Punk Philosophy and Cheap Music: A Contrapuntal Essay

Strange how potent cheap music is

– Noel Coward

Back in the 90s I used to work for a musicians’ charity which had a number of visitors spread throughout England who used to visit beneficiaries in particular need. Because the visitors never normally meet each other, once a year a get-together would be organised for them to share experiences and ideas. At these meetings there would be a different guest speaker each year on various subjects that had relevance to the whole musician/music thing. The only one I remember now is a psychologist, who gave a talk on why musicians tend to be a bit ‘different’. Obviously there’s the whole thing about performance anxiety and associated substance misuse issues, and then of course the way that musicians tend to work at night and only ever meet other musicians which tends to reinforce their differentness, but there was a deeper reason behind it all – that musicians are trained over a long period of time usually starting in childhood to conceptualise and express emotion through technicality. The whole way music works, whether you’ve had classical training or not, is technical through and through, yet it’s in the service of expressing effectively infinite shades of emotion, and contrasts amongst emotions, and ambiguities of emotions in and amongst themselves.

Perhaps that’s why music is regarded as so particularly special – in music, both reason and feeling are perfectly in harmony (so to speak) because the way feeling is expressed inherently involves the technical. There are the 12 notes of the scale consisting of notes separated by semitones, major and minor keys (which come in three different sorts – modal, melodic and harmonic), different chords, different ways of sequencing those chords, different ways of changing key by manipulating those chords, ways of keeping one note going while everything else changes (pedal note, ‘sus’ chords), musical phrases, different ways of ending those phrases called cadences, rarities such as octatonic scales (which as the name suggests consist of only eight notes), and so on and on and on.

Then there’s the way all these aspects of music interact. Certain types of chord or chord progression have a ‘flavour’ or a vibe. That’s more of a building block used in the service of music, but you get the idea. Or to give another couple of examples, there are two possible forms of the Neapolitan sixth both of which have a strikingly fiery sound – because of the way Western music works, there can only be two forms of this chord that qualify as a Neapolitan sixth, no more. Regarding that wiki link, just cast an eye over the page as a whole, and note the sheer technicality involved – I’m not expecting anybody (including myself) to read it all the way through – then check the audio samples (apart from the first one, which is just a major triad and which appears to be there in error). The audio clips aren’t fantastic examples, but they will nonetheless show you, non-verbally a snippet of what this technicality actually refers to, albeit at a pretty much homeopathic level. Now consider a similar way of contrasting concept and reality.

Meanwhile, the augmented fourth interval might be ‘just’ at the midpoint of the octave, but to this very day we can see why back in the middle ages it earnt the name diabolus in musica, (and of course the acid techno crew do like to pop it in there amidst their 303 riffing, so it lives on today).

Meanwhile squared, the alternation between I and III chords is also very distinctive, sometimes heard in more commercial trancey dance music like you’d hear in Ibiza. And so on. And to repeat, this is just the rudimentary stuff – it’s taken far beyond this in most music. But the principle is the same – creating emotional effects through technical means. If you’re a musician from childhood upwards, then the sheer amount of hours spent training yourself like this will have a strong, permanent effect on your mind.

Meanwhile cubed, we find that however much we may be unaware of it, or aware of it, we are irresistibly pulled this way and that to what we subjectively ‘know’ is the case. Even if we’re trying to change mistaken or painful thoughts and feelings, we do this with an aim in mind we ‘know’ is right. We all have our individual worldview to which we are compelled, either naturally or through reasoning (or through telling ourselves that we come to our conclusions through reasoning, to be more precise). Whether we let go or work on it, we cannot escape some kind of overall view of life. There’s a distinct tinge of chicken/egg to all this. Our worldview may come before the way we conceptualise it, or the concepts may even change the way we think and feel, though the latter isn’t often as effective as people would like it to be. Some of us have the idea that clarity can be brought to the whole thing by reason, but the strict use of supposedly pure reason still somehow leads to all manner of different and often contradictory views, which shows that there is more to our minds, to our lives, than just reason. But to the extent that you identify with reason, make a long-term ironically-emotionally-charged investment in it, you are more likely to feel threatened by the idea that reason has limits, the more likely you are to try to stomp out unreason (while then realising, of course, that there’s a whole load of life-affirming stuff out there, like music, art and literature, that transcends reason – even though if you’re that besotted with rationality you’re going to (a) want to define transcendence and then (b) find that you can’t convincingly do so, while still nonetheless knowing what it is, which in itself is a bit of a sign, surely).

