A Response to Taney concerning Misapplications of Discourse (Jon Sakata)

Taking up Taney's invitation to further amplify on my previous 'misapplications of discourse' in music post, as well as to bring in polyphonic assemblage some other thoughts concerning other open posts/threads of Session I...

The disastrous inheritance of the Nature/Culture division has clearly been written about with great critical insight by a number of authors (including some on this symposium panel). I wonder if music's tabling within the Culture taxonomy has been a cause for why certain composers -- who clearly had deep connectivity with the non-human, and who drew not just 'inspiration' (cliche) but were profoundly immersed in its phenomena, forces, energies, vital signs and sources -- have been talked about and lensed the way they have been, reductively and grossly, as (only) paragons of humanism and human-cultural-civilizational achievement? 

When Charlene points out that "[o]ther orientations preserved some of the premodern sense of the potent interrelatedness among all physical matter," I think of Hildegard von Bingen's astonishing vocal chants in which immense melodic gestures and contours (some ranging over two octaves as her contemporaries remained contained to within an octave), streams and beams of light made audible -- complexified through a completely novel "networked system of musical modes" (Michael Gardiner) -- give ear, earth, sky to her well-known attunement with the mineral world and supposedly keen observations of how light interacted with crystalline forms of minerals. But what is more, I feel it is important to steer away from the personality cult of "Hildegard" as individual genius; and rather, to focus in on the non-personal power (Deleuze) that coursed through this remarkable prismatic assemblage: Hildegard-mineral-crystal-light-sound.


Accumulating snowfall 'mood' music playing in the background, but now coming to my foreground of perception: there's Schubert's Winterreise on. Perfect coincidence. Something rarely recognized by musicians and musicologists about Lieder, but described by Deleuze in the L'Abécédaire interviews, is the fundamental tie between certain composers (e.g., Schubert and Schumann) and this genre of song with 'the Land.' There is an ongoing 'force of contact' (to echo Rauschenberg) and non-personal power that streams through Earth, the (human) wanderer, poet and composer. What is typically described as the 'deeply human' emotions and poetics of these songs, misses (in the case of the Schubert cycle in my ears), however partial, a peculiar hyper-sensitivity to, identification with, and intoning of the non-human. A single leaf barely hanging on the linden tree before it spirals to oblivion...  Some may argue that this is anthropomorphism, par excellence; I would counter that what Schubert (or rather, what happens through Schubert) is the kind of mysterious mediation and transformation of voice and piano, the becoming-rustling winter wind and fragility of parched vegetation made sonic, that could only happen because of someone/something/somewhere leaving behind the purely 'human-cultural-civilizational' fold to venture a posthuman ethos well before any such terminology existed...

Response to 1.1 about humanism (Charlene Spretnak)

The point has been made that Renaissance humanism was not primarily about establishing the notion that humans are separate from nature. Very true. That was accomplished much earlier when the holistic Pre-Socratic philosophers were sidelined in favor of Socrates’ turn to focusing on the rational capabilities of the [male] human mind. Since this is our last evening on humanism, I’d like to add that the main impetus in Florence, and then elsewhere, for the emergence of Renaissance humanism (which should be understood not merely as “the rebirth of learning” but a rebirth of classical learning, which had already made its break from nature) was to create a safe space in which to establish, and then increase, distance from the overarching power in the late medieval world of Church and king. The Renaissance humanists and their patrons stepped around the Church by looking back at Western history. They pointed out that Greek and Roman philosophical works, as well as various esoteric traditions, were the oldest roots of Western culture so worthy of one’s interest – even as one remained Christian and avoided being burned at the stake for heresy. What was particularly engaging to the Florentines then were texts proclaiming the exultation of man, a stark contrast with the medieval sense that man’s sinful nature might well result in eternal damnation. The embrace of the neoclassical orientation was also expressed in the emergence of neoclassical architecture and in painting. One example is the way depictions of the Virgin Mary were coded such that, once the perspective of Renaissance humanism become dominant, she is never again presented as the Queen of Heaven on a throne; instead, she is usually given only a thin halo and is seated on neoclassical bench or large chair. The political message was clear that the wealthy patrons, as well as the painters, were no longer living in a culture controlled by the power of the Church. They had made their break. Back to the point at the beginning of this posting, many well-to-do humanist “gentlemen scientists” in the 17th and 18th centuries pursued their own studies of nature, often creating extensive collections – but they, of course, did so with the Western perspective of man’s ontological separation from nature.

