Deep Refrains: Music, Philosophy, and the Ineffable

Deep Refrains: Music, Philosophy, and the Ineffable

by Michael Gallope

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We often say that music is ineffable, that it does not refer to anything outside of itself. But if music, in all its sensuous flux, does not mean anything in particular, might it still have a special kind of philosophical significance?
In Deep Refrains, Michael Gallope draws together the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno, Vladimir Jankélévitch, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari in order to revisit the age-old question of music’s ineffability from a modern perspective. For these nineteenth- and twentieth-century European philosophers, music’s ineffability is a complex phenomenon that engenders an intellectually productive sense of perplexity. Through careful examination of their historical contexts and philosophical orientations, close attention to their use of language, and new interpretations of musical compositions that proved influential for their work, Deep Refrains forges the first panoptic view of their writings on music. Gallope concludes that music’s ineffability is neither a conservative phenomenon nor a pious call to silence. Instead, these philosophers ask us to think through the ways in which music’s stunning force might address, in an ethical fashion, intricate philosophical questions specific to the modern world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226483726
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/16/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Michael Gallope is associate professor in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota, as well as affiliate faculty in the Department of American Studies and the program in Moving Image Studies.

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Bloch's Tone

And closer still, in effective existence, regarding not perspectives but perplexities, there appear the (always overtaking) moral guiding images and ideals, and the topically still unidentified no-where whither music leads.

— ERNST BLOCH, Philosophy of the Future

And the creative darkness in which [music] is still shrouded is not the gloom of the Schopenhauerian will, but the incognito of the Now which drives through everything, is hidden in the world itself. Music in its unsurpassable nearness to existence is the most closely related and most public voice of this incognito, that of the welling existere which in concentric preludes seeks to be clarified here.

— ERNST BLOCH, The Principle of Hope

Ernst Bloch's The Spirit of Utopia (1918) begins with an enigmatic sentence that bristles with problems in translation: Ich bin an mir. It could be rendered literally as "I am at myself." But the preposition an indicates a multitude of linkages: it also might be translated as "I am upon, on, or to myself" or even "I am caused by myself." For many, including one of Bloch's more recent translators, it is the ambiguity in possible relations between "I" and "myself" that is instructive. It encapsulates the complexity of Bloch's "self-encounter," which does not aim at a transparent sense of self-knowledge. Instead, the ambiguity echoes a nonlinear practice of self-reflection that aims to disclose latent utopian meanings from the fabric of the existing world.

The difficulty of the prose is itself a tool to facilitate the meditation; Bloch's writing demands a great deal of interpretive and meditative labor since utopian meanings cannot be put plainly in propositional terms. Of course, some sense of horizon, futurity, and hope nonetheless guides the inquiry. Adopting the vocabulary of an idealist, Bloch variously describes his horizon as "the problem of the We in itself," "the inconstruable, absolute question," and "the one, the eternal goal, the one presentiment, the one conscience, the one salvation." Such an "inconstruable" vision of utopia — a collective Geist in the sense of a soul, spirit, or an intellectually metaphysical entity — cannot be explicitly described or explained in the pages of the book; it exceeds what can be practically represented. It can be arrived at only obliquely, dialectically, and hermeneutically through complex meditations that unfold within one's concrete experience of self-reflection, since for Bloch, utopia always retains a material, historical, and existential basis.

Many of Bloch's meditations dwell on a phenomenological paradox fundamental to the experience of time. Generally speaking, for Bloch, we are absent to ourselves; we "trickle away" and remain blind to our own potentialities. Through an exacting practice of a "self-encounter," however, we can become aware of this noncoincidence, a nonidentity, obscurity, or absence intrinsic to the experience of oneself — something he calls the "darkness of the lived moment." In contrast to vitalist philosophers and empiricists who embraced the notion of a "stream of consciousness," Bloch maintains that one can never experience the vanishing now as a present moment. Rather, he holds that the consciousness of time is a flickering, intermittent rhythm, linked transitively to absent structures of cognition. And by attending to these paradoxical absences at the heart of the lived moment and opening oneself to oblique temporal displacements, one can glimpse utopian potentialities. The "darkness of the lived moment" is an important component of many of his writings. In The Spirit of Utopia and The Principle of Hope (1959), Bloch develops it into a theory of the undetermined utopian traces of Noch-nicht-bewusste, or the "not-yet-conscious," and in Thomas Münzer als Theologe der Revolution (1922) and Heritage of Our Times (1935), he develops a parallel concept of uncanny historical dislocations — Ungleichzeitigkeit or the "non-synchronous."

