, but I do try to keep up with a few things, which is why I am here to begin with (Love the blog and TLS). So, with that said, forgive me for my simple minded logic and just ignore me if my thoughts are too pedestrian, I'll get the hint. I am no philosophy whiz nor do I retain the gifts of Apollo's ear.

However, one cannot ignore the fact that at some point Scott Joplin morphs into this. So, to a certain degree saying, "I'd like to listen to some Scott Joplin," is kind of like saying, "I'd like to have a little bit of cancer." It starts as a small bundle of cells that appear to be rather harmless and metastasizes into the Wu Tang Clan. Yes, I realize this is inflammatory drivel, but bear with me. The question is, "If there isn't something inherently harmful about Scott Joplin's ragtime do we end up with Ol' Dirty Bastard?" I'm not sure we do. Granted, this is more about society as a whole, but I find it silly to try to separate art from the rest of the spectrum and attempt to look at it independently because art is a reaction to society. If we hear an explosion how are we to know it was caused by trinitroluene without investigating the scene? Although, Carbondale Chasmite seems to think it a near impossibility that politics could affect the way a man plays a trumpet, so maybe I need to reevaluate.

alexi de sadesky said...

Continued:
I know this is not the metaphysical argument you are looking for Professor Feser, but it's late and I can't bring myself to just highlight it and hit delete. Blogger eats about %30 of my comments anyway, so maybe you will get lucky and this will all disappear into the far reaches of the interwebbednets. Fingers crossed...

I kid, but I would really like to hear your thoughts and would appreciate any constructive criticism if you have the time. Thanks

Rob G said...

One can make a similar argument to Weaver's from Thomist grounds. A friend of mine who teaches at a Catholic college in the Western U.S. argues that jazz and rock appeal to a lower aspect of our human nature than do classical and traditional Western folk music forms. Although he is a fan of Weaver (he did his dissertation on Weaver and Kirk) he is a full-on Thomist.

I think Weaver was prescient about jazz, as he was about so many other things. He didn't live to see much of the excess of today's contemporary music scene, but I have a feeling that if he had, he would have looked at it and said, "Well, of course! Given jazz, this was bound to happen." There was a seed of sorts planted in music, just as there was one in modern art, in cinema, etc., that has come to fruition in today's rubbish.

I don't like jazz much anymore (I liked it a lot when I was in college -- even played in a jazz band for a year) but I don't hate it. To me it seems like jazz and rock are like fast food, ok in a pinch but not the thing you want to diet on steadily. Not good for the soul in large quantity.

Over the past 7 or 8 years I've shifted my listening primarily to classical. I still listen to some rock, mainly stuff that has some measure of beauty (I've gotten rid of all my discs of "ugly" music -- post-punk, grungy stuff, etc.) but I listen to classical now about 90% of the time.

Leroy Lamar III said...

I'm surprised by the basic logical fallacy present in some of these objections to Ed's piece. Even though I see nothing inherently wrong with rap, let's assume that it is inherently evil. How does it follow that because rap is inherently evil that its cause is inherently evil? Is this not an example of the genetic fallacy? Of course it is possible to argue that there is something essential to jazz that makes it evil and that would also make its offspring evil, but I have seen no such argument.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

Tony "Speaking for myself...":

Not to be "that guy", but if I might interject: Part of the reason music like Coleman's is "out there" even among jazzies, is because Coleman composed it *intentionally* to subvert the received jazz canons. "Progressive." Granted, all performers have a license, and even a kind of obligation, to enrich the tradition with improvisation and expressivist riffing. Yet, once the form gets swallowed by the pure expression--the pure tonal emotiveness--it's no longer jazz, but rather "a guy grandstanding under the auspices of jazz." As Goethe said, "In der Beschraenkung zeigt sich der Meister." Schoenberg's musical "innovations" were of the same nature, as are John Cage's. I doubt there is any hard and fast criterion for excommunicating Coleman from Jazmania--only the Church has a Magisterium, and then only for faith and morals--, but there's a reason performers can be roughly grouped as either "real jazz artists" or "guys that sound like ______." The former embody the larger tradition of the art form itself, whereas the latter embody a kind of self-conscious, cerebral, recursive expressivism that fixates more on a master (or a gimmick) than the form itself. That is, I'd say, the analogue for saints versus schismatics.

Best,

alexi de sadesky said...

Leroy,

Is this not an example of the genetic fallacy?

A better example might be to think of jazz and rap as members of the same family that carry traits which cause them to have a high risk of developing diabetes. Jazz and rap are not inherently evil, but they carry traits which make them a high risk for becoming evil when fed an improper diet. The only difference between jazz and rap is jazz was fed a diet of 1920's-1950's culture, not so great in and of itself, but light years ahead of the 1980-2010 diet that rap is on.

The Masked Chicken said...