            Both neoclassical architecture and the study of science as if humans were objectively detached observers, rather than embodied, embedded Earthlings, dominated the emergent modern culture and beyond. Yet soon after the modern worldview coalesced in the second half of the 18th century, this entire complex of premises and assumptions were challenged when the Romantic philosophers and poets mounted their Grand Correction, insisting on our inherent embedded in the natural world. Goethe, for instance, found Newton’s mechanistic explication of light and color via the prism to be inadequate because a full study of this subject must incorporate the way we feel and bodily experience the perception of light and colors. I mention this because, while a 21st-century posthumanist turn will not replicate earlier efforts, it has deep roots from which to draw inspiration.

Knowing and Not-Knowing (Werner Sun)

Thanks to everyone for all the thought-provoking posts. There is so much to follow up on here, but one thread has been the connection between humanism and knowledge. As someone with a scientific background, I find the topic of sense-making to be endlessly fascinating, and I tend to see scientific knowledge as dynamic and provisional, even though it is often more convenient to present it as a collection of fixed truths. The practice of science is like the practice of art, in that outcomes are not preordained, and artists/scientists spend more time in a state of not-knowing than in certainty.

I'm interested in the "phenomenology" of knowing, and from this perspective, the mind/body duality falls away because I believe we all experience cognition as a physical activity. (And for this reason, it is hubris to claim that it's unique to humans, as Carrie points out.) Indeed, if I haven't slept well, my thoughts are slow as mud. When I'm struggling to solve a problem (technical or not), I am acutely aware of the bits of information I'm shuffling around. I can close my eyes and see them as puzzle pieces, and when I finally fit them together into a bigger picture, there is a shiver of understanding that registers as a bodily sensation. It's the same way that a complex piece of music like a 4-part Bach fugue can transcend its individual components and stir the emotions.

I've also found that when such understandings are revealed, I habitually tend to assume that the map is the territory, that these now-apparent (Platonic) truths were somehow hidden within the objects under study all along. This common perception of "embedded meanings" leads to a narrative of form/content duality that can be found in science as much as in art (with scientific laws being the content of natural forms). Furthermore, this duality implies an opposition between our questioning minds and their subjects. Thus, seeking knowledge can have an alienating effect -- in order to understand how something works, we have to objectify it, to regard it as separate from ourselves.

However, there is an alternative. As Deborah suggests, we could posit that there is no duality, that the form of an object simply is, that it carries no inherent meaning, that we can look at an object without seeking to know it. But if we do choose to reach for knowledge, we can view that "content" as intrinsic to us viewers, not to the object itself, thereby preserving the object's integrity.

In other words, sense-making is a conscious act. Science proceeds under the assumption that all phenomena can be explained rationally, that nature is knowable even if it is not currently fully known. This does not mean, however, that scientists are constantly being scientific. When I gaze at the night sky, I find myself flitting back and forth between two modes of looking: zooming in to pick out individual stars and constellations, and zooming out to take in the entire sky with wonder. Both of these approaches -- the analytic and the holistic -- can co-exist without contradiction, enriching each other.

Response to 1.6: On preserving aspects of humanism (Arthur Whitman)

I emphatically share the skepticism expressed by other panelists here regarding the Cartesian and other related dualisms. And yes, certainly, the notion of human selves as radically autonomous and primarily rational is one that I think has seen better days. We are embodied, embedded creatures and our capacities for abstract and deliberative thought are rooted in those for perception and affect. So if that's what "humanism" is, please sign me up as one of its enemies.

That said--and at the risk of appearing unfashionable--I think it's worth holding on to some idea of a distinctive human nature, that is, of some form of "uniqueness." All species are unique to some extent and I think that it's best to see our similarities and differences vis a vis other animals as two sides of the same coin.

It's certainly true that other animal species have tools and artifacts and can be thought of as engaging in aesthetic or even artistic activity. I would venture that there's something meaningfully distinctive about the complexity and potential range of human symbolic culture. For better and/or for worse, we have the capacity to extend our cognitive and practical abilities in continuously novel and cumulative ways--something other creatures don't seem to do. I think it is important to reckon with that and if accusations like "human exceptionalism" get thrown around too casually, they may not help with this needed reckoning.

