Postmodernism in Philosophy and Music

“Postmodernism,” as a term, is historically and morphologically bound to Modernism. It is customary to introduce it as a heterogenous “movement” evoking “a number of related cultural tendencies, a constellation of values, [and] a repertoire of procedures and attitudes,” 1 which arose in reaction to and out of modernism—more specifically, in reaction to the operating “leftover” Enlightenment projects concerned with “truth” present in twentieth-century modernism. On a morphological aspect, Jurgen Habermas qualifies “modern” as a term that “appeared and reappeared exactly during those periods in Europe when the consciousness of a new epoch formed itself through a renewed relationship to the ancients – whenever, moreover, antiquity was considered a model to be recovered through some kind of imitation.” 2 Therefore, defined in its broadest way, modernism borrows a term that has been freely adopted throughout history, which furthermore, simply characterizes the present and contemporary as opposed to the past and antiquity. Under this light, it makes little sense to speak of post-modernism as post-present or post-contemporary, thus barring one from simple etymological definitions.

When following a historical investigation of concepts that have influenced postmodernism, one mainly deals with the past in the form of its re-description. Yet, it would be a mischaracterization to understand it as ahistorical; quite the contrary, dominant postmodern themes like fragmentation and multiplicity were latent currents fixed in writings even before Romanticism. Furthermore, reading prominent postmodern philosophers like Jacques Derrida, one gets the sense that a key concern is, precisely, the past and its infinite re-reading(s). Tracing postmodern tendencies back in time, one could arrive at Friedrich Nietzsche, who persuasively attacked nineteenth-century European uniformity, thus supplying a dominant contemporary philosophical precedent for postmodernism. It is in Nietzsche that postmodern theories (e.g. Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard) typically find an ally who equally “emphasizes the deep chaos of modern life and its intractability before rational thought.” 3 Nevertheless, Nietzsche’s philosophy is not linear and self-consistent, since in the particulars, Nietzsche cultivates various ambiguities and contradictions. His influence on postmodern theories, at least in my view, is less that of a “traditional” philosopher propounding a unified theory, than that of a poet, writing intense, emotionally charged “aphoristic” concepts.

Similarly, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger — to name but a few core philosophers considered precursors to postmodernism — complicate matters even further. Each philosopher, operating unknowably in the radius of postmodern debates-to-come, fractalizes the idea of constructing a unified (whole) theory of postmodernism. Therefore, it should be no surprise that arriving at a definition of postmodernism is difficult, precisely because on one hand, the term’s etymology is malleable, and on the other, it offers fragmentary historical precedents that are difficult to coalesce into a coherent definition.

A more fertile (practical, yet equally fragmentary) approach in defining postmodernism entails displaying its contrasting relationship to twentieth-century modernism, while bypassing the problematic historical excavations. This method usually results in juxtaposing schematic differences between prominent twentieth-century works and concepts. Literary theorist Ihab Hassan conveniently schematizes some of the differences in Table 1, which “draws on ideas in many fields – rhetoric, linguistics, literary theory, philosophy, anthropology, psychoanalysis, political science, even theology – and draws on many authors European and American – aligned with diverse movements, groups and views.” 4

 

ModernismPostmodernism
Romanticism/SymbolismPataphysics/Dadaism
Form (conjunctive, closed)Antiform (disjunctive, open)
PurposePlay
DesignChance
HierarchyAnarchy
Mastery/LogosExhaustion/Silence
Art Object/Finished WorkProcess/Performance/Happening
DistanceParticipation
Creation/TotalizationDecreation/Deconstruction
SynthesisAntithesis
PresenceAbsence
CenteringDispersal
Genre/BoundaryText/Intertext
SemanticsRhetoric
ParadigmSyntagm
HypotaxisParataxis
MetaphorMetonymy
SelectionCombination
Root/DepthRhizome/Surface
Interpretation/ReadingAgainst Interpretation/Misreading
SignifiedSignifier
Lisible (Readerly)Scriptible (Writerly)
Narrative/Grande HistoireAnti-narrative/Petite Histoire
Master CodeIdiolect
SymptomDesire
TypeMutant
Genital/PhallicPolymorphous/Androgynous
ParanoiaSchizophrenia
Origin/CauseDifference-Differance/Trace
God the FatherThe Holy Ghost
MetaphysicsIrony
DeterminancyIndeterminancy
TranscendenceImmanence