This distrust of feelings permeates our culture, which perhaps isn’t surprising as it goes back a long way. In medieval times there was a general concern about demons, both within and without. Supposedly along came the renaissance and blew all that away. But this is simplified to the point of wrongness. In his book Cosmopolis Stephen Toulmin writes of the birth of two humanisms in renaissance Europe. The first (‘humanism 1’), a humanism of Montaigne and Shakespeare, appeared in the 16th century. It is warm, and deeply interested in all the myriad ways of us lot, of all the things that we’re interested in, of how we place ourselves in nature and how we regard our mortality. Later, however, comes the rise of a second kind of humanism (‘humanism 2’), that of Descartes, top heavy on the rationality and down on the passions, and with a top-down view of the organisation of society. This is a humanism that seeks to suppress the emotions as inherently troublesome and suspect, that regards nature as deterministic and to be dominated, that regards pure reason as the ultimate arbiter of value. Toulmin makes a good case that this supposedly purely rational humanism actually arose in reaction to the atrocities of the Thirty Years War. But this very suppression has a tone, an approach, an aesthetic. It may speak of objectivity and rationality, but looked at in context, there’s more going on – a reaction to evil. And it’s suffused with that particular flavour – Newton’s clockwork, regularity everywhere, reason as King. Meanwhile, the humanism 1 of Montaigne and Shakespeare, devoid of this reactivity, has a warmth and a humanity to it that’s lacking in the later, supposedly ‘objective’ version. Though luckily in the world of music we’ve got Bach, with his simultaneous transcendence and humanity. Humanism 2 is above and beyond our lives. Humanism 1 is found persistently in music, through the centuries.

Here are the aspects of humanism 2 as outlined by Toulmin as they relate to Humanity:

  • The “human” thing about humanity is its capacity for rational thought and action
  • Rationality and causality follow different rules
  • Since thought and action do not take place causally, actions cannot be explained by any causal science of psychology
  • Human beings can establish stable systems in society, like the physical systems in nature
  • So humans have mixed lives, part rational and part causal: as creatures of Reason their lives are intellectual or spiritual, as creatures of Emotion they are bodily or carnal
  • Emotion typically frustrates or distorts the work of Reason; so human reason is to be trusted or encouraged, while the emotions are to be distrusted and restrained.

It has become commonplace to regard ‘feelings’ (however defined) as somehow suspect due to the rise of humanism 2, but even the decision to regard them in that way already happens after some kind of ‘feeling’ or aesthetic sense or hunch has been felt in the first place. And again, to the extent that you regard reason as primary you are going to be driven to fight against this, to tame that realisation somehow. And humanism 2 goes with a top-down organisation of both society and the individual. (There are also half a dozen beliefs listed by Toulmin pertaining to Nature that include the whole top-down hierarchy thing but that’s a whole other essay as it’s theist and we’ve supposedly done away with that sort of thing now, and that needs unpacking somewhere else.)

Just actually step back and watch the activities of philosophising. Everybody including non-philosophers does it, but how do we choose, or go for, or end up following any particular worldview? Intellect is involved for sure, but it’s always just part of an overall approach that has a tone, a mood, an aesthetic. For example, the existentialism of Sartre is very different indeed to that of Camus.

In the end, and inescapably so, we have to come to any worldview in this way that combines intellect and feeling, in a way that has an aesthetic, a way that is inherently phenomenological, a way that’s a living interplay between the intuitive tones of feeling and the technicalities of reason. And how we interact with philosophy, how we are when we’re doing so, becomes an inherent part of that philosophy. Pessimistic doom may form part of a feeling of bravery, of overcoming, or complete despair and defeat. Schopenhauer may make you depressed, or get you through depression and out the other side. It’s complicated – when we’re feeling down, we may need to somehow work through it by really getting into the darkness (by playing dark music for example), but the very next day we may need something soothing to take away the pain (by playing something beautiful). Two days in a row when you’re suffering, and the same piece of dark music that helped the first day makes it worse on the second. Thus it is with our worldview(s). But humanism 2, which is still everywhere after all this time, insists that things be neat and tidy. We must work on ourselves, tidying up our messiness. We must stick to a clearly-defined path. Or rather we feel we ought to try to, even though it never quite works out, because of those feelings hidden away.

A nihilist may quite enjoy it all, or sink into suicidal despair, or go wild with a strange mix of anger and passion as they rebel against the meaninglessness of life. And all of these different ways may be triggered by what reason regards as the same supposedly neutral ideas.

