Attention! (A Dirge)

A bit of kibble that grew too big for its britches …


In Thinking About Music (Massachusetts UP, 1983), Lewis Rowell offers the following about the aesthetic experience: “The single most vital precondition for the aesthetic experience is a special type of attitude, a state in which one is most receptive to intense artistic experience, characterized by critical attention. This attitude,” Rowell continues, “is likely to be present in but a small fraction of our encounters with art objects—other intentions, interests, or attitudes get in our way” (6). He cites an apparently well-known passage from Aesthetics and History, in which Bernard Berenson describes said experience as “the moment […] when the spectator is at one with the work of art he is looking at […]. When he recovers workaday consciousness it is as if he had been initiated into illuminating, exalting, formative mysteries. In short, the aesthetic moment is a moment of mystic vision” (qtd. in Rowell 5). Rowell comments that “many readers may feel they have been cheated because they have not experienced the heights of exaltation described,” yet he notes that “everyone has recognized—perhaps to a lesser degree—the sensation of being caught up by a painting, musical composition, or play, and of being transformed by that experience” (5).

Aesthetics and History was first published in 1948, and the Berenson passage is certainly redolent of its time. Indeed, my first thought was of the moment in Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House, 2011) when the narrator witnesses a patron bursting into tears in front of a painting in the Prado, and then spends a fair chunk of the novel engaged in often hilarious hand-wringing about why he has not been visited by such a “transcendent experience of art.”

Although Rowell concedes that the mystical encounter Berenson describes is rare, he places the blame for this squarely on the shoulders of the listener: “intentions, interests, or attitudes” that “get in our way”; a lack of “receptiveness”; an inability to bring to the work the proper “critical attention.” Like Lerner’s narrator—and perhaps like the deeply religious person who either awaits the experience of grace, or from whom the deity suddenly and unexpectedly withdraws—we are apt to feel the fault is in ourselves. We must have done something to offend; we have “hardened our hearts.” Aesthetic receptiveness requires a similar posture of humility and submission.*

Rowell clearly situates aesthetic experience along a continuum, with transcendent, mystical connection at one end, and something like passive absorption at the other. Music scholar Anahid Kassabian makes a similar point when she notes that attention (Rowell’s “single most vital precondition”) includes “a wide spectrum of activities that range between two impossible extremes—fully attentive and fully inattentive,” and that “many kinds of listening take place over a wide range of degrees or kinds of consciousness and attention” (Ubiquitous Listening, California UP, 2013, ps. xxi-xxii). The passive end of the listening spectrum was perhaps best described by Aaron Copland in What to Listen for in Music as the “sensuous plane” of musical experience; as for the music itself, prime examples include Erik Satie’s “furniture music,” Brian Eno, and, of course, Muzak.

As Kassabian and others have persuasively argued, much of our listening today tends toward the sensuous end of the spectrum, as music has become a continuous, even inescapable part of our conditioning environment. Indeed, as Simon Frith noted a quarter century ago, silence, not music, had become “the mark of a special moment”: “Music can no longer be defined against the everyday as something unusual: music is now the everyday” (Performing Rites, Harvard UP, 1996, p. 237). Today, in a society of what Kassabian calls “ubiquitous music,” something like the “transcendent experience of art” must sound like Gulliver’s islands: objects of satire, too extravagantly ridiculous to be believed. (The catch, I think, is that Lerner’s send-up is only really funny if some vestigial belief in “the transcendent experience of art” persists.)

Kassabian’s (and others’) work suggests that it might be time to absolve the listener who has not enjoyed the transcendent experience of art of their guilt, and situate our aesthetic experiences more firmly within the possibilities of our historical moment. If Berenson (and possibly even Rowell) feels dated, and Lerner’s weeping patron seems risible, it probably has a lot to do with how we’ve been prepared (or not) to engage (or not) with art. In an age of casual and ubiquitous consumption—and consumption is the term we should prefer—our encounters with art are necessarily attenuated, occurring as they do in configurations that militate against “critical attention”; our “intentions, interests, and attitudes” are largely inculcated by social institutions, which at best underprepare us for aesthetic engagement, and at worst actively undermine its possibility.