 

Table 1. Hassan’s schematic differences between modernism and postmodernism. 5

 

Hassan further qualifies the table by adding that the “dichotomies this table represents remain insecure, equivocal. For differences shift, defer, even collapse; concepts in any one vertical column are not all equivalent; and inversions and exceptions, in both modernism and postmodernism, abound.” 6 Hassan cautions that although postmodernism exists as a designation, it should not be taken wholesale as if it represented a homogenous movement. Therefore, for all practical purposes, a definition cannot be found, since at best, one can only discern fluid and insecure dichotomies, but never “truth” statements. The same definitional problems plague music that has been influenced by postmodern thought. In fact, music may fare even worse, since it is not clear the degree to which a linguistic comparison is justified. 7

The problem of definition in music is itself nothing new; it harks back to problematic and dubious associations of musical periods with their historical counterparts in other areas. Impressionism in painting and Impressionism in music, to take a popular example, are concepts that converge in order to help introduce composers like Debussy in introductory music courses. However, if minimal scrutiny is exerted, one must dismiss the comparison as useless and misguided, as did Debussy himself. 8 Writers addressing postmodernism in music, incapable of reaching a satisfactory unified definition, have also been resorting to schematic comparisons.

To my knowledge, the most thorough book on postmodernism in music was written by theorist-composer Jonathan D. Kramer, and published only recently, posthumously under the title Postmodern Music, Postmodern Listening. The first sentence of the book immediately rings the familiar bells of undecidability:

“Postmodernism is a maddeningly imprecise musical concept. Does the term refer to a period or an aesthetic, a listening attitude or a compositional practice? […] And, simply, what is musical postmodernism? […] Many composers I know use “postmodernism” in the corrupted sense of the press, in apparent ignorance of the thinking of critical theorists such as Eco or Lyotard. Yet the ideas of such writers are relevant to today’s postmodern music. A more subtle and nuanced understanding of postmodernism emerges once we consider it not as a historical period but as an attitude.” 9

Just like Hassan, Kramer (understandably) proceeds to enumerate postmodern musical traits in the hopes of contrasting them from other types of works. Kramer considers postmodernism to be an attitude and not a historical period; this view would consider Beethoven, for example, as a postmodernist given that it is the listener’s ethos that grants Beethoven’s work its authority and not the other way around. Since Kramer is mainly interested in discerning a postmodern attitude of listening, his enumerated traits occupy an ambiguous position that is more dependent on the listening subject, and less dependent on a priori assumption of traits.

 

Musical Postmodernism
1.is not simply a repudiation of modernism or its continuation, but has aspects of both
2.Is, on some level and in some way, ironic
3.Does not respect boundaries between sonorities and procedures of the past and of the present
4.Seeks to break down barriers between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” styles
5.Shows disdain for the often unquestioned value of structural unity
6.Refuses to accept the distinction between elitist and populist values
7.Avoids totalizing forms (e.g., does not allow an entire piece to be tonal or serial or cast in a prescribed formal mold)
8.Includes quotations of or references to music of many traditions and cultures
9.Embraces contradictions
10.Distrusts binary oppositions
11.Includes fragmentations and discontinuities
12.Encompasses pluralism and eclecticism
13.Presents multiple meanings and multiple temporalities
14.Locates meaning and even structure in listeners, more than in scores, performances, or composers

 

Table 2. Kramer’s list enumerating postmodern traits in music. 10

 

This same list was first included on the 1996 issue of Indiana Theory Review. 11 However, twenty years later, Kramer more appropriately comments on the list with a cautionary addendum. Here, one should notice the similarity with Hassan’s approach:

“[…] I would encourage my readers to consider the nature of these traits, the way they overlap and refuse to form neat categories, rather than to be put off by the unpostmodern appearance of a list. […] These traits try to circumscribe the postmodern attitude, which is manifest in a variety of ways and to a variety of degrees, in a large amount of music produced today (and yesterday); but the traits cannot really define specific pieces as postmodern or not, or even as postmodern to a particular degree. […] Postmodernism resides in cultural values and in people—listeners—but not in pieces of music.” 12

Kramer’s list represents the kernel of his observations regarding postmodern music, consequently, he spends the rest of the book elucidating it. Of particular interest is Kramer’s observation that postmodern music could be conceived as a delayed counterpart to the European visual surrealism of the 1920s. Substituting one term for the other is problematic, but allows borrowing some interpretative tools that have been in circulation since the early twentieth century.