A better example might be to think of jazz and rap as members of the same family that carry traits which cause them to have a high risk of developing diabetes.

Rap is not music!
Rap is NOT music!

It is a form of rhetoric with a backbeat. This type of rhetoric was known to the ancient Greeks. The stupid music companies (and the modern inventors) classified it as music so they could sell records. Had they called it what it is: political rhetorical poetry (and third-rate or third-grader-like, at that), then they would have never sold anything.

People have become so unsubtle and insensitive to aesthetics, today that they willingly bought into this.

The Chicken

Edward Feser said...

Codge (Cadge),

All well said. And when you're in L.A., let's have that drink. Re: Collateral, I have seen it, and I remember liking it, but it's one of those rare movies I don't remember many of the details of!

Edward Feser said...

Tony,

Does anyone really say that about Coleman? I doubt it. I think from the get-go people either said "What the hell is this $#!*?!" and turned it off, or they said "I don't know what the hell this $#!* is, but I guess it's supposed to be pretty deep, so I'll try to be patient and learn to like it."

Edward Feser said...

Leroy,

Yes, at the very least I think people need to be much more careful and rigorous than they tend to be before chucking out whole ranges of music as inherently bad. (Even rap, of which I am definitely not a fan, though I do admit to owning a copy of Licensed to Ill.)

Edward Feser said...

James,

OK, but I'd still like to see what an alternative argument would look like.

Edward Feser said...

Alexi,

The trouble, as others have pointed out, is that such an argument needs to be framed in a way that avoids the genetic fallacy, as well as the slippery slope fallacy and probably a bunch of other fallacies it is all too easy to fall into in this area. I'm not saying it can't be done, only that I haven't seen anyone do it and don't see a plausible way to do it. Certainly just noting that rap, Lady Gaga, etc. can in some vague way be lumped in with jazz is no good. (Some people would say that the rot really set in with Wagner, or maybe with Mozart. Or maybe the invention of the violin was the problem. Or maybe the drums. All of this is absurd, of course, and that's the point. Just saying "X is bad and X has Y; but we find Y in this earlier form, so it must be bad too!" is no good.)

Tony said...

Does anyone really say that about Coleman? I doubt it.

I don't know. After a couple minutes blogging, here are a couple of quotes.

Any serious or casual Ornette Coleman fan does not need Ben Donatelli’s permission to enjoy the music! I do not see nor hear anything uncivilized in Coleman’s music. I have enjoyed his albeit uncommon albums and one live performance for over forty years. I have only the highest regard for Ornette Coleman’s musical integrity. If his music is not to someone’s liking, they should not blame this artist whose mercurial career is beyond comparisons.


Coleman’s music is just that – exciting & highly creative music. While it’s not for everyone, it clearly IS enjoyed by many,

Brandon said...

Tony,

I take it that Ed's point is not that people can't genuinely enjoy Coleman, but that doing so is, with at most rare exceptions, a necessarily acquired taste -- and the reason would be in great part that mentioned by the Codgitator: it's not so much the sound of Coleman people that gets people liking Coleman but what Coleman is doing with it, and this requires, for instance, a sense of how Coleman subverts, and innovates on, prior conventions. What you need is not to find people who enjoy Coleman (if nothing else, people can come to acquire a taste for anything), but people who have always fournd Coleman "attractive affectively, intellectually, and aesthetically," pleasant on being heard, independently of judgments of how creative or uncommon it is.

Brandon said...

I should add, by the way, that I like Coleman myself; but pattern and mood constitute very nearly my whole appreciation of music. I think he becomes more bearable when you treat (e.g.) the piece Ed links to in the previous post as simply a study in improvisation, not a unified piece of music. That is, it's a set of musicians each improvising on a theme in their own way, who just happen to be playing at the same time because that brings out the ways in which they are improvising; and it's the little clevernesses of the improvisations that really make the piece. And I don't think Coleman himself would say differently: he's said quite clearly that his music is chiefly about structures that cut across all kinds of sounds. And it's this that you really have to appreciate to enjoy Coleman.

James said...

Edward Feser,

I don't necessarily think that Jazz is inherently bad, though I do think its results have been overwhelmingly negative. But, as I said above, I don't think one needs to be a Platonist to agree with Weavers criticism. I suppose one could also argue that the purpose of music has traditionally been to give us a feeling of transcendence, and that insofar as jazz doesn't fulfill this purpose, it's bad. Though I suppose that's rather close to Weaver's argument. In any case, a Jazz defender would have to show that jazz does fulfill the purpose of music.

Edward Feser said...

Hi Brandon,

Yes, that's pretty much what I would say. Enjoying Coleman would have to involve the same sort of thing which, on Scruton's view as expressed in his Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture, the enjoyment of the atonal music of Schoenberg involves: a theoretical interest in experimenting with the disruption of our normal musical expectations, for the sake of exploring what music itself is or might be.