We’re not aware of this interplay, and so through humanism 2 type activity, we seek to order everything, to tidy ourselves up from the top down. ‘Tidy up’ is a phrasal verb, so nothing’s actually going upwards – but note anyway that conflict between the ‘up’ of tidy and the ‘down’ of top down. We end up constantly at war with ourselves, aiming for a complete, stable, satisfied certainty, which we can never attain but which we are impelled to chase even as it always eludes us.

As for the music of philosophy, it is always a negotiation between the urge to infinite analysis, and the urge to synthesise. Solve et coagula. In western music, the ne plus ultra of ‘analysis’ was Schönberg’s atonality. Pure atonalism was meaningless, however, so a strict system had to be imposed on it to ensure it avoided the tonal while still having structure in order to express music. Serial music could supposedly be read by those with the requisite standard of inner ear (actually really quite rare even amongst classically trained musicians) rather than listening to a recording of it. Everything in the mind in the head, nothing in the outside world. Humanism 2 (apparently) triumphant. Meanwhile, in philosophy the analytical urge bottomed out in logical positivism. And in both cases, although these schools still have some followers, this stuff is so lacking in something vital, so lacking in beauty, that life for the rest of us has moved on into more lively, fertile and vivid realms, realms that are nonetheless relatable.

This matters with life itself. Treating life as mere metabolism is the end result of the analytical (‘solve’) approach. We’re expected to believe that all our arts and sciences, all our social behaviours, are actually evolutionary strategies driven by genes – the tidiness of humanism 2. But life is what gave rise to this tone, or mode, not the other way round. Our human lives are special indeed, to give rise to these scientific ways of thought that tell us we’re valueless.

Meanwhile, philosophy, like music, is emotion and technique united, and it always has an aesthetic. And just as punk used simplicity to blast away old cobwebs of prog noodling and excess, this can be done with philosophy. In practice, this means resisting critiques of any philosophy that seek to isolate its ideas and push them into destructive analyses. A composer may write beautifully simple music with more depth than any rigorously 12-tone composer, and a philosopher may capture something by non-complex philosophical means that nobody else has managed to communicate in that way before. To take the analogy further, punk bands may only have 3 chords, but it’s what they do with them that counts. John Maus has said that he’s seeking a punk kind of philosophy but he’s been having difficulty working out how that could be done (while by the look of it actually doing this quite effectively).

Remember here the idea in The User Illusion, of simplicity that contains complexity within. We surely have heard those Bach compositions for keyboard or cello that are at the same time perfectly simple and yet utterly transcendent. And indeed we must’ve heard Teenage Kicks by the Undertones. What has the most power in art and philosophy is not a matter of bare complexity.

But in the world of academia, where are the philosophical ‘punks’? Where are the writers of ‘cheap music’ that nonetheless is uniquely potent? ‘Cheap’ music is popular because it speaks to people in a way other music doesn’t, and so often includes such feats of cleverness and inspiration. You can indulge in 12-tone music, or logical positivism, if you want, but they’re so remote from human life – they’re up there with the kings of the world of humanism 2. But both philosophy and music are better when intimately arising from and concerned with our human lives (by all means try to argue otherwise, and see where you end up). If people want to study the remote stuff, then obviously they should – but let’s keep it in perspective.

And let’s put it in social context. Philosophy is one of those things that has a particular placement at the centre of life, how we live, how things could be made better, what to do or not do, how to think. The continental stuff is more like prog rock, the analytical stuff is atonal. As with science, the powerful stuff tends to be simple but with hidden depth. Yet again, we refer to The Consciousness Illusion. This is why we want philosophy to be simple but powerful, simple but with hidden depth, simple but shaded with nuance – this is how philosophy gains power in the world, and speaks to people. The more people can relate to it, the more people it reaches, the more it inspires.

Or in other words – bollocks to academic philosophy.

Our reason tells us that philosophies are somehow reified, static, objective – but philosophy itself is never like this (and the attempt to make it so resulted in the tautological sterility of positivism). We’re never like this either. Furthermore, in our lives subjectivity is primal, not objectivity. So the bottom line is actually… music. It works out through time to express a drama. As does film – the other inherently time-based art. Indeed comparing life to the projection on a cinema screen is a common analogy in spiritual circles.