“Surrealist visual artists justified their work with reference to the unconscious and to dreams. While postmodern composers—whose presentational music may be more engaged with its surfaces than with its deep interior—do not often invoke Freudian analogies when discussing their compositions, a lot of postmodern music is decidedly free-associational. In addition, postmodern music rich in quotations can have a dream-like temporal quality, in which fragments of prior listening experiences float by in strange ways.” 13

This connection is plausible, in the sense that it does not fundamentally disagree with some of the principal themes (e.g. fragmentation) of postmodernism. Nevertheless, a core theoretical difference exists: the structure of the unconscious in postmodern discourse is primarily influenced by Lacan’s reading of Freud, who binds the unconscious to the symbolic order. In his Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Dylan Evans clarifies that according to Lacan, the symbolic order is to be equated with language only insofar as the signifier-dimension of language is taken into account to the exclusion of the signified-dimension of language:

“Since the most basic form of exchange is communication itself (the exchange of words, the gift of speech […]), and since the concepts of LAW and of STRUCTURE are unthinkable without LANGUAGE, the symbolic is essentially a linguistic dimension. […] However, Lacan does not simply equate the symbolic order with language. […] The symbolic dimension of language is that of the SIGNIFIER; a dimension in which elements have no positive existence but which are constituted purely by virtue of their mutual differences.” 14

Surrealist artists, in contrast, interpreted Freud’s theories in a more “expressionistic” manner, i.e. the signified-dimension of language. Meaning, therefore, was presumed to be recoverable. Acknowledging the ultimate mystery of the unconscious, the artist was to become a surrogate to the automatic structures of the unconscious. Andre Breton’s first “Manifesto of Surrealism” from 1924 attempts a straightforward definition along these same lines:

“I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak. [..] Those who might dispute our right to employ the term SURREALISM in the very special sense that we understand it are being extremely dishonest […] Therefore, I am defining it once and for all: SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” 15

In music, to my knowledge, the most powerful defense of surrealism is written by none other than Arnold Schoenberg, who is not associated with surrealism at all, but with expressionism (which in my view is simply another “flavor” of Freudian interpretation). In two letters sent to Feruccio Busoni in August 1909, five months after the completion of the last dated manuscript from The Book of Hanging Gardens in February of 1909, Schoenberg comes shockingly close to writing a forceful music Surrealism manifesto:

 

“I am writing in such detail because I want to declare my intentions […]I strive for: complete liberation of all forms
from all symbols
of cohesion and
of logic.
Thus:
away with ‘motivic working out’.
Away with harmony as
cement or bricks of a building.
Harmony is expression
and nothing else.
Then:
Away with Pathos!
Away with protracted ten-ton scores, erected or constructed, towers, rocks and other massive claptrap.
My music must be
brief.
Concise! In two notes, not built but ‘expressed’!! […]And this variegation, this multifariousness, this illogicality which our senses demonstrate, the illogicality presented by their interactions, set forth by some mounting rush of blood, by some reaction of the sense or the nerves, this I should like to have in my music. It should be an expression of feeling, as our feelings, which bring us in contact with our subconscious, really are, and no false child of feelings and ‘conscious logic.’ […]My only intention is
to have no intentions!
No formal, architectural or other artistic intentions […], no aesthetic intentions – none of any kind; at most this:
to place nothing inhibiting in the stream of my unconscious sensations. But to allow anything to infiltrate which may be invoked either by intelligence or consciousness.” 16

 

Had Schoenberg followed through the consequences of his statement, I believe it would have resulted in a revolution easily on par with his twelve-tone method. However, it is certain that Schoenberg merely wished to attain this state of automatic surrealist composing. Pitch-class analysis of Schoenberg’s early atonal works reveals a sound musical logic concerned with building structural coherence via set repetitions related by transposition. In contrast to Schoenberg’s stated surrealist goals, Figure 1 attempts to clarify Schoenberg’s harmonic logic by focusing only on the piano’s harmonic background. ­