In this way, alongside the matrix of self-reflection, Bloch's thinking is consistently engaged with the Marxist-Hegelian question of historical development. In The Spirit of Utopia Bloch foregrounds a particular historical context: the aftermath of the dehumanizing Great War. In his analysis, the ultraviolent means unleashed by modern weaponry alongside the rise of alienated labor and the commoditized life of the machine age have led the world to lose grip on a primordial techne: as Bloch says, we have "unlearned how to play." He describes this alienated life as one of a sanitized and rationalized "lavatoriality" that has lead to the "pervasive destruction of the imagination." His subsequent writings, too, draw profoundly on the specificity of Bloch's given historical moment. In Heritage of Our Times, Bloch responds to Germany's emergent urbanized bourgeois culture in the 1920s and '30s, with particular attention to the ways it reshaped the conditions for modern life and was itself transformed by the rise of National Socialism.

This historical context is key to understanding the social meaning of Bloch's utopia. In his view, instrumental reasoning has led us into a reified age where technology reigns supreme. The slow obscurity of a self-encounter gives us a locus with which to disrupt the normative functions of knowledge and discern latent meanings both within us and in our surrounding worlds as traces of a utopian potentiality. Among the wide range of historical phenomena that, from the stance of a self-encounter, were ripe for critical reflection, nonsynchronous revelations, or not-yet-conscious insights, Bloch held a particular regard for works of art. At risk of criticism from those on the left who felt progressive thought should be rooted in practical and economic concerns or popular forms of culture (his early alliances and subsequent differences with György Lukács have a rich publication history), Bloch's conception of socially grounded potentiality typically privileged encounters with rare, exceptional, and often obscure expressive objects.

Bloch's approach to art was in many ways inspired by Schopenhauer. For Bloch, behind the veneer of modern appearances or a "technological cold" lies the heat of a primordial material unity with nature, something akin to a noumenal thing-in-itself. For Kant, knowledge of the thing-in-itself was strictly inaccessible, since it stood by definition outside the coordinates of possible experience. Yet, as we can recall from the opening prelude, for Schopenhauer aspects of the thing-in-itself were in fact accessible to rational knowledge. Schopenhauer posited the thing-in-itself as a unified and primordial force, energy, or will that he took to undergird the existence of all individual beings. And he found that it was particularly through the interior experience of one's own body, specifically expressions of desire and unconscious motivation, that one could glimpse this primordial energy.

In consonance with Schopenhauer's view, for Bloch too there was an inner nature to all things that typically escaped ordinary thinking, perception, and representation. But for him, the true goal was to use the self-encounter to become indistinguishable from this greater materiality of nature, in order to glimpse traces of the undetermined, of the purely potential, of the utopian. In such an exceptional experience, it is as if our apparatuses of sense perception are removed from their ordinary functionality, and fleetingly taken to be indistinguishable from objects in our surrounding world: "Suddenly I see my eyes, my ears, my state: I myself am this drawer and these fish, I am these fish of a kind that lies in drawers; for the difference vanishes, the distance lifts between the artistic subject and the artistically represented object that is to be reborn to a different materiality than a mere thing's [zu einer anderen als zu seiner bloßen Dingmaterialität], reborn to its essence as the inmost principle of its potentiality, of all our potentiality."

An extraordinary episode that dissolves the reified framework of our experience constitutes the crux of Bloch's views of art. Given a society alienated by an Apollonian structure of knowledge that has devolved historically into instrumental reasoning, Bloch holds that, from the meditative stance of the self-encounter, unusually powerful aesthetic experiences are effectively capable of joining us to a collective material potentiality latent, but concealed, in all things. So important is this gesture that it is worth considering a second description of it. In the passage below, the greater substance of nature is envisioned as somehow both corporeal and dreamlike:

It is a substance [Stoff], an alien experience [fremd gebundenes Erlebnis]. But we walk in the forest and we feel we are or could be what the forest dreams. We walk between the tree trunks, small, incorporeal [seelenhaft], and imperceptible to ourselves, as their Ton, as what could never again become forest or external day and perceptibility. We do not have it — all that this moss, these strange flowers, roots, stems and shafts of light are or signify — because we ourselves are it, and stand too near to it, this ghostly and ever so nameless quality of consciousness or of becoming-inward.

