jeudi 26 avril 2012

Stewart Weir
Resisting the Rhetoric in Retromania: Philosophical reflections on popular music criticism (2/4)
Part II: Exploiting Ambiguity

It seems easy to refer to the past. We have memories of it, we have artefactual and historical evidence of things having happened prior to the present moment, and we listen to music that was made in the past. To extend this a little further, people sometimes suggest that when we look at the stars we are 'looking into the past' by virtue of how long it has taken the light from them to reach us. The light that reaches us may have left the location of a distant star billions of years ago, and so what reaches us represents the star then, not now. All of these examples are in a sense misleading, however. It is not possible to directly experience the past any more than it is possible to directly experience the future. Wherever we are is the present moment, and whatever exists is a constituent of it. Although artefacts in the present were made in the past, we always experience them now. The present is the frame of our experience. There is, therefore, some confusion built into terms such as 'plundering the past' which are redolent of the retromania argument. It is not the past itself which is being referenced, revisited, plundered, or pastiched, just an entity or an idea that was created in the past but which we experience in the present. This might seem like a trivial point but it highlights an important ambiguity in the retromania argument. 

Dan Corco - Hold On

Perhaps the normative point of the retromaniac position is that musicians and artists ought to look forward rather than back, and should try harder to make music of the future than of the past. I have highlighted 'ought' and 'should' as a reminder that this position is not free of dogma. However much the argument might appear to objectively report what is happening and draw rational conclusions about what might happen next, we can doubt the veracity of the claims concerning the future as well as the ones about the referencing of the past. The scepticism can be expressed simply: all music, however futuristic-sounding, instantly recedes into the past as soon as it comes into existence. Thus there is no music that it is truly 'of the future', other than all the music which has not been yet created. This holds true irrespective of whether we are talking about somebody writing Beatles pastiche rip-offs, or composing music that is unprecedented in its other-worldly difference from what has gone before.

Only music that is potential can genuinely be described as music of the future, for all actual music has already been created. All music that exists is of the past and the present, by virtue of it existing. This is important, because once we realise it we can see that the exhortation for artists to make 'music of the future' is primarily a rhetorical device for advancing a normative argument that relies on just one particular interpretation of empirical facts. In the second of the two examples just given (i.e. the attempt to write music that is completely new) there is even a possibility that the pursuit of this kind of absolute originality is futile, since something can only be 'different' if it is preceded by a tradition that it can be different from. On this view a tradition or convention is a prerequisite for 'originality' without which the concept would make no sense.

It is important to take this into account, and keep in mind that there may be good grounds for disputing the suggestion that hyper-referentiality or the plundering the past could be genuine long-term threats to originality. What we should also be aware of at this point when we discuss 'originality' are the various contingencies associated with the word itself. Originality in the way that we understand it today - in the sense of meaning novelty, newness, a departure from earlier forms and so on – was not held to be of particular value until around the 18th Century. Prior to this, in relation to art at least, it was considered to be of greater value to be part of an established and already respected tradition. Viewed from a slightly different perspective, even a quick search for a definition of the 'origin' portion of the word suggests potentially contradictory meanings to the way in which originality is understood today. For example, to have 'an origin' is to have antecedents, or a bloodline, or an ancestry, and the meaning of such a relation is to bear similarity to others, rather than to be different from them. There is not space to develop this point further here, but it is illustrative of the fact that the way in which originality is understood and valued is not necessarily now fixed and may undergo further changes in future. Thus we should be careful not to valorise its current meaning unduly or assume that it will always retain its present socio-cultural value. For a fuller discussion of these questions click here for an edition of Radio 4's 'In Our Time' that explores them in more detail.
(end of the Part II on IV. Part III to be published soon)

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