Kassabian makes Daniel Barenboim her foil—and by extension, the classical music community he was addressing in his 2006 Reith Lectures. “What they are saying to the public,” Barenboim told his audience, “is that you don’t have to concentrate, you don’t have to listen, you don’t have to know anything about it, just come and you will find some association, and we will show you so many things that have nothing to do with the music and this way you will go into the music. And I ask you, ladies and gentlemen, is this the answer to the so-called crisis in classical music?” (qtd. in Kassabian xix). Kassabian counters that “declarations such as these negate in one fell swoop most of the listening most of us engage in every day” (xix).

The Barenboim snippet is frustratingly de-contextualized (to quote Primus: Who is “they”?). It’s also irrelevant, and as such it feels like a cheap shot. As a conductor and pianist, why wouldn’t Barenboim be concerned about a public whose attention has been so transformed that the art he has spent his life studying, performing, and proselytizing for can no longer be appreciated on its own terms? Barenboim is not concerned with “most of the listening most of us engage in every day”; he’s concerned with the listening some of us engage in some of the time—fewer and fewer of us, less and less frequently—mostly in the concert hall, the space history has bequeathed to us for listening to Barenboim’s kind music (it serves pretty well for a fair amount of other music as well), and which appears to my imagination more and more like a Mayan ruin. Within a few years, I expect I’ll have to hack my way through a thicket to reach the ivy-enshrouded doors of Carnegie Hall.

There’s no question that Kassabian and other scholars of sound are describing “most of the listening most of us do.” And without question, that listening is a fascinating subject of study. At issue, however, is what value we assign to this majority of listening. And here is where I break with Kassabian, and break quite strongly. It’s more than a debate between reactionary idealism and realism, as Kassabian frames her argument with Barenboim; for Kassabian’s text is no less idealizing than Barenboim’s is nostalgic for the cultural hegemony of classical music.

In Ubiquitous Listening, Kassabian explores the way music has moved from object of primary attention to background. We engage with it as “partially attentive listen[ers]” (xxiv), processing it at the level of affect, music felt more than heard. As “partially attentive” indicates, Kassabian rebuts the notion that such listening is purely passive (i.e., just “hearing”), and argues that the varying states or degrees of attention in which we engage need to be given them their scholarly due. Citing Katherine Hayles’s work on pedagogy and attention, she argues that “the deep, focused, long attention traditionally associated with the humanities is being replaced with a fragmented and multiple form of attention” (xix). That “long” or “structural” attention carries classist and partriarchal baggage: music is understood in linear, narrative terms, with the central theme as “masculine protagonist” (xxiii). If the “expert listening” cultivated by the academy produced the Western canon, then perhaps these new modes of listening, simultaneous and secondary (18), point the way toward new criteria for evaluating music—a new canon. Such appreciation would be more congruent with our contemporary reality, which has become, Kassabian asserts, distinctly nonlinear, non-narrative.

One quick step back before I shuffle forward again: Writing on the eve of an internet that would exponentialize music’s availability, Simon Frith was already noting that we “hear music as a fragmented and unstable object” (Performing Rites, p. 242; Frith’s emphases). “As we have taken power over music on records,” he writes, “as they have become ubiquitous […], so the musical work has ceased to command respectful, structural, attention. All music is more often heard now in fragments than completely.” Together with the advent of recording and broadcasting technology, Frith connects fragmentation to industrialization and urbanization, drawing on a lovely image from Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter of snippets of music heard during a parade. Like Kassabian, Frith connects this new way of experiencing music to “all our experiences of time,” which are “are now fragmented and multilinear”; as such, “fragmented music is also realistic music […]; it represents experience grasped in moments” (243).