Whose Master Narrative? (Stephanie Grilli)

As originally conceived, “humanism” wasn’t about what separated us from other animals or the natural world but about finding truth within the limits of possible experience. The term as applied to cultural history didn’t emerge until the early nineteenth-century, when thinkers had jettisoned religious constructions for secular explanations of what could be known. If we look to the emergence of humanism in the chronicles of art history starting with Vasari, it is Giotto who introduces the information of the eye and human drama into representations of the sacred. While ancient texts were known through the medieval period, they began to speak to people once again when God was no longer transcendent or divine but immanent in the material world.

The first glimmer of the birth of humanism is Giotto’s cycle of frescoes of the life of Saint Francis in Assisi painted a century after his death. Among the paintings is “Saint Francis Preaching to the Birds” (c. 1299), which depicts one of the stories told by Thomas of Celano about Francis’ belief that God’s house is all of creation. What I’m proposing is that the humanist turn may not be singular or implicitly a matter of man’s dominion over nature. The question to ask is: who is writing our narratives?

The one in which “man is the measure of all things” certainly gained favor with the first art academies in which craftsmen gained status as learned men and drawing of the human figure became the standard of mastery. Yet focusing of the things of this world and the affairs of men came with a championing of the senses. John Locke put forth the idea that we are the product of experience in which the senses are the vehicle for that act of self-creation. Art-making becomes increasingly grounded in sensory experience wherein naturalism chips away at received knowledge, and emotion in response to nature starts to challenge Academic fare. The rise of abstraction or form over content takes place when the perceiving subject portrays what is apprehended rather than only what is observed. In Abstraction and Empathy published in 1907, Wilhelm Worringer wrote, “The value of a line, of a form consists for us in the value of the life that it holds for us. It holds its beauty only through our own vital feeling, which, in some mysterious manner, we project into it.

It is but a blink of an eye before Jackson Pollock will assert “I am nature.” Of course for Clement Greenberg, Pollock was Jackson the Giant Killer, the ultimate exponent of the flat canvas or painting as pure painting. With this narrative locked in place, the act of painting as surrender became instead the triumph of the artificial over the natural one man boldly going where no man had gone before. Sapped of meaning other than itself, form becomes a shibboleth, teed up to be the supreme manifestation of toxic masculinity and Western anthro-purity.

On being "unique," on tools, on the question of "Only humans do X" (Carrie Rohman)

This is just a short, general note about our tendency as a species to be focused on how we are different or unique (usually called "human exceptionalism," these days), rather than being focused on how we are similar to other creatures or lifeforms or material forces.  And of course, my larger question is always, why are we so desperate to reinforce a precise difference between ourselves and other actors?  We do seem actually desperate to keep drawing a line, even as "science" erases it (in ways that former indigenous knowledges had already done, but we tend to only believe "science" nowadays).  There are many answers to why we evince this desperation, of course, but I won't go into those for the sake of space.   

 We used to say that "of course" animals couldn't use tools, and certainly couldn't make or modify tools.  But now we know otherwise.  The fact is, many many nonhuman creatures use tools and modify tools, to varying degrees.  They don't build rocket ships.  But if we believe Darwin, then every human "capacity" is just a differentiated form of other capacities that came before.  Why are we so fixated on our "uniqueness" in general, when we could be focused on our shared capacities, vulnerabilities, affects, passions, and yes, aesthetic becomings (this latter is what I've addressed in work on "bioaesthetics")?  Human exceptionalism seems not an inevitable posture, but rather an ideological one having to do (as other folks here have mentioned) with hierarchies, discourses of power, etc. that have become so entrenched we can't even see them anymore.  So for me, that is one part of "humanism" that I believe needs to go.  And because it is such a central and enduring tenet of post-Enlightenment humanism (we could go down the road with Kant and Descartes and the like) it's hard for me to imagine wanting to hold on to that philosophical position.  I'd much rather shift from some idea of human equality as a central "truth," to one that includes that as a given, because the living in general come to be more highly valued.  We will always have a "natural" tendency to put ourselves first, but it doesn't mean we should accept that tendency as ethically sound.  These are not new ideas, but it seems worth reiterating them, in relation to some of the threads in Session 1.    

1.1: Response to Deborah (Daniel Hill)

 Deborah, re: I would phrase that differently. From my view, the main commodity of the future is the ability to emphatically embrace not knowing. The humanism we are discussing is closely tied to knowledge, sense-making, meaning. I am more interested in what shows up in the absence of those formalizations.”


