Monday, June 27, 2011

Rand & Aesthetics 18

Rand on rock music. While Rand was well known for being outspoken to the point of palpable rudeness, she could become, when she wanted to, as indirect and suggestive as the very worst of equivocators. Her assault on rock music begins with a series highly speculative, empirically impoverished remarks on what she calls "primitive" music:
The deadly monotony of primitive music -- the endless repetition of a few notes and of a rhythmic pattern that beats against the brain with the regularity of the ancient torture of water drops falling on a man's skull -- paralyzes cognitive processes, obliterates awareness and disintegrates the mind. Such music produces a state of sensory deprivation, which -- as modern scientists are beginning to discover -- is caused by the absence or the monotony of sense stimuli....

A man's psycho-epistemological method of functioning is developed and automatized in his early childhood; it is influenced by the dominant philosophy of the culture in which he grows up. If, explicitly and implicitly (through the general emotional attitude), a child grasps that the pursuit of knowledge, i.e., the independent work of his cognitive faculty, is important and required of him by his nature, he is likely to develop an active, independent mind. If he is taught passivity, blind obedience, fear and the futility of questioning or knowing, he is likely to grow up as a mentally helpless savage. But -- since once cannot destroy a human mind totally, as long as its possessor remains alive -- his brain's frustrated needs become a restless, incoherent, unintelligible groping that frightens him. Primitive music becomes his narcotic: it wipes out the groping, it reassures him and reinforces his lethargy, it offers him temporarily the sense of reality to which his stagnant stupor is appropriate....

Today, when the influence of Western Civilization is breaking up the static, tradition-bound culture of Japan, young Japanese composers are doing talented work in the Western style of music.

The products of America's anti-rational, anti-cognitive "Progressive" education, the "hippies," are reverting to the music and the drumbeat of the jungle. [RM, 62-24]

Note how Rand never explicitly equates primitive music with rock. She never even uses the phrase rock music. Instead she merely refers vaguely to the music "hippies are reverting to." Nor does she describe this "hippie" music as primitive, preferring to describe it as "the music and drumbeat of the jungle." Yet despite all of this indirectness, it is difficult not to conclude that Rand would regard rock music as a type of primitive music, and that what she says against this primitive sort of music is applicable to rock music. It's just a matter of connecting the dots: primitive music = the music and drumbeat of the jungle = "hippie" music = rock music.

Assuming that rock music is a type of primitive music, what can be said about Rand's analysis? Is rock music a narcotic for the lethargic? Does it provide the sense of reality appropriate to stagnant stupor? Does it paralyze cognitive processes, obliterate awareness, and disintegrate the mind? How does Rand know that so-called "primitive" music, whether of the jungle or "hippie" variety, exercises these cognitive effects? What evidence does she have that those who listen and like this music are "mentally helpless" savages?

Well, of course, Rand has no such evidence. There is absolutely no evidence that rock music, in and of itself, induces lethargy. Quite the contrary, it seems rather a kind of stimulant. And while rock music is not known for being particularly sophisticated, especially when compared to classical music, there is no compelling evidence that it paralyzes cognition or induces a state of "sensory deprivation."

There may be any number of plausible criticisms that could be essayed against at least some forms of rock, but what Rand has provided in her "Art and Cognition" essay is not one of them.


Ken said...

My father used to use the phrase "jungle music," but with him it was a not-very-subtle code phrase (when he wasn't being subtle, it was "screaming n***** music"). Any reason to think Rand wasn't using it the same way?

gregnyquist said...

Any reason to think Rand wasn't using it the same way?

I'm not aware of any evidence that Rand harbored feelings of animosity toward other races. Her attitude towards blacks seems to have been one of indifference or apathy. Intellectually, she opposed racism and left it at that.

That said, her phrase "jungle music" is rather tactless. After all, how many light skinned people are making music in jungles? I doubt, however, that the racial implications of the phrase ever occurred to her. No doubt if anyone had the temerity to point it out to her, she would have thrown a temper tantrum.

Ken said...

Thanks, it was one of those things where I hadn't heard either way. I was probably sensitized by Gilgamesh's recent comment - or rather, the "Ayn Rand Quote of the Week 12/03/08" to which he was responding. Once someone has said that it is monstrous to accommodate the handicapped, and that the retarded should not be allowed to come near children, it's harder to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Behemoth said...

Funny, I just got home after an AMAZING performance by Yellow Magic Orchestra, and see this. While nobody would call YMO "jungle music" -- it's actually rather melodic for synthpop -- I find myself reveling in how much this still would have disgusted Rand.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure about the issue of Rand and race. She was such a Western chauvinist that I have a hard time not hearing at least *some* racial subtext in what she says, even if it's never stated overtly.

Meanwhile, the funny thing about rock is that is actually quite a good example of residual Romanticism that's been incorporated into popular culture. Robert Pattison wrote a whole book about this some years ago. Rock's mythology presents quite a bit of individualism -- the struggles to pay your dues, the rise through the ranks to fame and success, the need to be authentic and true to your artistic vision (or else you "sell out" and lose your integrity) -- there's a lot there that maps directly onto Romanticism writ large (though maybe not the kind of Romanticism Rand prescribed).

- Chris

stuart said...

Behemoth, I know how you feel. Whenever I board a kneeling bus now, carrying people to their fee-free doctors' offices and hospitals and public schools, I kind of feel like genuflecting.