Kassabian, then, is building out from Frith’s and other scholars’ passing observations in the ‘80s and ‘90s, to develop a fuller argument for an emerging form of listening and of subjectivity, which she labels distributed subjectivity. Listeners, she cautions, should neither be reduced to the social networks they inhabit nor privileged as individuals; she prefers the term “nodes” to describe at once our positioning inside the field of affective responses that shape us and our three-dimensional sense of selfhood. And yet, this three-dimensional self seems at best vestigial—a sort of Enlightenment afterglow, a fiction for those who cannot yet accept a two-dimensional reality. “Individual subjectivity,” she writes, “continues to appear to us to function”; and elsewhere, “The feeling, the apprehension, of individual subjectivity should not be belittled” (xxiv; my emphases). I’m not sure why Kassabian is so loath to rip off the Bandaid; if the individual is the Enlightenment Santa Claus, why not just tell the children and be done with it? Another passage suggests one possible answer: “We are nodes in a massive, widespread field of distribution, it is true, but nonetheless nodes with, potentially, an agglomeration of experiences and accretions of affect that are uncommon, or perhaps even unique” (xxiv). That hedge, “perhaps,” seems to me the beam on which her argument balances. I would argue there is no “perhaps” here; it’s only the ideology of the moment, the ascendant corporate-technocratic-capitalist hegemony and the academic theorizing it has spawned, that makes us feel or appear other than unique. “Agglomeration” and “accretion” suggest a sort of random pile-up of affect and memory—a weirdly Protestant vision for a theory that would dismantle the individual—as though we were piggy banks into which the coins of experience drop, and then sit all in a jumble, rather than an active force combining, rearranging, and ordering these traces of affect and memory. Even if my field-positioning were identical to another’s—an impossibility—the resulting “I” would be radically different. If every node is indeed unique, and uniquely active, how can a theory of distributed anything do justice to the depth of our being, including our aesthetic experiences?

I’m not denying we’re creatures of culture, our identities built up over time by responses to stimuli. I’m simply arguing that the entity doing the “agglomerating” has a lot more agency (and idiosyncracy) than is generally allowed, and that the end-product, while always to a degree provisional, mortal, time-bound creatures that we are, is pretty damn solid—certainly more than a feeling, as Boston sings with nauseating ubiquity on the radio. It has inertia. Or, if we prefer to think of it as fluid—fluidity seems to be the academic flavor of the month—that fluid is a lot more viscous than much contemporary theory would have us believe.† And if I’m getting on my high horse, and I stay there for the rest of this post, it’s because I think we pay a steep social price for underestimating the level of viscocity, the reality of inertia. Theories of subjectivity fragmented, distributed, or otherwise destabilized seem to me tailored to those elements of contemporary reality that most diminish us: our possibility for deep attention, for rational action, and for understanding of ourselves and the world as processes in time. With time so mangled and our sense of history so impaired, it’s no wonder the forces shaping what are after all fields of power disappear from the radar, and with that the benefit accrued to corporations from what has come to be called, without apparent irony, the attention economy. Thus, while Kassabian sketches the history of ambient music, she is strangely reluctant to interrogate the broader economic and social forces that have shaped its social function—to ask, with The Talking Heads, “Well, how did [we] get here?” (Or, for that matter: Is “here” good? And if not, how do we resist, reverse, dismantle what is most harmful?) Ubiquitous music may appear “sourceless” (10), but Kassabian surely knows it’s anything but.

This reluctance comes through with distressing clarity in her treatment of Muzak. Muzak’s mission has always been environmental conditioning, and Kassabian clearly sees the mood-altering effects of the musical wallpaper we encounter throughout our daily lives—music as accompaniment, anchor, something to help us focus our attention elsewhere—as the broader social inheritance of that company’s vision. Kassabian quotes her babysitter, for whom music “fills the house, makes the emptiness less frightening,”—and glosses this with Muzak adspeak: “Muzak fills the deadly silence” (9). As a Muzak spokesperson notes, “If you were pushing a cart through a grocery story and all you hear is wheels creaking and crying babies—it would be like a mausoleum” (qtd. in Kassabian 9).