Agreed, if this wasn’t a conversational type of writing, I would put my previous entry through a few more edits! But the format we are using for this symposium has the flavor of a live talk, where sometimes one wishes to go back and edit how one said something! Anyway, if I were to rephrase this particular sentence, I think I would likely address the word meaning (as Taney astutely points out) and not omit it. It is a vague word for our needs. Necessity calls for another!


The type of meaning I am referring to is tacit, unable to be told using explicit means (written and spoken word), non-discursive, embodied, and simultaneously- subjective and personal. This type of meaning is what I think all humans yearn for. It is the type of meaning yielded from a life immersed in creative practices, like art. The notion of meaning as the commodity of the future is one shared by Yuval Noah Harari who summarizes the power of this type of meaning when he says: "A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardship. Whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it is." We all have seen examples of individuals who have lived in accord to the system in every way and have succeeded in doing all the “right” things- but still, something is lacking- something significant. No amount of money or power will ever deliver it. Harari has also referred to the rise of the "useless class" in the 21st century- those with no options for a well-paid career due to those careers being taken by machine learning and artificial intelligence. This, in turn, will force an economic reform. Whatever that reform may be, the precious commodities of today- namely, money- will lose value/interest and give rise to the commodity of meaning (again, for the lack of more appropriate word). This personal, subjective meaning is one artists know well. A commodity of not knowing: if that means unlearning tendencies that have outlived their usefulness, I could go along with that. (I can think of a couple ripe candidates!)


I am interested too in what shows up in the absence or formalizations such as sense-making, but not really sure what that would be. I think we humans are built to find patterns and make sense of them. We are striving to make sense constantly- right now! - it is what we do. Making sense is imperative to acquiring this type of meaning I refer to. As an artist I would be afraid to lose these formalizations for they are tools, and the absence of sense may easily be construed as nonsense. This beckons of that horrible saying I used to hear in art school-“dumb as a painter”. Artists can be just as intelligent and conceptual as the scientist. But I think it is important that artists are taken seriously moving deeper in the 21st century. That means reckoning with the juggernaut called science.


Science, (the objective), must be acknowledged. No one can deny the success of science as a tool for problem solving. Art must exercise great care moving forward if it wants to restore relevancy, as it is already marginalized. If art can communicate with science, if science can have a foothold, however slight, into the subjective realm of art, we inch toward the notion EO Wilson has termed consilience. (Consilience means literally “a jumping together” and refers to a unification of currently disparate fields of human knowledge- the arts, humanities, sciences, etc.) This foothold is akin to the leading edge of a tree’s root, thin and wispy, sliding into cracks of the stone, and yet over time growing and splitting the matrix. This stone is the subjective realm of the unknown, that which currently eludes science.


Re: Bateson: I think what is being referred to in this wonderful quote is just this sense-making, the finding of this “pattern that connects” that Bateson has referred to and which in turn leads to this type of meaning. Notably, a symmetry is found here between objective and subjective equivalents- an inward meaning reflected in an outward meaning and vice versa: a unification of the opposites.


Re: mystic: This is a word I struggle with as it carries much baggage. The lure of the unknown- this fiery, passionate desire to understand that has driven us through the millennia holds a sense of mystery implicit. This is essential. I agree with you and yes, it is a difficult position to defend. Both (word and position) need to be expressed in a way that science can understand or contribute. Otherwise, it is too easily dismissed. However, I think we live at a fortunate time as interesting things are happening in neuroscience and consciousness studies for example. The near future may yield common ground atop which we may build.

On Misapplications of Discourse: Response to Jon Sakata (Taney Roniger)

In an earlier post, Jon Sakata asks: "Is there an analog in the visual arts to what I feel is a fundamental misapplication in musical discourse (particularly around Euro-American "classical" music) in which the very musics that are valorized, beloved as representations of "humanity" -- such distinctly different composers as Hildegard, J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms come to mind -- are precisely those that de-centered the 'human' and/or fundamentally situated the 'human' within other registers of cosmic/planetary existence?" 

In considering how humanism has inflected our inherited assumptions about art, this strikes me as a particularly generative question. Have there been similar misreadings or misprisions in the visual arts that would suggest such a discrepancy between actual art and the discourse surrounding it? And perhaps Jon could say more about the influence of humanist assumptions on the field of music as a whole?