Notice the central role here of a musical term: Ton or tone. From the matrix of the inward self-encounter, we can become the earth's musical tone, its sounding body (and note, too, that Ton means "clay" in German). In doing so, we will become indistinguishable from the nocturnal interiority of the forest and its "ghostly and ever so nameless quality of consciousness." Bloch's sonic and earthly Ton serves as a "nameless" dialectical linkage between the spheres of the material and incorporeal, the practical and metaphysical. The substance of the earth, of nature and the cosmos, might then overcome the reified coldness of the represented world in order to reveal traces of dreamlike potentiality.

This key usage of the word Ton is not fortuitous. While Bloch can be ecumenical about which of the arts may trigger such experience, like Schopenhauer, the amateur pianist often gave a distinct privilege to music among the arts. And this privilege is especially palpable in the pages of The Spirit of Utopia. In contradistinction to a "clairvoyance [Hellsehen]" based in sight, there Bloch argues that the true Geist of utopia instead comes from a "clairaudience [Hellhören], a new kind of seeing from within" because "the visible world has become too weak to hold the spirit...." With reference to a typically elaborate mélange of Wagnerism, mysticism, and theology, Bloch hears music as aspiring to disclose the ineffable, as if the immediacy of Schopenhauer's immediate copy could be obscurely disclosed through music:

... we want to allot to music primacy in what is otherwise unsayable, this kernel [Kern] and seed, this reflection of the colorful night of dying and of eternal life, this seed-corn of the inner, mystical ocean of the Servants, this Jericho and first dwelling of the Holy Land. If we could name ourselves, our Master [Haupt] would come, and music is the only subjective theurgy. It brings us into the interior's warm, deep Gothic sanctum which alone still shines in the uncertain darkness, indeed out of which alone the light [Schein] can still come that must wreck and burst apart the chaos....

Here, Bloch inverts the usual hierarchy of sight over sound; music bears within itself a particular utopian Schein, an apparent connection to "the interior's warm, deep Gothic sanctum" that will "wreck and burst apart the chaos" of the alienated world. In this passage, Bloch also adopts a term, Kern, that Schopenhauer associated with the will, when he claims the force of music can be heard as a "seed" or "kernel" for unearthing the ineffable character of utopia.

A section of The Spirit of Utopia on the topic of musical underscoring in stage drama describes the powers of sound in more detail. Bloch recounts, in his own words, something of a cliché of musical aesthetics (one Schopenhauer states as well) when he writes that music makes stage action more vivid, more real, and more present to the spectator — that "sound makes every event more acute, penetrating, sensuous," that "it lets us sense something as real," and that it "makes things immediate, urgent, intelligible, and that all more grippingly the more the music ventures out into full extent of the action...." Revealing some of the complexity behind the claim, however, Bloch adds two pages later that while music has an "amplifying, intensifying, actualizing power, ... sound makes things flowery, dulls the edges, and clothes every reverie in pleasant reality." Upon close examination, this might strike one as a bit of an uneasy mixture: music penetrates into the actual reality of things, overcoming the mediation of Apollonian representations in order to make an event come to life. But at the same time, so strange and absolute is music's power that intensifying may also mean decorating, dulling, even distracting; underscoring may intensify and blur the action all at once.

At the center of this ambivalence lies an ontological characteristic of music that is important to Bloch: a lack of reliable mimesis in relationship to dramatic narrative. The music is not there to merely parallel the effect of the representation, the stage action, or the moving image. Intrinsic to the force of music is an ambivalence between the heat of sensual intensity and the coolness of palliative distance; and this ambivalence is a sign of something ontologically distinct about music, a trace of a "deeper stratum of reality" that is "musically reversing the inside outward," "an unchanging, characteristic intensification" that is entirely other than the visible world of the stage or screen, but yet still remains meaningful [sinnhafte]: "... the quieter, deeper kernel, some last decisive reversal and substantiation of destiny arrested in the manifestation [Schein] of a musical 'reality,' in the manifestation [Schein] of a unchanging, characteristic intensification that brings the meaningful [Sinnhafte] instead of the manifestly obvious [Sinnfälligen], makes it mythical, that is, reveals precisely the other, deeper stratum of reality." Here we encounter a version of music's profound exceptionalism. For Schopenhauer, music, as an unmediated copy of the will, speaks the nocturnal thing-in-itself, an interior, noumenal unity behind the spatialtemporal representation of existing beings. While Bloch rejects aspects of Schopenhauer's broader philosophy, he concurs here, that music's power supersedes any particular emotional states ("It is hopeless to allocate to the music already definite emotions.").