I know I shouldn’t expect Kassabian to engage in Marxist editorializing, or any editorializing at all—I mean, this is California UP, not Verso. But nowhere does she raise an eyebrow (or both) that a musical commodity invented to make the drudgery of the workday palatable and productive, and to guide us toward complacent consumption, has now become the social norm, and what this might say about our mental and emotional lives. Nowhere does she question why shopping (or anything, really) should be a gravelike experience, or why silence should be “deadly,” a void to be filled, rather than something to be enjoyed, a positive quantity.**

And it only gets more dispiriting from here, as she spends the rest of the chapter waxing exicted about ambient intelligence and pervasive computing. Something was voted “third-best app by the readers of Laptop magazine.” Eno generative music apps “have appeared on many ‘best of’ lists” (14-5). Sensors that respond to our emotional needs (?) and physical distress (12) she finds “appealing” and “full of possibilities.” These apps and gadgets, she concludes, “offer us worlds of possibilities, figuratively and literally, for somewhere between no cost and twelve euros” (17). Reading this, I thought about how much the world already resembles a Cronenberg movie.†† I remembered that scene in Robocop where Murphy (i.e., Robocop) walks through his old house, now for sale, and a virtual realtor appears in every room, flogging all the great appliances with brand names like “Food Concepts.” Great satire, and more relevant by the day. Because all this stuff that enables music to ooze Bloblike from the walls of our ever-more-Jetsony homes and spring from our underwear and iCrap—it already looked looked cheap and tawdry ten years ago, and ten years down the road, all the stuff we’re oohing and aahing about today will look just as cheap and tawdry. Ubiquitous Listening was written at the dawn of the smart phone revolution, and parts already feels as dated as Berenson. Perhaps there’s a lesson here.

The idea that these bits of software with very limited choices—none of which, of course, “bear up to […] long, focused listening” (16)—present opportunities for “creativity” also strikes me as vastly overstated (see below). But then I guess when we get tired of them—a different sort of planned obsolescence—someone else will come up with something else at a similarly reasonable subscription price (or paid for through constantly-bombarding ads to which we helplessly lend our partial attention), which we will once again play with until we’re tired, and so on, through distraction after distraction, cradle to grave. If that’s not the image of a mausoleum, I don’t know what is. I’ll take the creaky shopping cart wheels and crying babies, thanks.

You know what has more staying power? Music. Poetry. Art. It may not last a thousand years, as Petrarch wished, but who among us is Methusaleh? I’m happy if it lasts my three score and ten. Hell, I’m happy if I can get ten years out of it. Some of it does turn to vinegar, sure. But then some of it ages beautifully.

So. Insofar as ubiquitous listening “modulates our attentional capacities, […] tunes our affective relationships to categories of identity, [and] conditions our participation in fields of subjectivity” (Kassabian 18), I offer the following, at once substitute, gloss, and exercise in neo-Luddite curmudgeonry: “ubiquitous listening degrades our capacity to pay attention, impinges on our ability to relate to others and to ourselves, and conditions our participation as worker-consumer drones in fields of exploited labor and ubiquitous consumption.” For if we know ourselves “in and through musical engagement,” in our current reality that happens 99% through the tightly-controlled, ad-sodden musical environments we paddle around in, one corporate fen sluicing us to another, brought to us by Google Amazon Starbucks enter your union-busting company name here. We come to know ourselves according to the mediation of algorithms we will never have access to, in the bulldozed, well-measured image of corporations in whose fields of power we operate, all the better to monetize every aspect of our existence.

Whew! I need to take a deep breath, or a few. Maybe get another coffee … Okay, better. Let me talk briefly about Frith, by which I mean at some length, and then I’ll wrap it up, which will likely take another several paragraphs, before appending a self-indulgent number of endnotes.

