One of the most liberating discoveries I made during my latter University career, was that the most important questions had no definitive answers. To those who have already discovered with José Saramago that ‘everything we say and write adds to what exists’, this may not be a highly revelatory statement. Yet, to me, the product of a traditional lower middle-class Afrikaner education and upbringing, this was nothing short of a revelation. As a Calvinist, it had the seed of blasphemy inherent in the vague outlines of the yet as unthought intimations of the idea. Until this realization dawned upon me, words represented the chains of knowledge that had to be acquired, of social abstractions (some prefer to call them laws) that had to be obeyed.
At the time of my under-graduate studies at the University of Pretoria, South Africa was still a country in which the Law of the Father governed reality and thought to an extraordinary degree. In spite of this, an aspiring musician like myself could not but sense that music embodied the impotence of counter-intuitive rationality. It confounded ‘the answer’, and mocked at those who claimed to possess it. But outside music and on a larger scale, outside the Faculty of Arts, one would be justified in thinking, answers exist. Natural science, the domain of empirical and objective science, stands proud in its professed ability to answer the most fundamental questions of our existence. For most of the twentieth-century, it was physics that had within its grasp a single theory of how the universe works. Though the work of Einstein and Max Planck shattered the world of Newtonian physics by the 1930s, it was thought that the achievement of a single theory of everything was just a matter of time. Towards the end of the previous century, it was mostly the biological sciences that had seized the initiative. The human genome, life itself and the very essence of what constituted it, was being mapped, understood and used. Yet even at the ‘optimistic’ beginning of the twenty-first century (that is, ‘optimistic’ in terms of scientific discovery), there is some doubt that even the ‘objective’ sciences believe that universal answers exist. What distinguishes the people in white coats in the laboratories of physics and biological sciences from those in black coat tails and white bow ties, is that the former have to keep working towards the explication of ultimate objective truth, even though the prerequisites for proving such truth may no longer exist, whereas those active in the cultural sphere can no longer recognize the premise of ‘objective’ Truth.
How has this happened? What does it mean? Is it a liberating thought, or is it in fact the onset of intellectual paralysis? Should we not fear a world in which answers not only evade us, but where we doubt their existence and where the anarchy of disintegration and doubt becomes the norm? Are we in the middle of a crisis, and if so, is it a cultural crisis or a socio-economic one?
Enter Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno. As a Marxist philosopher of the so-called Frankfurt School, he is not the kind of figure to whom one would naturally look for an endorsement of the post-modern malaise I have just outlined. Although he is far from a vulgar Marxist and refused to have his 1931 essay ‘Zur gesellschaftlichen Lage der Musik’ republished because of what he came to see as its crude application of Marxist theory, on one level at least (that of sociological critique), his is a thought-world of structure, more specifically of basic economic structures (or ‘means of production’) imposing their logic on the superstructures of culture and society. His contemptuous criticism of the sociologist Karl Mannheim’s ‘sociology of reason’ illustrate this amply. Talk of a ‘cultural crisis’, he writes, ‘transforms real suffering into spiritual guilt, denounces civilization, and generally works to the advantage of barbarism’.
It is not unreasonable in a world of structure to look for logic (even if it is the logic of the irrational), causality, linearity and, ultimately, answers. Yet we find in Adorno’s intractable writing a resistance to linear interpretation. As Max Paddison writes, ‘For Adorno, truth lies in the particular which evades the universalizing tendency of conceptual thought.’ In fact, what one finds in Adorno’s aesthetics is an alternative to traditional logic which is presented in the form of the ‘constellation’, which was in due course to become his famous ‘negative dialectics’. Adorno describes the idea of ‘constellations’ as follows:
It is not a matter of clarifying concepts out of one another, but of the constellation of ideas … One does not refer back to these ideas as ‘invariants’; the issue is not to define them, rather they gather around a concrete historical facticity that, in the context of these elements, will reveal itself in its uniqueness.
Adorno’s ‘concepts’ are of dual character and are mainly focussed on the relation between history and nature and the rupture between self and forms. But even though a basic understanding of the Adornian concepts and intellectual context is required when attempting a reading of his texts, his writing is difficult to come to grips with even if one approaches his texts prepared. Accusations of stylistic obscurantism and methodological inconsistency are not uncommon. One of the reasons for this is his intractable prose: a difficult, obstinate and seemingly purposeful stacking of paradoxes, antimony, long and clumsy sentence construction (in part the result of translations from his mostly German writing), ellipses, hyperbole and a resulting degree of abstraction that belies his judgment that ‘Idealism can be overcome only when the freedom to conceptualize through abstraction is sacrificed.’ For Adorno, truth is most effectively attainable in the ‘fragment’, the detail that implodes the false totality of reality. Therefore his aphorism: ‘das Ganze is das Unwahre’ (the whole is the false).
