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Beyond Beautiful and Ugly: Aesthetic Philosophy and The Culture Industry From the deconstructive and poststructural

point of view, anything can be examined as a text; in particular, we can consider art forms such as paintings, sculptures, and architecture. In this paper, I've chosen to analyze music and a specific musico-cultural phenomenon. Jacques Derrida accused the Western world (citing the philosophical tradition, especially) of being phonocentric; of privileging speech over writing. One of my objectives is to apply a similar argument that contemporary Western capitalist society privileges music with lyrics ('song') over music without lyrics ('instrumental music'). There is plenty of evidence to support this variant of Derrida's argument: taking a cursory glance at cultural artifacts, like TV shows (American Idol, X-Factor, The Voice) and music award shows (the Grammy's), a massive emphasis is placed on songs. A casual look at the programming on very popular TV stations (VH1, MTV) or the contents of the Billboard Top 100 list or the iTunes Most Purchased list yields a similar impression. The first goal of this essay is to provide a descriptive deconstructive and poststructural analysis of this phenomenon (i.e. "the dominance of song") by drawing on the work of Derrida, Heidegger, and Nietzsche. The second goal of the essay is to examine the phenomenon in the context of Western capitalist society, employing Adornos and Horkheimers notion of the culture industry, as well as Marxs base/superstructure theory, and Gramscis hegemony theory. The third, and final, goal is to connect the two distinct analyses; to tie them together by examining post-romantic and avant-garde Western classical music, and some of the philosophical implications of the avant-garde. For Derrida, phonocentrism is the Western tradition of privileging speech over writing. In Western continental philosophy, for instance, it begins at least as early as Socrates - Derrida quotes Nietzsche: Socrates, he who does not write, alluding to the Greek thinkers distaste for writing and his preference for what we today call Socratic dialogue.1 It is difficult to put a finger

Derrida, Of Grammatology, 303.

on exactly what Derrida means when he uses the word "writing." It is clear that writing is related to the physical act of putting pen to paper, but there is certainly much more going on. In Of Grammatology, he writes "thus we say 'writing' for all that gives rise to an inscription in general, whether it is literal or not and even if what it distributes in space is alien to the order of the voice: cinematography, choreography, of course, but also pictorial, musical, sculptural 'writing.'"2 Similarly, there is much to talk about concerning "speech" and the attitudes and privileges that speech is associated with. He claims that this privilege occurs because the act of speech mimics, for the subject, the process of hearing ones consciousness speak. In other words, when we think, we are speaking to ourselves. Thus speech is only marginally detached from the processes of thought (and is wholly representative of thought itself), whereas writing is viewed as a supplement to thought (and a supplement to speech) writing is then a copy of a copy it is simulacral in nature.3 In fact, we can consider Plato's conception of reality; Plato believed that reality is partitioned into two realms, one consisting of Forms, and the other consisting of representations. The world of matter and of human experience occurs in the latter, and represents, mimics, and approximates the Forms (which are ideas and are ideal or perfect) which occur in the former.4 Philosophy, taking the form of speech and dialogue, was regarded as an attempt of getting directly at the forms by contrast, art was regarded as representational in the sense that it focused on and depicted objects and things in the realm of representations. As such, art was regarded as twice removed, as simulacral, and here we can again establish a connection between art forms in general, and the way that Derrida conceives of "writing." We can recast this argument in terms of what Derrida and Martin Heidegger called the metaphysics of presence: Western tradition has privileged that which is considered to be present and immediate in this case, ideas in the mind are present, and it is the perceived

2 3

Ibid., 305. Ibid., 307. 4 Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, 176.

immediacy of speech relative to the process of thought, and the detachment of writing from that process that causes us to privilege speech.5 Furthermore, when something appears to us as present before us, we apprehend it in the present this forces us to consider presence in terms of space and time. However, Derrida undermines the rationale behind this privilege he attacks the metaphysics of presence outright by introducing diffrance. Diffrance characterizes two phenomena. Firstly, that all meaning finds its genesis in the negative differential relations between signifiers, and, secondly, in the unstable, never-ending spatio-temporal deferral of such meaning. Thus, presence is illusory; the present is unstable. Thought and speech cannot be fully apprehended in the present (or at all, for that matter; thus thought and speech cannot ever be said to be truly present or fixed), and indicting writing as being detached from or supplementary to the present has no meaning because diffrance implies that even thought and speech are detached from and supplementary to the present. To evidence this, Derrida writes, "the secondarity that it seemed possible to ascribe to writing alone affects all signified in general, affects the always already, the moment they enter the game."6 Writing embodies diffrance its supposed supplementarity to speech and thought alludes to the primacy of negative differential relations in obtaining any meaning whatsoever, yet alludes to the continuous deferral of meaning. To sum up, the Western privilege of speech over writing is equivalent to the privilege of presence over diffrance. The subtleties of diffrance are important to note. Derrida writes, diffrance is neither a word nor a concept.7 In other words, the differences between signifiers in a system (the differences which actually generate meaning), cannot be collapsed into a single signifier (namely, diffrance) because that exactly defeats the purpose of diffrance. Also, we note something interesting but important about diffrance with respect to the phonocentric argument:

5 6

Derrida, Of Grammatology, 313; Heidegger, Being and Time, 48-49. Derrida, Of Grammatology, 304. 7 Derrida, Diffrance, 279.