Figure 1. Set-Class analysis and transpositional operations in the piano part of Schoenberg’s Op.15, no.1. 17

 

In the first piece from The Book of Hanging Gardens 18 there is an underlying harmonic-teleological thread that is based on the principle of comprehensibility via repetitions and returns. Therefore, even when motivic cohesion is hard to detect, Figure 1 underpins a ubiquitous Schoenbergian pre-twelve-tone trait of building structural coherence through long-range harmonic repetition. However, this not-so-illogical coherence puts his music at odds with his written intentions—and the Freudian current that feeds his music. Schoenberg’s Freudian psychoanalytic proclivity is the same one that fed Salvador Dalí and other Surrealists in the early twentieth century. Like Schoenberg’s expressionism, a Surrealist interpretation of Freud is grounded in the notion of “expressing” unknowable yet absolute structures. Moreover, both Breton’s and Schoenberg’s texts highlight the notion that something can be expressed directly, as if a straight, unmediated line between a symbol (signifier), e.g. a sound, and a listening subject existed. Even if the methods and results between postmodern and 1920s Surrealist (and Expressionist) works seem to converge, this distinction elaborates on the postmodern positions of rejecting noncontingent communication and direct expression.

In another attempt at defining postmodernism in music, Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf also adopts a schematic approach. Mahnkopf describes the main features of postmodernism in music in his 2011 article “Musical Modernity from Classical Modernity up to the Second Modernity—Provisional Considerations.” (Table 3)

 

Postmodern CharacteristicsPostmodernism Types
1.The postmodern musical work is hedonistic; it displays an enjoyment of its own combinatorial imagination with a certain frivolous air unique to music; its reception occurs in the mode of pleasure (e.g., Kagel, Match).a.Poly-stylistic postmodernity: here the dominant aspect is pluralism, and thus the availability of different historical periods.
2.The postmodern musical work is narrative; it presents a musical narrative, not a composition of sounds or structures (e.g., Rihm, Musik für drei Streicher).b.Ironic postmodernity: the main intention is that of travesty, parody, irony and excess
3.The postmodern musical work is formally heteronomous, i.e., the difficult problem of form is solved, this being achieved through a strong connection to previously existing and functioning forms (e.g., Ligeti, Passacaglia ungherese).c.Hybrid postmodernity: crossover effects are intended, primarily with forms of music outside of European art music (e.g., pop music or “world music”)
4.The postmodern musical work refers outside of itself; its material is taken from other music (e.g., Schnittke, Third String Quartet).d.“Naïve” postmodernity: this does not react to the developments of modernity or the avant-garde because it does not, or does not want to, recognize them. Examples are neo-traditionalism and some minimalism
5.The postmodern musical work is ironic, and thus pushes artistic truth towards a distortion of the truth and shows that what is presented is not intended in the way it is presented (e.g., Thomas Adès, Brahms).e.“Bad” postmodernity: this would be an expression of formlessness, a proximity to trash, amateurism, and charlatanry
  f.Epigonal postmodernity: this would be a form of “New Music light”– not primarily poly-stylistic or ironic, but drawing on material from an earlier generation, especially atonal music (in contrast to the postmodern preference for tonal music in the 1970s)

 

Table 3. Mahnkopf’s schematization listing characteristics and traits in postmodern music. 19

 

According to Mahnkopf, the more of these basic characteristics the work has, the more “one can speak of an integral postmodern work.” 20 However, types d. and e. show that unlike Hassan and Kramer, Mahnkopf’s schematization introduces personal value judgments that critique postmodernism. The continuation of his paper, in fact, is precisely that—the positioning of composers writing music he coins as representing a “second modernity” against postmodern attitudes and characteristics. Mahnkopf acknowledges that the attitude towards “truth” is a crucial difference, since Second Modernity is “committed to the guiding principle of truth.” 21 His paper quickly devolves into painting contemporary life with broad (truly “provisional”) strokes. Stark dualisms also proliferate, as in the instance where he declares that today’s postmodern culture “’plays the game of irony with pleasure’ and is geared towards ‘entertainment,’” whereas “the art of second modernity, stands in opposition to this in its emphasis on seriousness and artistic truth.” 22 The real crowning accomplishment, however, is Mahnkopf’s assertion that postmodernism’s inclusion of foreign material (e.g. quotations) can “at best only be combined ironically or playfully,” which moreover, “has grave consequences for the construction of the work[:] It remains meta-music, a piece of art rather than a genuine artwork.” 23