While Frith succumbs much less to Kassabian’s boosterism—the brave new world still a bit too far over the horizon a quarter century ago—a passing quote from Jonathan D. Kramer did draw my attention, and, me being Helldriver, my ire. “Technology,” Kramer wrote in The Time of Music (Schirmer, 1988), “has liberated listeners from the completeness of musical form” (qtd. in Frith 243). I’m a little wary about taking on this sentence without its original context, and I’m aware that I may simply be falling into nostalgia for a Lost World of coherence, but … I want to unpack that word “liberation” a little. Let me start with an analogy to literature. I was never persuaded that the “advances” in the novel of the mid-twentieth century, exhilirating as some of them were, represented “liberation” from an “oppresive” linearity or coherence. How did anyone—novelists, critics, the public—ever manage to convince themselves that the carefully-arranged fragments of a “fragmented” or “incoherent” novel were anything but a surrogate act of control, made all the more insidious by the disingenuousness of the paratextual materials that announced it as “revolutionary”? How did readers, who presumably still purchased the novel as a commodity at a book stall, or borrowed it from a library, and then proceeded to give it at least a few moments of their undivided attention, ever imagine that they were not subjecting themselves to the will of the author?***

The performing arts allow artists to involve audiences to a somewhat greater degree in the shape of an unfolding event. But even this occurs within a matrix of (usually paying) patron and artist, in venues that reinforce this structure, according to pre-written rules of engagement. And if possibilities for audiences at performances to be “co-creators”—that fetish term of active-audience theorists—is limited, how much moreso when the art object in question is pre-fabricated: a painting, book, film, or record. Again, we have some limited ability to modify the manner and context of our engagement with these works … but nothing close to what would earn us such a vaunted title (unless, that is, we incorporate said works in artworks of our own, i.e., become artists in our own right; and we should all be encouraged to do so). (I treat this question at someone greater length in my review of Jazzing; see “Vasudeva on the Hudson,” 11.11.18.)

This discomfort on the part of active-audience theorists seems to stem from the inherently anti-democratic nature of art. Art asks, often quite nicely, for our submission, what Rowell termed our receptivity and attention. Maybe our ideal relationship to art objects can be most usefully understood as an act of consent: I, reader, listener, viewer, consent to give myself, temporarily but wholly, or at least to the greatest extent possible, to the art object I have chosen to engage with. I do so because I recognize the intellectual and emotional sustenance to be gained from making the time to immerse myself in the form and structure another thinking, feeling being has sought to impose upon the raw materials of existence. Doing so strikes me as much more democratic than unwittingly wandering into fields (public and private) where I am hailed unconsciously by whatever element of the power structure’s gravity I happen to be nearest to, for whatever end they deem best, which generally involves driving me toward the lowest level of mental and emotional activity possible without actually expiring, the more easily to shape me as a consumer- and worker-drone. If I’m going to be “liberated” from anything, let it be that. (N.B.: It could be argued that audiences today make a similar choice to pay artworks partial, intermittent, or near-absent attention; that some art merits it; and that some—indeed more and more—has been deliberately created with such listening practices in mind. My argument is at once social (the choice has been made for us) and value-driven (what is being lost by this “choice” of listening and the art objects made to accommodate it). One possible rebuttal: the system in which art objects are made by individuals and groups and distributed to other individuals and groups for their consensual submission is not the only system possible for the creation and dissemination of art. True; but if my points above about the individual have any merit, it’s a good one, though one that would be much better if we could wrest a larger share of it away from publishing and other conglomerates (see below). Another possible rebuttal: we were as shaped to thinking in narrative, linear terms in preceding generations as the opposite appears to be true today; perhaps said “liberation” has had the salutary effect of making us realize that linearity is not a fetish to be worshipped, but a tool for understanding. Point taken. The problem is I haven’t seen anything viable to replace it yet. Maybe I should be more optimistic, and wait with Kassabian for the (technological) Godot coming down the (linear) road.)

