Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Monday, December 6, 2010

Mind Jazz

Miles Davis: "You have to play a long time to sound like yourself."

Derrida remarks all over the place that improvisation is a special kind of reading. I think it's more accurate to say with OOO that it's a kind of translation. The trouble with the Derridean model is that all reading is misreading. But you know if you listen to jazz (which I love) that there are good and not so good improvisations. Sure all translation misses something. But some are special, aren't they, like amazing metaphors--Harman's prose is full of them.

Harman argues in Guerilla Metaphysics that if you think all rhetoric is reducible to "mere" metaphor, then there are no good metaphors, only dead ones. "Metaphor" is just Greek for "translation."

You just can't believe that all jazz solos are equally bad--unless you're Adorno maybe.

Something remarkable struck me about Harman's presentations last week. He improvised from note cards. Like a jazz musician (I gather from his blog he plays sax). I'd assumed from hearing his polished talks that he was reading from a complete text. But no--the cards were like riffs and he put them together and elaborated on them spontaneously.

Most impressive moment: at the end of his second talk he simply announced "That's enough" and stopped--with a stack of cards still to read. He could sense that we could feel that whatever had been said was enough. You don't have to say everything. Silence becomes part of your sound that way.

As you know I'm fascinated by rhetorical delivery and believe that it's the secret of OO rhetoric and, even bigger than that, OOO causation. So thinking about this is a big deal for me. I actually think that Harman's style enacts his philosophy very beautifully--or I should say sublimely.

When you hear a really remarkable musician--my favorite example would be guitarist Allan Holdsworth--you feel as if she or he isn't playing within a structure but that the music has become an entity, an alien entity in the language of my talk, that the music is summoning. Jazz solos are a kind of amplification, aren't they, amplification being one of Longinus' favored ways of evoking the alien.

Of course you guitar about the alien, or saxophone about them, or Harman about them. A jazz solo is a sensual object. But somehow, magically, a good one evokes the molten core of the music. It listens. A good musician listens, and good music is music that listens to itself. Viz. my Miles Davis quotation. I'm not convinced that this is just reading.

You are not just ringing the changes on preprogrammed slavery to a set pattern or rhythm. Consider what a mistake it would be to try to score really amazing jazz solos using conventional notation. The notes just don't quite fit in the bar--and yes I know how to notate something that looks syncopated but that's not what I'm talking about. But the music isn't just anything, just nihilism.

Uncannily this is almost a perfect way to describe evolution--it feels random, but it's also adaptation, like a band where each instrument solos all the time. This doesn't mean that it's teleological. Holdsworth in particular is beautiful for his avoidance of climaxes and centers of gravity. I think OOO cooed be very close to a nonvitalistic yet vivid theory of causation if we can just push this idea--as I'll do in Realist Magic.

Heidegger argues in a lecture from the later twenties (Summer 1928?) that Aristotle's view of rhetoric is about listening. Attending to the argument and synching with the hearts of the listeners. The sensual glue that lubricates objects--guitars and ears, maybe. Causality...

This gave me a new perspective on the pleasures of Harman's iterative prose style. It's jazz--evoking the alien object(s) again and again until you get it, somewhere in the flames of each example. Or between them.

Harman constantly talks aloud in prose about style as a feature of argumentation--not the other way around as in De Man. Like a good jazz soloist, he brings you along. I love that about Holdsworth for instance: it's as if the guitar is saying "Don't be afraid--come with me."

The prose itself is a sensuous object that nuzzles against you like a cat--a slightly dangerous cat with a fire in its eyes. We live in a universe of pathos, as Harman's teacher Alphonso Lingis might argue--so one single, brittle, cold logically coherent argument won't get you far. The medium is the message--not because there's no message. But because there is one.

1 comment:

skholiast said...

Love that last sentence.
I actually believe that Derrida has plenty of room for the claim that there are good readings and bad ones (he certainly accuses Searle of doing the latter, e.g.), but he does not give much purchase for grounding this intuition.
In any case, the style is indeed inseparable from the substance. I mean, even through Plato's obviously highly inflected portrait, we get a strong sense not just of Socrates' thinking but of who Socrates is. I defy anyone to tease these apart. The slogan "the personal is the political" is in danger of being hackneyed, but I'll go to the wall to claim that the personal is the philosophical-- even (especially?) when we're talking Plotinus or Nagarjuna.