A certain vagueness is important here. The fecund vagueness that gives rise to reason, or indeed all the arts and sciences, contains these things within itself. But it’s only reason that insists on total clarity. And because this vagueness, these intuitions, these hunches are themselves not clear, reason goes off on a precision hunt which will never succeed as the harder you look, the more the clarity chimera heads for the horizon. New vistas always appear to be explored. We’re told that what we take to be solid matter is only 0.0000001% solid and this is always given as something amazing, with an implication that it explains something foundational about reality – but in that case, what’s that tiny solid percentage made of? That bit must be very special indeed seeing as despite being only 0.0000001% of reality it’s responsible for solidity, but this never seems to be addressed. Our attention is always drawn to the tiny percentage, instead of what it’s a tiny percentage of. We’re asked to focus on the emptiness. In due course, of course, attempts will be made to work this out, but what will those attempts lead to – a further reduction in the percentage, or something else that’s more really real?

In the reality of life, science has excellent (but not perfect) predictive power, but only that. It can be mindblowingly accurate beyond our ability to comprehend with measurement, but this has precisely and exactly nothing to do with any sort of meaning other than ‘was the prediction right or not?’. The confusion of measurement for meaning is scientism and it’s everywhere. Some people are so lost in it they even claim that scientism doesn’t exist, that it’s just a neurotic concept dreamt up by the woolly-minded. (Although a quick reference to the genetic fallacy can at least temporarily clear the air.) But the science that creates the treatment resulting in an all-clear for, say, a cancer patient means that the now ex-patient has more life to live – and it’s their life where the meaning is. And that life might include trying to make amends for being a bad parent, or for the effect your alcoholism had on your children, or the way you didn’t live up to your potential and whether you can do anything about that now, and so on.

Even stories such as ‘there is no overarching narrative’, or ‘life is meaningless’, or ‘the very multitude of contradictory knowings of life proves that none of those knowings are true’, represent such a knowing themselves – the result of feeling and intellect working together. So does taking an agnostic stance – and the sort of agnostic stance you take, the way you take it, will also have its own aesthetic. You will live your life in your particular tao, your own way. The way your mind works will create overall flavours, and each person has their own unique overall flavour. Reacting against the flavour will be done in your unique way. There is no escape. It feels that there is, though, but that very looseness of thought, that sense of freedom and space in our minds, is what enables us to then gravitate or work our way towards our individual, deeply-felt (and sometimes deeply-thought) view.

Any attempt at nihilism automatically assumes meaning.

Neither determinism or free will can adequately describe what’s actually happening as they are purely reason-based concepts. To the extent we think they are an adequate explanation, we are trapped in analytical intellect.

What you’re reading here is part of all this, too.


The User Illusion Analogy

The User Illusion by Tor Nørretranders is a high quality pop science book first published in Danish in the early 90s, then in English in the late 90s. It examines consciousness from the perspective of information theory and riffs in an original way on various implications that can (or could perhaps) be drawn from this approach. Despite the book jacket blurb, it doesn’t explain consciousness, but it’s an enjoyable, thought-provoking read, and it includes stuff about information theory that catches something metaphorically very vibey, very fruitful. If you’re interested, I’d recommend it, but read the Amazon reviews first, in particular a critical review on Amazon.com by a Joao Leao which I think is rather good. The two key things for me, my main (and lasting) takes from the book are that in terms of information processing conscious awareness is very low rate – 16 bits/second tops – and therefore something qualitative (subjective awareness) is slipping through the information theory (IT) conceptual net, but more positively, there’s something in IT that makes a nice, fruitful metaphor for pondering mind and creativity.

But what does IT say?

Lots. But the bit that’s important here is the idea of randomness, and how we know something even is random. The classic idea that catches unaware people out is tossing a coin. If you ask people not in on IT to imagine tossing a coin to write down a 0 for heads and a 1 for tails, they are very likely to write out a sequence that isn’t actually entirely random. This is because in real life when you toss a coin, sometimes you’ll get a whole load of heads or tails in a row, and if you don’t include sequences like that, your imaginary coin tossing session won’t be properly random after all. Randomness goes with entropy, with noise. Nørretranders gives the example of the information contained in dirty dishes – it’s just not interesting to us. We discard the unwanted information, the noise. (And do the dishes.) In IT the discarded stuff is called exformation.

