Derrida, Dub and the Retirement of Beauty

I've been catching up on blogs after my break lately and I seem to have caught the end of a debate about beauty in music, which is cool, because I'm trying to structure myself up to write an essay that's on a really closely tangential topic. I thought I'd post an outline of what I'm thinking and let it be my contribution to the beauty debate.

People seem generally opposed to continuing evaluating music based on if it's beautiful or not. That's good. But while it seems we're getting little hints of why beauty needs to be retired as a concept I've yet to see a good how, which is where the philosophy of Jacques Derrida and the musical advances of Jamaican dub come in.

Jacques Derrida is an Algerian-French philosopher most famous for launching the concept of Deconstruction, which has wildly outgrown whatever he originally intended by it. His philosophy is quite interesting and makes loads of startling claims, but I'm picking out one particular aspect that's relevant to 20th century music: his work on dichotomies.

Derrida claims western thought rests on unequal dichotomies where one term dominates hierachically over another, one beautiful, one ugly. In music, this would be something like the sound/silence dichotomy - sound is defined as something positive, beautiful, while silence is considered derivative, almost parasitical, an absence. Other similar dichotomies that tend to crop up in 20th century music (especially experimental music) are pure sound/noise and composition/indeterminacy. I guess tonality/atonality is another one really.

Derrida would claim that these dichotomies are very deeply ingrained in the very basic meaning of words and that merely ignoring them is futile. For instance, there's no point in going down the route of Schönberg or Russolo and try to redefine the ugly (atonality, noise) as beautiful, because that would be mere wordplay. Likewise, the attempts of experimental composers like Cage and Schaeffer to ignore the dichotomies entirely and focus on the opressed aspects are probably futile, becuase in making "noise music" and "indeterminate music" and "silent compositions" they're still acknowledging the existence of the dichotomy, in effect (if not in intent) being wilfully negative.

The solution instead must involve the dissolution of the categories, or as Derrida would say their deconstruction, finding the flaws of the dichotomy, its internal logical problems. In order to deconstruct a dichotomy one needs essentially to move beyond it. (This is both the why and the how of why we need to retire beauty.)

Which is where it links up to dub - I think this might be the key as to why dub is so popular with latter-day experimental musicians, the kind that read The Wire. Dub plays around freely with all the categories, focusing on thier combinatronics and how to use them in interesting ways. Effectively, it's got deconstructive properties, and most of all it provides a new alternative to the traditional categories in where the intellectual effort goes. It's where we can derive a lot of producer-oriented music, where "interesting" and "unusual" and "exciting" has replaced "beautiful".

Paradigm-shift or not? I guess these kinds of valuations probably precede dub in popular music. Plus, obviously "interesting" is itself open to deconstruction (in relation to the parasitic "boring"). But that's pretty much how far I've got - I'd love to have someone pick at holes in the thought if they can.


Anonymous said...

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Love it.

Keep it up.


Creator: Rachel Emmet said...

hmmm not sure why youre so interested in this idea of retiring beauty as a concept. surely it shouldn't be sort of basis of evaluation, but i think its a quality thats worth something, and one i occasionally wanna hear in music.

Im all for deconstructing false dichotomies, but i think completely retiring beauty will, if anything, lead us to new annoying value judgments, such as rockist / rap / punk centered notions of heavy/gritty/ "real" music & authenticity. And besides, is beauty really oppressing anybody in music right now? i feel that paradigm shifted long ago. or maybe m not reading you correctly ... im not sure how you define "beauty in music".