On the Necessity of Listening As Confrontation

The person who claims that classical music or opera fails to speak to her or him has more likely failed to listen. How often is something dismissed on the basis of a parody of that thing or (worse yet) a will to blindness in relation to that thing! If “speaking” denotes “pleasing” in such an assessment then perhaps the classical-music agnostic is correct. But should all experience be based upon passive pleasure? How odd the notion of passive pleasure should strike us!

One hazily recalls the older formulation: “taking one’s pleasure”. Taking one’s pleasure insists upon the agency involved as one pursues (again a wonderfully active verb) the things one desires. In this formulation, I am as responsible as (if not far more responsible than) the desired object for my delight. My involvement is the price of desire that I am willing to pay; indeed the payment, the exertion figures into the very nature of the desire itself and becomes the essential substrate of my enjoyment. But too often we are concerned only with “receiving pleasure”.

Indeed the (relatively) new sites of pleasure no longer seem to need us at all. Nearly all television sitcoms are thoroughly suffused with laugh tracks. The television laughs at its own jokes like the fellow at a party who drinks too much, fights with his wife, and is smugly self-assured that everyone there is an idiot aside from himself. Inasmuch as the viewer has any presence, it is wholly circumscribed — at least within the ecology of the sitcom itself. You are told when you think something is funny and you shall be mirthful. The latest Hollywood film tells you who is sympathetic, who is devilish, who is a hero, and which moment should bring tears. There is hardly any need (indeed, hardly any room) for you to bother thinking at all. Of course, one can always make room for critical distance but then that requires active (indeed self-aware) participation. And if we are to believe certain contemporary critical thinkers, that possibility is rapidly dissipating.

How does one form an opinion (notice again the active sense of “formation” and the deliberate process it implies)? How does one decide what one likes and what one despises? How much does one actually participate in the formation of one’s own preferences? Active participation in the formation of preference would seem to require precisely that which most of us avoid at all costs: a direct confrontation with that which we assume we despise. For how can you possibly know why you “like” something you assume you like unless you confront that which you have dismissed?

Dismissal, not antipathy, is the real danger here. Postmodernity has supposedly ushered in a world wherein the subjectivity of each of us is fragmented (of course, anyone with even a modicum of historical awareness can name other eras in which this identical claim was made). Inasmuch as I exist, the radical postmodernist might insist, I am merely the nexus of the products I purchase (consumption here is incidental). Some promote the dissipation of the centered subject as a glorious moment of freedom, an opportunity to be all things at all times. Values almost literally become byproducts and I register my (im)moral self with the cashier.

And yet it would appear that most consumers use their purchases to buttress and indeed reify a sense of centered subjecthood. Limiting the focus to music, one’s identity becomes (at least partly) commensurate with their chosen forms of musical entertainment. “I know who I am,” we say to our wallets, “I am the person who listens to this band, who wears that kind of jeans, drives this kind of car.” Sign exchange value leads inexorably toward the hyperreal. The periphery becomes central; the incidental becomes essential. The notion of the subject has not died for us; it is the necessary fiction that has consequently become more real than perhaps it ever had been before.

A dilemma necessarily arises. On the one hand, we limit ourselves to what we believe we “know”, what we believe is ours. “This”, we feel, “is important because it is important to us. This is important because it is who we are.” But how often do we test the limits of who we are? How often do we disturb the complacency of our customary view of ourselves? Others insist that their tastes are radically polyglot. There is no need for depth here, simply multiple surfaces. But the surface is the very breeding ground of parody. Those who go beyond the surface do so at their own risk, warns Oscar Wilde. Those who remain on the surface, however, fail to experience anything whatsoever.

On the other hand, our acceptance that most values are relative (particularly aesthetic ones) constrains us to a value-free aesthetic zone that would rather abort critical discourse altogether than actually examine taste as an intellectual issue. Perhaps we dismiss music that is not ours because we would rather not reflect on what our choices and tastes say about us. Or perhaps, we tacitly dismiss music that is not to our preference so as not to offend advocates of that music. But why should such timorousness be necessary? We wish to (or presume to) forge relationships with music, but all relationships involve negotiation and gradual understanding.

If a certain type of music or musical composition disturbs my aesthetic sensibilities, it may be that I should pay attention to it for precisely that reason. Why should this music (and the argument extends in all directions, far beyond the constraints of “classical” music) continually poke and discomfit me? Why am I uncomfortable in its presence? Why am I bored? There is always the possibility that boredom is the fault not of the object but of the failure of its interlocutor to sustain interest. Should we not be more interesting than the things we choose to entertain us? Instead we often ignore and excuse our ignorance as a kind of charity toward the tastes of others. But one has to earn the right to be generous.

Another strange contradiction stems from the current take on the position of the critic. Increasingly of late I have heard and read the statement that the critical enterprise is parasitic to the work criticized and therefore the only justification for the critic is that the opinion proffered be “right”. Now to a certain degree I find the first part of this statement rather unobjectionable. Insofar as the critic engages with an object, the resulting criticism derives part of its value from its relationship to said object. (Furthermore, let us remind ourselves that the division between art as self-standing and criticism as parasitic is dubious at best; all cultural statements are dependent, nothing is self-standing, and art in its proper mode is criticism.)

Perhaps the best criticism (perhaps it is not surprising to name HL Mencken, GB Shaw, and Friedrich Nietzsche — the latter in his critical assessments of Wagner — in this regard) surmounts its lowly parasitic status in order to become a (nearly) self-standing work of art in its own right. Far from seeing this as an exception to the rule, we should see it as the template for criticism proper (public and personal). Let us take Nietzsche as our example. He famously claimed that Wagner’s music was a sickness — but, Nietzsche insisted, a necessary sickness. Thus Nietzsche moved away from simple evaluation (is this opera good or bad music) to the level of meaning — and not only the meaning of the opera but the meaning for Nietzsche, the way he lived his life and the way he felt he should live his life — and by extension the way he felt you should live yours. One must learn to overcome both that which one finds antipathetic and that which one finds sympathetic. Overcoming need not mean leaving behind but rather absorbing or as Nietzsche would have it (long before Freud) sublimating.