Cage, whom Kassabian cites as one of the progenitors of our listening moment, makes for some interesting caveats to the above, so let me try to position him in my ongoing argument. If Cage invited the listener to broaden their palette to include sounds not traditionally considered music—the difference, as Rowell puts it, between forest tree and bonsai (4)—this still presupposed attention: an attention that wandered away from the concert hall to aestheticize our sonic experiences in and of themselves, and, in fact, created them as aesthetic experiences through our attention. Once the clock starts—4’13”—that sonic vignette becomes the art object. But once we have been nudged to shift our attention to sounds traditionally regarded as non-musical, and to find music in them, the quality of our attention likely changes; structural/long attention, i.e., listening for continuity and form, will yield fewer dividends in the rustle of an auditorium, or a forest. Such listening necessitates a different kind—what Kassabian refers to as a mode—of attention, one perhaps closer to the flitting, alighting-now-and-then, here-and-there attention of what Ola Stockfelt calls “snapshot listening” (Kassabian 4). And yet, not the same. I can close my eyes and listen to the woods outside my home, and my attention will be drawn in a variety of directions, and this does seem a necessarily different act than listening for development over time (although there is an element of that, too). But it is also very different from, say, reading on the porch, and having my attention occasionally wrested away from the text by the chickens making a fuss, or the cry of a hawk, or a clap of thunder. Attention doesn’t need to be structural to contain elements of immersion, focus, continuity, and holism (i.e., consideration of sounds in combination with other sounds and in their totality). (And we can split hairs yet finer: the attention I lend to a jazz solo is not the same kind of attention I lend to a symphony. I tried to articulate this once upon a time in a paper for a graduate seminar as the difference between “this, then this, then this” (narrative, structural attention) and “this, now this, now this.” Moment trumps continuity, but immersion, here in each ever-new moment, remains.) I’m afraid that the force of the last thirty or so years, however, has been not to expand our attention but to diminish it; and, like a wave hitting a barrier, that attitude has washed back into the concert hall and private listening practice, so that passive, fragmented, intermittent listening has now become the norm for objects traditionally defined as musical and the world around us. How much better it would have been if some aspect of listening to a soundscape had washed back into listening to a symphony! (Did it? Perhaps it did. Perhaps that’s what Minimalism was.) Of course, Cage was right to hand the stopwatch to the audience. How could he have predicted that, a half century later, four minutes and thirteen seconds would seem like an eternity? (How many people can listen to 4’13” today without fidgeting with their phones?)

Would it help if we thought about our relationship to art objects according to the same principle as our relationships with people? It’s hard to take theories of the murder of the author too seriously, what with the way they barely resonated outside of academic circles. The wholesale slaughter of the individual, however, is another matter. And while I know it’s good for me to theorize about all this, bring it to consciousness, patch holes in my arguments; and while I understand that my feeling of what should be basic common sense is influenced by some combination of hegemonies residual, current, or emerging; all this acknowledged, from my particular and very peculiar perch in the field, I can only say that … a little respect would go a long way. You know, actually listening to people. Letting folks take their turn. Why would I want to treat anyone, Beethoven or Bird, Kassabian or Frith, any other way? I’m not sure how this came to sound so old-fashioned. Or, as in that most perfectly-fashioned of all novel endings, just old. (I won’t tell you what novel, so as to avoid spoiling it.)

I can’t help but connect much of the above to the en masse defection of teachers, exacerbated, of course, by the ongoing pandemic. More than a shame, it’s a tragedy. Education and scholarly inquiry seem to me some of the only possible counterweights to the attention-deficit economy. I still have this romantic image of Humanities teachers standing on the smoke-enveloped battlements waving their ordnance-tattered flags (emblazoned with barely-legible lines of poetry, music staves, details from paintings), “blasting the cannons of truth,” as Judas Priest once sang, to the oncoming generations. The fragmented attention, the inability to focus, the terror of silence and solitude: these seem to be givens for so many of the students we now teach. No wonder trauma has become a buzzword, coming to us as they do emotionally and intellectually crippled from their media-addled isolation tanks. The Humanities is the place where we can say, Slow down. Take a breath. Let’s think about this for a moment. This thing we’ve always taken for granted, what happens when we raise it to conscious scrutiny? What else do you see in these two lines? What is the force of this word, of this particular syntax? We can—and I obviously think we should—cultivate “critical attention” and “receptiveness,” rather than celebrating a degraded status quo. We can and should help students cultivate the sort of consciousness required for deep listening, structural attention, aesthetic experience, or whatever we want to call it. We can and should create classrooms that are spaces for reflection, critical thought, and aesthetic appreciation. We can and should agitate for our schools and other public resources to create spaces and times for such aesthetic engagement, to help students find a balance between navigating the crisis of abundance (the term is Keith Kahn-Harris’s) and opportunities for recursivity and reflection. We can and should lobby for a Marshall Plan for our souls: a massive cultural investment in cultivating opportunities for aesthetic pleasure, as a means to re-centering ourselves. We can and should write idealistic sentences like these, and then get on with the reality of our lives.