Built into music-philosophical texts like Philosophie der neuen Musik, and to a lesser degree in the essays contained in Prismen and Quasi una Phantasia, is the temptation not to take it seriously, luring the hermeneutic exercise astray eventually to crash on the rocks of frustration and angry indignation. There are good reasons for this reaction of readers when confronted with the work of Adorno. He pontificates with the dogmatism ironically best captured in his own opinion that ‘a German is someone who cannot tell a lie without believing it himself’? He is contentious, intolerant, blunt and a cultural snob. And his insults are administered free of prejudice. In a paragraph guaranteed to arouse indignation in gentle grandmothers listening to Sondagversoeke, he writes of Gounod’s Ave Maria:
[Gounod’s Méditation sur le Prélude de Bach] … is a piece of sacred pop music featuring one of those Magdalenes notable equally for their penitence and their seductiveness. Overcome with remorse, they reveal all. Thus saccharined religion becomes the bourgeois cloak for a tolerated pornography. It’s basic gesture is supplication in pious self-abandonment. The soul delivers itself into the hand of the Almighty with uplifted skirt.
Or in a typical passage on jazz:
Just as no piece of jazz can, in a musical sense, be said to have a history, just as all its components can be moved about at will, just as no single measure follows from the logic of the musical progression – so the perennial fashion becomes the likeness of a planned congealed society, not so different from the nightmare vision of Huxley’s Brave New World.
Visiting South African composer Hubert du Plessis once, he told me while showing me his house: ‘A house should contain kitsch.’ Adorno writes ‘The positive element of kitsch lies in the fact that it sets free for a moment the glimmering realization that you have wasted your life.’ So, whether one is fond of one’s kitsch, or has any beliefs left at the beginning of the twenty-first century, whether one dares to hope, or if one is moderately well adjusted in society, whether one is German or not, African or not, been to Oxford or not, like Stravinsky or not, partake in the consumer society in which we live or not; Adorno’s salvo’s are sure to provoke and infuriate.
The temptation is frequently overpowering to react to this kind of work by criticizing the critique, with the result being the creation of a kind of meta-critique that fails to dent the facade of Adorno’s prose. But to learn from Adorno, to extract a measure of meaningfulness, one has to engage with his work by reference to the criteria that he acknowledges, without applying external norms that he rejects. In short, adopt Adorno’s own ‘cherished principle of criticism’.
But then there is of course also the question of what to do with a Marxian-based philosophy of music at the beginning of the twenty-first century. One is hesitant to say that we still find ourselves in a postmodern Zeitgeist, as voices have been sounding since the early nineties to herald the end of postmodernism (as indeed the end of history). The fact is that Western human sciences have extensively enmeshed themselves in postmodern practices for the past thirty years or so, and that the inherent theoretical discrepancies in postmodernist practice have imposed a definite ‘sell-by’ date on the possibilities of this radically disruptive practice. It is therefore not difficult to believe that as ‘the short twentieth-century’ ended in 1991 (to use Eric Hobsbawm’s chronology), postmodernism as an intellectual fad has expired. Of course there has always been a problem with intellectual fashions that could only ever be defined in terms of what preceded it: postmodernism, post-structuralism, post-Apartheid. But this is how we arrive at the question: If postmodernism has lost its sting through its inevitable institutionalization, what will replace it?
Of course this is not a question that is limited to late-twentieth-century musical thought. The end of the twentieth-century world order in the early nineties left historians (who are seldom good prophets), politicians and economists in the same uncomfortable zone of uncertainty. It is now clear that the so-called Cold War was essential in politically stabilizing the world, especially the West, as the rampant monetarism and free-market economics started exposing the cracks between the assumptions on which it had been built and the systematic negation of those assumptions. The disintegration of the USSR finally removed the stabilizing constraints of the Cold War, so that we are faced at the beginning of the twenty-first century with an uncertain, unstable and utterly unpredictable future. We are at the mercy of markets, over which all key role players have acknowledged, no effective controls exist. And if one is looking for reasons to explore the philosophical thought of Adorno at the beginning of this century, it is not only because he is the greatest thinker on music of the previous century. It is also because Marxian-based thought has, paradoxically, acquired a second life after the disintegration of the USSR.