My own problem with this sort of thing is not moral but aesthetic: the result, it seems to me, is not really music at all but a theoretical statement about music. It's like listening to a lecture on food rather than actually eating.

Edward Feser said...

Hello James,

The trouble is that it just isn't true that "the purpose of music has traditionally been to give us a feeling of transcendence." That has only ever been but one of the purposes of music, even if the most important. Other themes have included romantic love, family and community, historical events, politics, the sea or other natural phenomena, the nonsense of nursery rhymes and the like, and who knows what else. All of this long pre-dates jazz or modern music in general. There is simply no basis whatsoever for saying that music per se must concern itself with religious or other transcendent themes. And I'm still waiting for a non-Platonic philosophical justification for claiming otherwise.

Brandon said...

I think in light of people like Coleman that I'm inclined to draw a distinction between music as liberal art and the subset of that liberal art that is fine art. (I mean 'liberal art' in the older sense of a productive skill geared to making instruments of reason itself, and thus, as a skill, suitable for a free person.) Coleman fits just fine into music understood as a liberal art, simply speaking; indeed, I think he does so very well, since structure and order in time is precisely one of the chief features of music considered as a liberal art. But fine art adds an additional feature, judgment of taste (a fine art producing works that are not simply of rational value to a free person but that also please and delight on being apprehended); and you're right that assessment changes at this point.

p.falk said...

Sorry - no open thread so I thought I'd put this hear:

Do Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen agree with their views on Free Will and God's omniscience?
Also, which one of these views (if they different) are more inline with the Catholic teaching.

If neither - would anyone mind pointing me in the direction of something that treats the issue from a Catholic perspective?

James said...

It would appear that my previous post has vanished. Anyway, I quoted Weaver arguing that jazz rejects the moderation of the passions by reason. That doesn't seem like a particularly Platonic argument to me.

Rob G said...

"I quoted Weaver arguing that jazz rejects the moderation of the passions by reason. That doesn't seem like a particularly Platonic argument to me."

Weaver didn't go into much detail in his critique of jazz -- it covers only three pages of I.H.C -- but I can't help thinking that his complaints are rooted less in his Platonism than in his cultural observations and what might be called his "modernist radar," which I'd say are equally available to an Aristotelian/Thomist.

NapLajoieonSteroids said...

Pop music is trouble because romanticism always leads to nihilism. But that is the not the fault of the mediums themselves.

What is rock and roll but Rousseau with bass&drum?

Yet, the underlying sexual beat is not dissimilar from the sexual beat found in polka.

People want sex, and they want a music that allows them to signal their sexual virility and availability.

The problem is that no one actually believes in Rousseau anymore nor can they pretend a world consists of individuals and social contracts.

Pop music starts reflecting that- it's gone from the worshiping of Beatles to bowing to Lady Gaga (who quite sickeningly actually demands worship) and what can only be described as an audiovisual will to power.

So it isn't jazz or rock or rap that has led us down this path, but ourselves. The mediums can be rescued and used; the problem is, even if attempted, how many are left to save?

Thomas Mirus said...

When we say that jazz appeals to the lower aspects of our nature, to what are we comparing it? Presumably classical music... But in fact, all music and all art appeals to the senses. There seems to be a prejudice (I think it unfortunately has its origins in racism) that melody and harmony are more spiritual and uplifting, whereas rhythm is more physical, base and sensual. Not to deny the great sensual appeal of a groove, but since all music reaches us through our ears and has physiological effects on us, it seems obvious that the appeal of melody and harmony is no less sensual than that of rhythm. At the same time, rhythm reaches the soul through the ear just as easily as melody and harmony do, so rhythm is no less "spiritual," even intellectual, than the other aspects of music.

As to the supposed individualistic egotism of jazz improvisation, that is an absurd claim because jazz has from day one been greatly concerned with group improvisation. This was true in the beginning, and while the emphasis became more on the soloist at a certain point, in the 60s spontaneous group interaction and mutual listening became much more important again (listen to the 60s quintet led by Miles Davis).

At the same time, the cult of individual virtuosity in classical music is impossible to ignore. In fact, virtuosity for its own sake became more and more valued in classical music at the same time that improvisation began to be neglected. Yes, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and Chopin were all improvisers, and Bach in particular was more renowned for his improvisations than for his compositions during his lifetime. As the great jazz pianist Bill Evans noted, in many ways jazz is heir to the great Western improvisatory tradition (not to belittle the beauty and perhaps greater importance of the African contribution).

BTW, I'm a young professional jazz pianist, as well as an Austro-libertarian who has trouble buying into Rothbardian self-ownership, which is how I came upon this blog. I very much appreciate Feser's defense of jazz against what is all too often thinly veiled musical racism. I also appreciate his respectful and nuanced critique of Rothbard and of libertarianism. Especially after reading the distributists and wanting to bang my head against a wall.