I am not sure if Mahnkopf has changed his views on any of these declarations, but on the whole I find them unconvincing considering their lack of nuance and propensity towards using brash dualistic value judgments. I also find it easy to criticize his claims of “genuine and serious” artworks since he leaves much of the trajectory of those conclusions unexplained. American philosopher Richard Rorty presents an immediate and “serious” counter-punch to the multitude of truth declarations inhabiting Mahnkopf’s essay:

“Derrida thinks of Heidegger’s attempt to express the ineffable as merely the latest and most frantic form of a vain struggle to break out of language by finding words which take their meaning directly from the world, from non-language. This struggle has been going on since the Greeks, but it is doomed because language is, as Saussure says, nothing but differences. That is, words have meaning only because of contrast-effects with other words. ‘Red’ means what it does only by contrast with ‘blue’, ‘green’, etc. ‘Being’ also means nothing except by contrast, not only with ‘beings’ but with ‘Nature’, ‘God’, ‘Humanity’, and indeed every other word in the language. No word can acquire meaning in the way in which philosophers from Aristotle to Bertrand Russell have hoped it might — by being the unmediated expression of something non-linguistic (e.g., an emotion, a sense-datum, a physical object, an idea, a Platonic Form).” 24

This interpretation of Derrida’s take on Martin Heidegger is applicable in countering Mahnkopf’s truth guiding principles on Second Modernity. Mahnkopf contends that the “the work is no more and no less than a form-fulfilling, autonomous application of material in musical time according to work-specific conceptions.” 25 I view Rorty’s dispute with metaphysics as a form of questioning the achievement of an autonomous and unmediated expression that somehow magically does not refer outside the work. Since the materials inside and outside the work are nothing but signifiers in a signifying chain, they are uncontrollable and fungible, regardless of a composer claiming otherwise.

I have tried above to highlight the difficulties in defining postmodernism as a result of ambiguities and fragmentations within an etymological and historical domain. Instead of clear demarcations, I have further shown that the most common method of writing about postmodernism is by eschewing clear definitions, instead favoring comparative schematic differentiations as in Hassan’s Table 1. Since a similar method has been followed in music, therefore, I have cited Kramer’s work as representative of the problems in defining postmodernism in music. Kramer schematization, congruent with Hassan’s schematization, however, has allowed me to draw a parallel between Surrealism (in art and music) and postmodernism. I have further shown that despite the aims and results being similar, their core difference lies in postmodernism’s Lacanian interpretations of Freud, which cast doubts on absolute/fixed unconscious structures (truth). Thus, the interpretations allocate the subconscious in the continuously fleeting and substituting qualities of the signifier; “There is, in other words, no transcendental signified, no way that language could ‘tell the truth about truth.” 26 Further, I have shown that Mahnkopf, being aware of this main truth distinction between modernism and postmodernism, has similarly schematized postmodernism’s characteristics and types with the distinct aim of critiquing it. In the following section, through a personal approach generally informed by American philosopher Richard Rorty, I will delineate more concretely the meaning of truth in one’s work as a composer.27

Rorty frames the philosophical debates around truth as the “difference of philosophical opinion between those who do and those who do not believe that truth consists in accurate representation of the intrinsic nature of reality.” 28 Hence, as a composer, one does not believe there exists a symbolic representation of the intrinsic nature of reality (i.e. texts can refer only to other texts), do choices even matter? In the essay “Habermas, Derrida, and Philosophy,” 29 Rorty replies to Jurgen Habermas’ objections that Derrida and other like-minded thinkers only promote a type of “subjective philosophy.” Although not discussed in Rorty’s essay, critics of postmodernism have further claimed that the obscurantist language of continental philosophy is a symptom of “‘the bullshitter’ [who] is prepared to speak and write in the requisite jargon, without any goal of getting things right.” 30 In Rorty’s estimation, Habermas is