In the time of high modernisms, Adorno formulated the aesthetic crisis with his well-known aphorism: ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. His melancholy thought is indelibly formed by the thirty-one-years-war (again drawing on Hobsbawm’s depiction of the First- and Second World Wars) of through which he lived and specifically by the rise and triumph of fascism in Germany which forced him into exile. The Enlightenment, that project of civilization on which man was launched in the eighteenth-century, came to an abrupt end when an assassin’s bullet killed Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 in Sarajevo. This was affirmed in the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. By that time Marxism in the Soviet Union had already failed, although Western monitors still thought it possible in the fifties and early sixties that the Soviet model could eventually surpass and threaten the Western capitalist one. But in the 1950s the West entered upon the Golden Period of economic growth that would make people in the developed countries better off than ever before. The failure of Marxism in the authoritarian USSR and the ‘success’ of the free-market with its concomitant mass consumption, in equal measure presented Adorno with a sense of crisis in terms of the free Subject in society. Perhaps one can say that in the years immediately following the Second World War, Adorno already anticipated the circumstances in which we find ourselves today. Or more accurately, that he diagnosed the symptoms of the disease long before most people recognized that the patient was ill.
This is not the only interface that exists between our world and that of Adorno. Adorno is not to be relieved of responsibility for the collapse of the possibility of general meaning characterizing postmodern thought. His is no orthodox Marxism, drawing as it does on Hegel, Weber and Nietzsche, but it is in a sense a classical modernist philosophy that retains the concept of the Subject, even though that concept has become problematic and fractured. The relativity of postmodern thought is alien to Adorno (even though it can be said that his work resists systematization), but one finds in the fractious prose, the preference for the short essay and the antimonious aphorisms, the seeds of a postmodern practice. Even though Adorno is in sharp disagreement with existentialists like Karl Jaspers in the way that meaning collapses when it is located only in ‘being’, he is in favour of describing the ‘ “unbiased” registration of facts as a fiction’. Though he constructs elaborate rational scaffolding to keep erect the structures of his own thought-system, these structures exist within the magnetic fields of a so-called ‘facticity’. And just as he doubted the facticity of ‘nature’, preferring to designate it under the influence of Lucács as ‘second nature’, i.e. reified history and society (or myth), we can today look on Adorno and dismiss even the so-called ‘objective’ structures that constituted his ‘facticity’. His theory of musical material stands in direct contradiction to the idea of ‘nature’ as ‘invariance’ in music as expounded in Hindemith’s Unterweisung im Tonsatz, where the emphasis on ‘natural laws’ reveals a belief in the composer’s access to the ‘raw material’ of art. Probably developed from Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre, Adorno views musical material as always-already mediated historically and he subscribes to the view that the immanent dynamic of the material to which the composer has to respond is, above all, a dynamic resulting from cultural and historical forces rather than natural ones. It is this critical application to the semblance (Schein) of music, that opens the door to a postmodern critique that ultimately undermines Adorno’s own aesthetic premises.
‘There can be no poetry after Auschwitz.’ Not no thought, not no answers. No poetry. By extension: no art. One of Adorno’s most famous aphorisms. What could he, the master of the melancholy science, the undertaker of the aesthetic, have meant? Perhaps that true music ultimately has to fall silent, as he writes in his essay on Schoenberg in Prisms. In her reportage on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Antjie Krog writes:
No poetry should come forth from this. May my hand fall off if I write this. So I sit around. Naturally and unnaturally without words. Stunned by the knowledge of the price people have paid for their words. If I write this, I exploit and betray. If I don’t, I die. Suddenly my grandmother’s motto comes to mind: when in despair, bake a cake. To bake a cake is a restorative process.
Words. ‘If I write this, I exploit and betray.’ The inadequacy of words to express the horror. ‘If I don’t, I die.’ The need to speak or die, to create meaning or die, to break the silence or die. Alternatively, we can turn to baking cake. The replacement of art by banal utilitarian ritual. The first prize basaarkoek of the baasbakster the highest expression we may aspire to. And yes, maybe this is all we dare aspire to after the calamitous twentieth-century, in our country spelt ‘A-P-A-R-T-H-E-I-D’. Perhaps it is perverse to enjoy the harmonic innovations of Chopin, the linear genius of Bach, the witticisms and craftsmanship of Grové, if the overwhelming majority of people on my doorstep cannot satisfy basic human needs: safety, shelter, food, and frequently: life. Perverse also to occupy the liberal white comfort zone: I am young, I am guiltless, I am not racist, I live in a free and democratic country, I have ‘high culture’ and I flaunt it.