Thanks to ARCHN for the priceless example of Rand's stick-of-the-wrong-end on kneeling buses. Was everyone scared to tell her she just didn't understand who was supposed to kneel? Those must have been some fearsome tanties she threw.


Ken said...

stuart/caroljane: When you put it that way, it reminds me of the Hotel Moskva. According to the possibly-apocryphal story, the builders presented Stalin with two sets of plans, intending that he choose one. Instead he just signed off on the whole packet. Not daring to tell Stalin that he had made an error, the builders instead used both sets of plans, building the east and west wings from the different designs.

Anonymous said...

My first Ayn Rand Girlfriend (referred to as "ARGF1" on my blog) was also a punk rock girl. She loved punk rock music and the punk culture was extremely important to her identity. She also worshipped Ayn Rand.

ARGF1 was either too stupid to realize that she was violating Ayn Rand's aesthetic principles by enjoying punk rock, or simply compartmentalized the contradiction in her own mind. This makes sense when one looks at ARGF1's mental condition - Borderline Personality Disorder.

Borderlines have an amazing ability to compartmentalize. This byproduct of BPD allows certain borderlines to remain single minded in their obsessions. It's creepy.

beardedglory44 said...

Wonderful. Rand has yet again been proved to be all the things that she is and will always be; ignorant, blindly arrogant, and simply wrong.

Echo Chamber Escapee said...

@Anonymous: ARGF1 was either too stupid to realize that she was violating Ayn Rand's aesthetic principles by enjoying punk rock, or simply compartmentalized the contradiction in her own mind.

It's actually quite common for Objectivists to rationalize away their disagreements with Rand, especially when it comes to music. If pressed, they usually seize on Rand's comment (pointed out by Greg N. in a previous post in this series) that her aesthetic theory of music is "just a hypothesis." They say that since nobody really has proof of what the objective standards for music should be, there's nothing wrong with them for liking Mozart or Rush or punk rock or pretty much anything. I mean, after all, Leonard admitted he liked Beethoven, and Rand didn't excommunicate him for that!

Convincing? Not to me, but apparently to them.

One result of this sort of "thinking" is the amusing spectacle that ends every Objectivist conference: the after-dinner dance. The DJ invariably starts with traditional ballroom music (fox trot, waltz, etc.), then slowly migrates through swing toward disco and then to more modern dance music, up to and including hip-hop. As soon as the first non-ballroom track plays, the older Objectivists start leaving in droves, properly offended by the "degenerate" music. At the first post-disco song, the oldest Objectivists remaining head for the exits, as it's just not music anymore. The young-adult Objectivists happily stay until midnight, gyrating like savages to the jungle beats.

Not to mention that Rockstar Karaoke has become a popular annual event at OCON. (Yes, really.)

It's amusing to imagine what Rand would say about this.

Rey said...

In honor of this post, and because I get a 4-day weekend for American Independence Day, here's some Thursday night whim worshipping:

You any of you experience symptoms of sensory deprivation get your hearing checked immediately.

gregnyquist said...

It's actually quite common for Objectivists to rationalize away their disagreements with Rand, especially when it comes to music.

I think the issue more has to do with the specificity of the Randian injunction. Most Objectivism, including its morality, is rather vague. Be "rational," follow "reason," think highly of Ayn Rand, follow these vague, "contextual" moral principles such as honesty, integrity, productivity, etc. Other than avoiding criticizing of Ayn Rand and Objectivism (and misrepresenting it in public), you really haven't committed yourself to specific line of conduct. Because of the contextuality of Objectivist ethic principles, one can rationalize just about any type of behavior as being consistent with Objectivism. I knew several Objectivists, one of whom use to hang out with Peikoff, who smoked pot. What behavior cannot be justified, if moral absolutes are merely contextual? You don't want to be productive? That's fine. Productivity is merely a "contextual" value; it doesn't apply to those who are "going Galt." You want to receive money from the state? That's fine. You didn't support the welfare state; and anyway, you're merely getting back what was stolen from producers like you.

Art and entertainment is one of those areas where Rand couldn't help but make at least some judgments about specific works and genres and about specific artists; judgments, moreover, which, because of her theory of aesthetics, imply that people who like certain types of art are psychologically disturbed or irrational. Here conflict with Rand becomes inevitable, and for most Objectivists, whenever there inclinations clash with Rand, they (like so many others) side with their inclinations.

There are a few other areas outside of art where Rand has made or suggested a specific line of conduct. For example, she pleaded with people to vote for Nixon in '72. But most Objectivists, if they were going to vote at all, were already going to vote for Nixon. When years later Peikoff insisted that everyone who understood Objectivism should vote for the Democrats, how many of the faithful followed him in that? Again, specific requests are not given the same status as vague principles that can be twisted to wherever one pleases.

J. Goard said...

I'd just like to add my opinion, as someone paying perhaps more attention than most to great lyrics and lyricists, that rock/pop/hiphop (and older forms of "popular music") seems to be doing a lot to keep formal poetics alive and well, in an age when academic poetry has gone off the rails.

Anonymous said...

I did actually ask a UK objectivist if you can like the music of Billy Bragg (UK version of Woody Guthrie) and still be an objectivist. The answer I got was yes. So I don't think they are all that strict when it comes to aesthetics. I suppose it comes down to what the vogue was when you musically 'came of age'. I would not have a problem with a, ahem, comrade of mine enjoying Rush...if he grew up in the prog rock era!

Steven Johnston