Of course, it’s hard to make any argument for aesthetic engagement today without sounding like a snob, sort of the way Kassabian positions Barenboim—he’s for rich people, those snooty classical music lovers; I’m on the side of the people. In fact, I probably sound like I’m resurrecting Allan Bloom and his unanticipated 1987 bestseller The Closing of the American Mind. (Why unanticipated? Americans love their apocalypses, whether it’s straggling survivors during the zombie apocalypse, theological prophecies about the last true believers, or we’re-falling-behind-the-Russkies warnings about national-technological-moral demise.) I wrote a great paper in college—I think it was the only great paper I wrote in college, except maybe that one about “Natural Science” for my Writing About Music class—comparing Bloom’s comments on rock ‘n’ roll to Stephen King’s comment in Danse Macabre that all monsters are variations of three basic types: the vampire, the werewolf, and the thing that should not be. I can’t remember the nuances of Bloom’s argument, or King’s, for that matter, and I’m not going to dig back into those texts (even though Danse Macabre is literally an arm’s length away). But I do remember one thing Bloom decried was the way his students live their lives immersed in music, largely through their headphones, with the suggestion that (a) it was crowding out any other mental life—a factor both of the kind of music (rock, played at high volume) and its constant presence, and (b) they were so glutted with music they no longer valued it (cf. small plastic American flags & ubiquitous anthems). Whatever Bloom’s feelings about rock, morality, and Walkmans, like Frith he seems to have forecasted the crisis of abundance, and the way that abundance and constancy tend to de-sacralize the aesthetic object and potentially de-value aesthetic experience.

Interestingly, rather than the peril of a divided attention, Bloom clearly feels that headphones made it impossible to find the proper distance from a work of art. Headphones, after all, give us an opportunity for immersive listening and deep engagement par excellence. They needn’t, of course, since the subsequent portability of music also created opportunities for other stimuli to impinge upon the aesthetics ones, and as such they can be seen as another precursor of today’s fragmented attention. Then again, these stimuli can become adjuncts to the aesthetic experience, which remains primary. I have a vivid recollection of walking around in Morningside Park listening to Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, and how ravishing the scenery was, surrounding the music like an aura, heightening it, a sort of visual condiment. Another of driving through the mountains of British Columbia listening to Brahms’s First Piano Concerto. I know, that’s a little too tourist-kitsch, too Kultur: sublime mountains, sublime music. But I can’t deny the effect. In both cases the landscape, beautiful (MP) or sublime (BC), deepened the aesthetic experience. Somehow, in the last couple of generations, this has gotten inverted: art has become the adjunct, the orbiting satellite around … well, what, exactly? If it were the landscape, that might be a fair tradeoff. Unlike the Copernican one, this inversion has positioned us further from ourselves and from reality. The center has become a void; the star has collapsed. We’ve forgotten the strength to be gained from making art a sun.