Art, Adorno says, is not culture. Culture is acquiescent, conformist, reflects the false consciousness of unity or totality. True art is confrontational, uncomfortable, exhaustingly engaged in an immanent dialectic with society. ‘The authentic artists of the present’, he writes, ‘are those in whose works there shudders the aftershock of the most extreme horror.’ This leads one to reflect on what kind of society one lives in and what the role is of the art that you practice (if it is art and not only culture), in this society. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it is because living in South Africa at this time (and here I explicitly do not mean the South Africa of anodyne American shopping malls and muzak), it should be. When I started out on my BMus performing arts training at the University of Pretoria, I had organ lessons with the late professor Stefaans Zondagh. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, he mentioned that music ‘needed’ only two categories of people for its continued survival: composers and performers. ‘The rest’, he would add with the air of one flinging down the gauntlet, ‘is all froth’. This was a generally accepted wisdom articulated by a much respected musician and teacher with whom one did not enter into an argument as an undergraduate. In the South Africa of today we are starting to realize, however, how vital the role is that political, social and economic structures play in the creative process. Music does not exist of the volition of composers and performers alone. Structures determine or influence outcomes, also creative ones.
But Zondagh’s belief also indicates a stubborn refusal to accept what we have in actual fact known for quite a long time, namely that ‘the musical work’ is a fiction, an historical product of only two centuries of musical development. The autonomy of music, i.e. the alleged sovereignty of the ‘work of art’ in its elevated Wagnerian sense, held no sway over music production before the eighteenth-century. Even when I was studying music as an undergraduate, I was frequently plagued by the notion that the praxis of what I was doing was somewhat artificial, somewhat unreal in the surroundings in which I found myself. Bach in Africa, Beethoven in Pretoria and Verdi, Verdi, Verdi wherever you went to one of the regional opera houses. Today this sense of the unreality of high culture in South Africa has come back to haunt those involved in it. Whereas in the past dispensation these feelings of unease (if acknowledged) could be pondered at leisure, the political imperative now exists to rationalize the ‘functions’ of music, musicians and musicologists, and the very existence of these entities. What is it we do? What is it we do here? Why do we do it? The demand springs from a dual dilemma: the ‘whiteness’ of institutionalized academic (i.e. ‘high culture’) sound in a vehemently nationalistic African ideological atmosphere, and the moral debris that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has left in its wake and that demands an answer to the question: Can there be poetry after Auschwitz? Can there be fugues after Vlakplaas?
Stefaans Zondagh was, of course, a practical musician. And as things stand at South African tertiary institutions such figures wield enormous power. He therefore took for granted his right to pursue music as performance art at a university. Jacques P. Malan, one of the most articulate and perceptive of the first generation South African musicologists, had this to say on this issue at his inaugural lecture as Professor of Music and first Head of the Toonkunsakademie at the University of Pretoria:
Dit kan seker as aksiomaties aanvaar word, dat die hooftaak van ‘n universitêre musiekdepartment geleë is in die beoefening van musiek as wetenskap … Die totaalstudie van Musiek, soos ons dit hier [in Suid-Afrika] toepas, is dus nie sonder gevare nie en dit bly ‘n saak van die opperste belang, om nie net ‘n sorgvuldige balans te handhaaf nie, maar om veral in die spesialisering wat volg op die basiese totaalstudie, d.w.s. in die nagraadse werk, die wetenskap ten volle tot sy reg te laat kom. Daarmee regverdig die Musiekdepartment sy verbintenis met die universiteit. Skuif die klem te veel na die musiekpraktyk, kan die musiek alte maklik ‘n luukse sieraad, ‘n mooi speelding word, wat in tye van finansiële druk as ‘n belasting beskou kan word.