The remainder of the proposition (namely that because of its parasitism, criticism is only justified by being right) is far more troubling. First, the quasi-syllogistic use of “therefore” is misleading. Granted both the parasitic nature of criticism and (temporarily) the idea that the justification of criticism is right judgment, I see no causal relation between the two statements. Furthermore, the assertion that the purpose of criticism is to provide right judgment seems to me to be patently misguided. Indeed the notion of right judgment itself is based on an outmoded aesthetic system that most of its current proponents would undoubtedly disavow.

In the Laws, Plato complained that musical genres had become mixed and that Greek society no longer looked to the few knowledgeable critics for their musical discernment but rather the audience thought themselves proper judges. Therefore, on the one hand, by mixing the genres (each of which Plato claimed had rules specific to them), Plato’s contemporary musicians made it nearly impossible to make right judgments. The resulting mixture of genres gave rise to monstrous creations unworthy of serious consideration. These musicians created a “universal confusion of forms” and thereby opened the way to the belief that there was no right and wrong in aesthetic evaluation aside from the pleasure given a listener. Hence, the audience themselves developed a contempt for musical law and the “sovereignty of the best” gave way to the “sovereignty of the audience”.

For Plato, this development had dire consequences because no form of corruption stands in isolation. Contempt for musical law leads naturally to contempt for social law and order. His logic is clear enough: without precise rules governing both composition and understanding (rules based on the mathematical properties of music) communication breaks down, knowledge becomes inconsequential, and people are drawn away from the Good. Although far more pragmatic than his predecessor, Aristotle also displayed a similar suspicion of popular judgment; particularly as it seems to be drawn toward showy and empty virtuosic display.

Now few critics today would have enough temerity to assert that there were clear and objective rules in musical criticism (although Roger Scruton comes rather close at times) but so many of them promulgate the notion of right judgment that one cannot help but question the foundation of the concept. At first glance, it strikes one as similar to our rather tenacious habit of saying the sun rises in the East although we know in our post-Copernican understanding of the solar system that it does no such thing. And yet the notion of “right judgment” strikes me as far more pernicious. “The sun will rise at 6:05 AM tomorrow morning” is a convenience, a simplifying fiction that renders the more cumbersome but correct phraseology unnecessary (imagine your local weather person saying, “At 6:05 tomorrow morning the earth will have rotated on its axis to such a degree that the sun will become visible over the Eastern horizon”). We know that we mean something other than what we actually say. But is this true of “right judgment”?

What might such critics mean by “right” in this formulation? Clearly most of them imply that by utilizing the proper aesthetic tools, they are able to judge the worth of a given work of art. When asked what the proper tools are, many would say that the proper tools are those most appropriate to the given work thus inaugurating a tautology that reveals the assertion to be empty. The verification that the judgment was “right”, according to some, will derive from the work’s longevity. This is the well-worn if somewhat moth-ridden “test of time” argument as though endurance were the marker of value. Such thinking pushes the critic to play it safe — after all, no one wants to be condemned as a philistine and a fool by later generations — and so many recent critics stop short of evaluation by supplying readers with mere description (this is particularly true of “fine art” criticism of established masters). Interestingly, the critical assessments that have endured are generally those most contrary to our common beliefs thereby giving rise to the intriguing situation wherein the seemingly correct judgment (insofar as correct means that judgment adhered to over the longest amount of time by the greatest amount of people) has far less longevity than the wrong one.

There is no right judgment and we would do better to stop espousing such empty and counterproductive claims. The role of the critic is most assuredly not (pace Plato) to make more accurate judgments than those of which the common reader is capable (although hopefully the critic may have more background in the object being criticized than the reader, but even this is not always the case nor is it a necessary condition for useful criticism). Rather the critic enacts publicly what each person ideally does privately (or in a less public manner; for instance, in conversation with friends). The critic tests the work against the values and personality of the critic. This is a reflexive cycle: the critic begins testing the work only to find that the work has been testing the critic all along.

We have to stop using the critic’s judgment as a substitute for our own experience. (How often have I heard people standing before an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art recite nearly verbatim something they read in The New Yorker magazine as though it were an original observation!) The critic does more than ask whether the work is good or bad (good and bad should hardly figure into it at all). The critic asks why. Why does this work do what it does in my presence? Why do I feel drawn to it or repelled by it? The critic rehearses the act of engagement that is fundamental to all experience not to replace our own act of engagement but to show us another. What does the object tell me about my assumptions? What does it demand of me? Am I willing to pay the price it asks? What resistance is appropriate?

When I read a critic at work I should not evaluate the success of the criticism based on whether I agree with it. Who wants to agree with everybody all the time? Rather, I should ask: can I see it through the perspective offered here? What do I gain from such a perspective and what do I lose?

This returns me to my opening gambit. For we are all critics. The act of listening to music — carefully listening, listening as a form of confrontation, of involvement — is a critical enterprise. Listening to music has many possible purposes and there undoubtedly will be times when we want the sounds to wash over us, to drift among the harmonies without thought and bask in the familiar. But surely that cannot be the only thing (or even the primary thing) we want from music. When we are listening, truly listening, listening as a critic, then we need to confront music that might seem distasteful to us. Such music prods us into revelations; or more properly, revaluations. It asks us to see and hear the world in a way not customary with us. In overcoming it, in coming to an understanding (which is not the same as claiming to have understood), perhaps we overcome ourselves.