There’s then the related idea of compressing information. The fraction 3/7 written in full continues forever – 0.428571428571428571… But if you write it as 3/7, that’s a whole lot less information. Note too that 3/7 is exactly right, whereas the decimal fraction can only ever be an approximation as it continues without end. Also, if you toss a coin (imaginary or otherwise) 12 times, that’s more information than 3/7. The coin tossing example reminds me of the more prolix French continental philosophers – lots of verbiage, not so much precision or clarity. It’s not so much that it’s meaningless (although sometimes I do wonder – see the Sokal affair), as the information is quite resistant to compression. It would be like a very lengthy decimal fraction that nonetheless can’t be compressed very much – 1,528,248/2,661,993, say. Or just a load of uncompressible noise. Though to be fair it must be said that precision and clarity don’t feature much in our everyday life, and we often go through life guessing, intuiting, going on hunches – and philosophy really ought to inherently be about our life here on this planet, so let’s not be too hard on those thinkers. But their thinking can all get a bit messy and opaque, and only appealing to other similarly-minded philosophers, which takes it out of our lives and into the halls of academe, which is a shame.

Anyway. Clarity. Another way of looking at this is to consider zipped computer files. The basic idea here is that the zipping software analyses where, say, there’s a load of 0s or 1s in a row and tidies it up into, say “4,536 1s in a row here”, which uses a lot less information. The very way in which huge files can be shrunk so drastically shows how powerful this technique is.

Meanwhile, TUI states “Intelligence is thus not about remembering lots of microstates at once in sequence. Intelligence is being able to see which macrostates combine all the microstates”.

At which point I think it’s fair to ask – what is this ‘seeing’ then? How does that work? This failure to address ‘seeing’ persists in AI, on and on, decade after decade, leading intelligent researchers and philosophers astray. It’s a real blind spot (so to speak).

Which leads to the next point. So far all this has had a certain passivity to it. You discard the exformation and keep the information, it’s all compressed nicely, then you unzip it et voila – there it all is again. But there’s a mystery in how this process can result in new ideas so heavily loaded with new information that they can change whole paradigms, in art or science. To do this requires vast amounts of information and exformation – and an intuitive leap that is an inherent part of the mystery of creation. And that happens in the subjective. No amount of computing, no matter how clever, ever results – and I would say ever can result – in profound new insight on its own. There always needs to be a human mind involved somewhere.

In TUI psychologist David Hargreaves, who has a written extensively on the psychology of music and musicians, is quoted as saying “The theory [of musical preference] has its base in information theory, but the important insight comes from the distinction between this conception of ‘information’ and its psychological counterpoint. Fundamentally, the coding of physical information contained in a musical composition, as in information theory, predicts very little of interest, but coding the information in ‘subjective’ terms predicts quite a lot. Whether a person likes a particular piece or not depends on the information they are able to take out of it, rather than the information that is already ‘in there’.”

‘Macrostates’ are what you end up with when a great deal of exformation has been discarded and compressed into notions encompassing that vast amount of exformation. The mystery is that this is even possible. How can certain ideas contain so much by way of having discarded so much? And how are we able to ‘see’ the outline of Big Ideas as such in the first place? Big Ideas start out looking simple, but are the result of an enormous amount of discarded information that they still paradoxically somehow contain, or infer, and after those new Big Ideas appear, they are then unpacked at great length by armies of scientists and/or artists, which is only possible because those Ideas contain so much novelty. They resonate. They have a kind of interiority that can be explored, and those explorations uncover all manner of new treasures as we shine our consciousness on them, before which we couldn’t see them. As TUI puts it, what we experience has acquired meaning before we become conscious of it. Perhaps this is connected with how we somehow intuit that there’s something Big there. It’s not necessarily immediately obvious, either – usually when something Big comes along there’s a huge amount of reflexive attack from certain quarters before wider acceptance is found. Which in itself is interesting but perhaps for another article.

The second big take for me from TUI is the small, tiny even, amount of bits per second that are processed consciously. This is a strong comeback to the whole ‘reign of quantity’ idea that measuring and counting is all. The few bits/sec of subjective conscious awareness are utterly, profoundly different to all that incoming raw data. But why should we even be surprised at that low bitrate? Perhaps because we’re not used to putting the qualitative first instead of the quantitative. But it’s not the amount of bits/sec, it’s the fact that those 16 or so bits are processed ‘in’ (whatever that means) or ‘through’ (whatever that means) subjective awareness.

And that’s what (the) TUI metaphor is, for me at any rate. I had to discard a lot of information trying to catch the essence of it, and I hope it hasn’t been too confusing as a result. As ever, I’m trying to be simultaneously clear but also put across an intuition, a vibe, a feel for the idea. But here it has a particular extra level of ‘meta’-ness, so I can only apologise if anybody’s feeling a bit dizzy. Maybe it’s time for a cup of tea.