It is therefore logical for Malan to conclude:
[Deur die volste moontlike integrasie van Musiek, as wetenskap en as kuns, by die idee van die Universiteit] … sal ‘n universitêre Musiekdepartement ook die sterkste uitstraling en die blywendste invloed na buite bereik. Die weg daarheen lê nie langs die voetligte van konsertsale nie, alhoewel ook dit ‘n rol speel; veel eerder lê dit in die bereiking van ‘n rustige dieptegang wat rekening hou met die onpeilbaarheid en betreklikheid van alle dinge, maar ook met hulle samehorigheid; want
“als is enkeld, als verlang
na heelal en na samehang”
en ‘n Musiekdepartment wat nie ‘n lewende lid van die universitêre liggaam is nie, kan maklik ‘n losse aanhangsel word, wel geduld maar nouliks gerespekteer. Die musiek moet in sy dubbele hoedanigheid as wetenskap en as kuns ten volle verteenwoordigend van die universiteitsidee wees en dit ook bly.
If South African musicology has contributed to the sense of music as culture rather than art, it may be because the balance Malan speaks of has been neglected to the detriment of institutionalized discourse about music and to the overwhelming benefit of unthinking musical practice. Both politically and institutionally, our legacy mitigates against music or discourse about music being read as somehow relating to the society in which it happens.
Adorno not only challenges this self-satisfied and sterile notion of music-as-circus-act, but he also forces us to face the impotence of language to conceptualize music. As Max Paddison writes:
The contradiction at the heart of Adorno’s whole enterprise, and one which is directly linked to the stylistic virtuosity of his writing, is that, for a philosopher, the only access to the non-conceptual is via the concept. This, to use a favourite phrase of Adorno’s is what constitutes the tour de force of his texts – that they attempt to use the power of the concept to undermine the concept and thereby enable the non-conceptual to speak. For Adorno, the epitome of the ‘non-conceptual’ and ‘non-identical’ is art, and in particular the ‘autonomous’ music of the bourgeois period, regarded as a mode of ‘cognition without concepts. Thus the interpretation of music and of musical works hits up against the problem of conceptualizing the non-conceptual, of ‘identifying the non-identical’, in its most extreme form.
If we define musicology as institutionalized discourse about music, we have to realize that language, and specifically metaphor, is the analogical procedure with which we attempt to come to grips with the challenges of music. Analysts like Heinrich Schenker have tried to minimize the contribution of language to our comprehension of musical ‘truth’, but eventually even Schenkerian analytical frameworks depend on language (some would even say they are poetic). Adorno’s ‘thick’ writing and superpositioning of meanings are efforts to overcome this intellectual articulation-disability. Even though the complexity of the Adornian text provides little options other than to dissect the essays in order to arrive at the system that exists on its own terms in the subcutaneous layers of the writing, it is worth remembering that meaning is lost when Adorno’s thought is staged as an uninterrupted linear sequence.
Like medical students dissecting a cadaver to identify the elements of human anatomy, the Adornian text can be carefully taken apart. But in the same way that dissection precludes the possibility of seeing human physiology in action with regard to the dissected cadaver, we cannot hope to see the dialectical character of Adorno’s thought in action when working with segments of text. There are meanings in Adorno that function only on a macro-level, where two words assume meaning only when they are not separated, when two paragraphs make sense only in juxtaposition and when a thought process becomes possible only because of the paradoxes and veils that surround it. Adorno teaches that it is sometimes necessary to write 5000 words in order to formulate one insight that brings us a step closer to understanding. And often that understanding is not a conclusion, but an awareness.
But then Adorno is also the reminder that the formulation of questions, rather than answers, is the way in which musicologists should practice a discipline in which there are no facts, only more or less convincing constructions. As Freud’s psycho-analytical work is best read as fiction and not science (and this despite the fact that he was a medical doctor), and in spite of the quasi-scientific milieu in which they work, musicologists mostly create fictions. To our métier belong master storytellers, cataloguers, prophets, boring pedants, charlatans and liars. Not one of us can claim ‘truth’ or ‘objectivity’.
What can we still learn from Adorno today in South Africa? I would say above all to ask questions, to answer those questions in a manner that the answers lead only to more questions, and not to be afraid to write about music in a way that excludes most readerships (does anybody outside the field understand anything of Murray Gell-Mann’s quarks?). Musicology is a specialist field. In defiance of the liberal-democratic ideologies that permeate universities today in South Africa, Adorno teaches us that sometimes we write only for specialists, and then possibly only for one or two specialists. Cognition, and music-as-cognition must not allow itself to be restricted by the limitations of consciousness of the masses and of class domination. This Adornian ethos is a radical political statement that is not only imperative if we are to maintain academic integrity – it is also the precondition for the expansion of our knowledge.