Derrida writes diffrance with an a to foreground this play, to try and make a condition of linguistic phenomena into one more phenomenon. He draws on the fact that in the French pronunciation alone, the e spelling in the final syllable of diffrence [sic] cannot be heard...8 Derrida himself writes, the a of diffrance, therefore, is not heard; it remains silent, secret, and discreet, like a tomb.9 Through speech, we are unable to distinguish between the two, but in writing the distinction discloses itself readily. When Heidegger speaks of presence, he contrasts different ways of experiencing the world. He uses two German terms: "vorhanden" ("present-at-hand") and "zuhanden" ("ready-tohand").10 The former, vorhanden, refers to a theoretical standpoint, one in which things are examined as though under the gaze of a scientist's microscope. It is a mode in which speculation and reflection are of utmost importance. Such a position lends itself to the declarations philosophers and metaphysicians have made over the course of history (Heidegger refers especially to Descartes and his famous 'cogito ergo sum'). But Heidegger argues that this is a mode of being that is removed from the way we actually experience the world that we do not encounter entities in the world as though they are present before us as objects of analysis. Rather, these entities come before us as zuhanden - they are ready for use, for practicality, for utility.11 We do not experience a door as simply a rectangular chunk of wood with two metallic nubs we experience it as something we walk through, something that grants us privacy and safety, something that signifies a state of being inside or outside, etc. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the "vorhanden lens" it is does not authentically reflect experience. Rather, authentic experience means being actively engrossed in the world the present is constantly sliding, it is unstable, something that defies the comprehensive apprehension that the vorhanden mode of being seeks to obtain. In short, things in the world are often not simply
8 9

Mooney and Moran, The Phenomenology Reader, 545. Derrida, Diffrance, 280. 10 Heidegger, Being and Time, 103. 11 Heidegger, Being and Time, 159.

objects with properties; they are pieces of equipment which are framed in the context of particular purposes and specific functions.12 But the notions of speech and presence are directly linked to the present-to-hand mode of being, while writing and diffrance are directly linked to the "ready-to-hand," so we see an affirmation of the primacy of diffrance in lived, engrossed experience. These aforementioned binaries, in which speech/presence is privileged over and above writing/diffrance, inform our discussion of yet another binary system; that in which song is privileged over instrumental music. The functions of song are analogous to those of speech; song is characterized by the use of the voice, namely through words and lyrics, and so gives the illusion of presence. But this voice is the human voice, and as such, we are privileging a vantage point that is decidedly anthropocentric. My father often talks to me about classical music; some of his favorite pieces (Rachmaninov's piano concerti, Grieg's piano concerto and Mendelssohn's violin concerto, among others) are dear to him because the pieces, typically in their slow, adagio movements, contain moments in which the featured solo instruments "sing and cry" his words. While seemingly innocuous, comments of this nature point to a particularly prevalent humanistic lens from which to view music. To see more of this humanism in action, consider the way that Heidegger combats it in speaking of the voice of being: Heidegger recalls that it is silent, mute, insonorous, wordless, originarily a-phonic...The voice of the sources is not heard. A rupture between the originary meaning of being and the word, between meaning and voice, between the the voice of being and the phone between the call of being, and articulated sound; such a rupture, which at once confirms a fundamental metaphor, and renders it suspect by accentuating its metaphoric discrepancy, translates the ambiguity of the Heideggarian situation with respect to the metaphysics of presence and logocentrism.13 For Heidegger, Dasein, a neologism he coins to
12 13

Ibid. Derrida, Of Grammatology, 316.

refer to the human being and its structure, is that being to which Being discloses itself.14 While this claim initially sounds humanistic as well (i.e. the claim that humans have privileged access to the world), it is a way for Heidegger to bite the bullet and affirm that he cannot step out of his own humanity (i.e. cannot step out of Dasein) to make universal statements as philosophers have done throughout history. In other words, this process of Being disclosing itself to a very specific type of being (i.e. Dasein) is, for Heidegger, actually an acknowledgment of multiplicity. But because this disclosure is originarily a-phonic, it is again a shift away from the speech/presence privilege, and since this privilege was the result of a perceived immediacy of speech to human thought, it is also a critique of humanism and of humanistic privilege. Here, I restate the central claims and arguments in a (hopefully) clearer and more succinct way: Western society has traditionally privileged song over instrumental music, and the analysis of this privilege is largely motivated by the Derridean analysis of phonocentrism. Phonocentrism privileges speech/presence over writing/diffrance. Song is related to speech/presence in the sense that the subject of the song (i.e. the singing subject, in contrast to whom Derrida calls the speaking subject) comes across as being closer and more immediate (i.e. more present) to the listener. This privilege emanates from an anthropocentric point of view; something that philosophers have exploited to make universal declarations about the nature of reality, knowledge, etc. As evidenced by my fathers comments, this point of view can attempt to exercise its power and privilege by taking instrumental music and subordinating it to song (i.e. by regarding instrumental music as a representation and approximation of song). This is analogous to the way Plato subordinated art to philosophy, and the way that philosophers have subordinated writing to speech.


Heidegger, The Origin of the Work of Art, 102-103; Heidegger, Being and Time, 322-323.