In this way, Bloch is undeniably Romantic in its rejection of specific emotions, and accordingly proximate to positions espoused by Wackenroder and E. T. A. Hoffmann. Yet Bloch's aesthetics may also strike some readers as somewhat akin to the metaphysical formalism of absolute music made famous in a debate between Richard Wagner and Eduard Hanslick during the middle of the nineteenth century. (Whereas Hoffmann and the Romantics rejected the specificity of individual emotions, Hanslick went further and argued that "tonally moving forms" autonomously expressed specifically musical ideas.) And indeed, Bloch himself frequently seems to praise the Hanslickian concept of absolute music. At the same time, in a way that was distinctly romantic, Bloch also repeatedly affirms the sensational Intensivierung of music's empirical force: "It is too strong, too un-abstract, too moving, too ontologically charged: it surges [es wogt]...." This fusion of absolute music and Romantic sensationalism makes for a philosophically complex mixture.

This chapter argues that Bloch's approach to music's Romantic exceptionalism is made unique by virtue of its dialectical confrontation between two contradictory halves: formalism and materiality, rationalization and singular exemplarity, speculative autonomy and embodied immanence. Schopenhauer, we can recall, ultimately sought to resolve this paradoxical admixture with Platonic solutions. By contrast, Bloch's conception of the musical tone sustains an aporetic dialectic that holds these two halves in a balance without resolution: neither side, the material nor the ideal, the sensory nor the formal, dominates. For Bloch, as for Hegel before him, certainly the tone is the central unit of musical inscription; it is what music is made out of. But for Bloch the tone is peculiar in its complexity. It is both technically precise and metaphysically efficacious; it is a "sensory riddle" that joins the lightness of areal form to the immersive nature of sonic intensity, and in this way serves as a unique vehicle for utopian speech: "... only the tone, this sensory riddle [dieses Rätsel der Sinnlichkeit], is not so laden by the world and is sufficiently phenomenal for the end, that — like the metaphysical word — it can return as a final material moment in the fulfillment of mystical self-perception, laid immaculately on the gold ground of receptive human latency." Bloch developed this unique conception of the tone by adopting and transfiguring the concept from a range of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century thinkers, highest among them Hegel, from whom we learn the most about why and how Bloch deploys it. By this chapter's end, I will describe the ways in which Bloch's undertaking, while certainly indebted to a wide array of thinkers from Wackenroder and Hoffmann through Eduard Hanslick and Arnold Schoenberg, was specifically formative for Adorno's views on music.


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Table of Contents

Musical Examples


Prelude: A Paradox of the Ineffable
0.1 Schopenhauer’s Deep Copy
0.2 The Platonic Solutions
0.3 Four Dialectical Responses (after Nietzsche)

1 Bloch’s Tone
1.1 The Tone
1.2 The Natural Klang
1.3 The Expressive Tone
1.4 Bloch’s Magic Rattle
1.5 The Tone’s Ineffable Utopia
1.6 The Event-Forms
1.7 A Dialectical Account of Music History
1.8 Utopian Musical Speech

2 Adorno’s Musical Fracture
2.1 Adorno’s Tone
2.2 Adorno’s Conception of History
2.3 Tendenz des Materials
2.4 Music’s Language-Like Ineffability
2.5 The Immanent Critique
2.6 The Paradox of Mahler’s Vernacular
2.7 The Curve of Inconsistency

Interlude: Wittgenstein’s Silence

3 Jankélévitch’s Inconsistency
3.1 Bergson and the Inconsistency of Time
3.2 The Aporetic Source of Fidelity
3.3 Charme
3.4 Cosmic Silence
3.5 Unwoven Dialectics

4 Deleuze and Guattari’s Rhythm
4.1 Deleuze’s Rhythm
4.2 The Rhythm of Sense
4.3 A Structuralist Quadrivium
4.4 The Rhythm of Life
4.5 Sonorous Coextensions

Conclusion: A Paradox of the Vernacular
Select Bibliography

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