“right in saying that the ironists’ [postmodernist’s] quest for ever deeper irony and ever more ineffable sublimity has little direct public utility. But I do not think this shows that “the paradigm of the philosophy of consciousness is a symptom of exhaustion.’ What he sees as symptom of exhaustion I see as symptoms of vitality. This is because I read people like Heidegger and Nietzsche as good private philosophers, and he reads them as bad public philosophers.”

Rorty makes a crucial distinction between the private and the public. Hence, private ironizing is not meant to be taken as the solution to a public political discourse; moreover, the ironist should not be at fault for the consequences their readers extract from the work. If that were the case, let us burn all of Beethoven’s and Wagner’s works since the Nazis made extensive use of their music for the purpose of fostering their racist ideology. According to Rorty, Habermas “demands that writers like Heidegger and Derrida provide a public justification of their own practice […] He wants to treat them as claiming what he calls ‘universal validity,’ whereas I regard the question of universal validity as irrelevant to their practices.” 31 While a composer may write music that “makes more vivid and concrete our sense of what human life might be like in a democratic utopia – a utopia in which the quest for autonomy is impeded as little as possible by social institutions” 32 —that does not necessarily imply a grand statement about the impossibility of symbolic communication. This misunderstanding must have contributed toward Mahnkopf’s critique of postmodernism. Directly or indirectly, he discards postmodernism as “less serious” because it does not fit into HIS narrative of musical progress. This missed realization is rendered explicit in Rorty’s writings and critique of grand metaphysical narratives or final vocabularies. Even Luciano Berio, who is no stranger to postmodern practices, laments that:

“something is missing deep down in the consciousness of a number of young people which can, on the other hand, be found in anyone with a sense of history […] There ought to be acknowledgment of the elementary fact that musical languages also have to be transmitted, and a utopian vision of a common language that will allow music and musicians to speak and to be universally spoken. Without this covertly implied and perhaps unrealizable ideal, music cannot move, loses one of its dialectical reasons for existing and drifts from one mannerism to the next. It’s useful to search for things that we know we can’t find…” 33

Although Berio is closer to someone like Borges or Calvino in acknowledging a utopic project in the search for a common language, his lamenting seems to signal a hopeless nostalgia.  Rorty’s reply to Berio would clarify that “the generic trait of ironists is that they do not hope to have their doubts about their final vocabularies settled by something larger than themselves. This means that their criterion of private perfection, is autonomy rather than affiliation to a power other than themselves.” 34 Finally, I will extensively cite Rorty’s untangling of the philosophical knot which on one hand is in need of a complete epistemology, yet on the other recognizes the impossibility of attaining it outside the text.

“A metaphysician like Sartre may describe the ironist’s pursuit of perfection as a “futile passion,” but an ironist like Proust or Nietzsche will think that this phrase begs the crucial question. The topic of futility would arise only if one were trying to surmount time, chance, and self-description by discovering something more powerful than any of these. For Proust and Nietzsche, however, there is nothing more powerful or important than self-redescription. They are not trying to surmount time and chance, but to use them. They are quite aware that what counts as resolution, perfection, and autonomy will always be a function of when one happens to die or to go mad. But this relativity does not entail futility. For there is no big secret which the ironist hopes to discover, and which he might die or decay before discovering. There are only little mortal things to be rearranged by being redescribed.” 35

The fluidity of Hassan’s terms from Table 1 (e.g. metonymy, signifier, rhizome/surface, combination, misreading) escape their existential dimensions in Rorty’s explication of private ironizing. Contrary to naïve generalizing commentators, the arbitrary juxtaposing of kitschy materials, as observed in one vein of postmodernism, does not define all of postmodernism’s scope. Adopting Rorty’s language we can easily understand that juxtaposing popular material is but one example of self-redescription among an infinitude of trajectories; We do not have to get transfixed in some absolutist vocabulary that is proclaimed to be internally consistent either. Self-redescription is as much a feature of the author and work as that of the reader.