Rowell, too, notes that immersion can be a danger to the piece as a whole, causing us to fall Invisible-Man style into a tone, and so lose sight of the whole, as some non-Western musics invite us to do; and if Frith is correct, fragmentation was beginning to have a similar effect on Western listening practices at least by the eighties, drawing listeners to the immediacy of sound rather than the placement of notes within the total structure of a work (243). But, pace my argument about Cage above, I would argue that this, too, is a form of attention, different in kind from the structural, linear attention promulgated by Adorno and the Western academy, but also different from the relative indifference of what Kassabian calls ubiquitous listening. (It might even better describe Berenson’s “mystical union” than the colder distance presupposed by structural attention. I think Kassabian is suggesting as much when she describes attention occurring in degrees and modes; and it may be the case, and would be my comeuppance, that there are only modes—that is, that attention or focus cannot be described as a quantity meted out by degrees, but rather only as a grouping of mutually-exclusive kinds.) As listeners, I think we often shuttle between kinds of listening (Rowell: “one can both think music and think about music” (15)). We oscillate between immersion and stepping back to think consciously about what we are listening to, compare, take stock … and then dive in again. Interestingly, this “dangerously” immersive listening seems—or seemed—to be experienced most often in groups: the rave, the yoga-class Om, the hippie drum circle. I say “seemed” because these public forms of listening which encouraged loss-of-self immersion seem to be increasingly replaced by private ones that, in many cases, inhibit immersion. My ability to immerse myself in a film, for example, is different in the public venue of a movie theater, where I have largely ceded control to the overwhelming spectacle of the screen and my behavior to the public expectation for such spectacles and the camaraderie of my fellow audience members, than on a small screen at home, computer or phone, where I can stop and start, toggle between pages, check how much time is left, get up to grab the cat, and so on. (Simon Reynolds writes about this with his usual brilliant eloquence in Retromania.) These public opportunities for aesthetic immersion are also disappearing, now more than ever, and they seem just as necessary and valuable to maintaining psychic wholeness and balance. We need opportunities and contexts for both public and private immersion: not just more concert halls, but more parties with blasting music, more be-ins, more drum circles—more opportunities, that is, for direct, overwhelming, thrilling engagement. (N.B.: It’s a bit quaint to believe that the walls of our home defend us against the aural onslaught; our private lives and our homes have become so porous. Anyway, who needs a home chapel, a music room, when your whole house is wired? Music ends up following you through every activity. In time, one thing bleeds into another. Attention becomes intermittent. It’s logical that this should happen. And so, simply as a matter of practice, habit, and cultural preparation, the idea of sacred time, sacred space, for engagement with art, slips away, and the most-of-the-time listening we do in our disenchanted technopolis erodes the possibility for any other kind.)

Let me sound like even more of a reactionary fuddy-duddy. To the words “attitude” and “intentions” in the introductory passage by Rowell I would add commitment. More than anything, aesthetic experience asks for our commitment. I know, I sound like I’m preaching monogamy in an age of ubiquitous sex. Just bear in mind the commitment I’m advocating for here is to an attitude, not a particular work, artist, or genre. Every hedonist is married to their hedonism, and Art is insatiable.

So, to sum up: the diminishment and/or absence of deep aesthetic encounters, in the multiple kinds we can imagine, both public and private, insofar as the two can still be distinguished, is causing us to become more neurotic, more fragile, more unstable, and more violent. The fact that the institutions once entrusted with vouchsafing the public interest have instead decided that said interest is a chimera, remade themselves as businesses, and thrown in their lot with capital, has tilted the balance quite decisively toward our social malaise of fractured, attenuated attention, emotional fragility, and psychic instability. The resulting violence is neither repressive nor revolutionary, but contingent and seemingly random, because, like the music, the ailment seems to have no identifiable source. We lash out more generally: against our communities, against ourselves, against some easily-identifiable scapegoat.††† As educators, it’s incumbent upon us to open spaces for engagement, to foster sacred time, space, and pace. And no, I don’t have any bar graphs or pie charts to back any of this up. But don’t worry: personal blogs are places where assholes loudly espouse their opinions. They are not credible sources for your research paper. Personal blogs affiliated with educational institutions (like CUNY) are a greyer area; they should be treated with caution; yellow light, not red. This post is kind of orange. (Some others are sort of lemon-lime, though. I hope.)

And if you’re surprised to find Helldriver cross-dressing as Cassandra, don’t be: her garb is seductive, particularly when the world’s falling apart. (“Moscow in flames, missiles headed toward New York: film at eleven.”)

Here’s the good news: if you make an effort and actively unplug from the matrix, there are actually life-affirming fields your can immerse yourself in. College radio is alive and well; there, well-educated humans sit somewhere near an antenna, and you, the listener, let yourself be schooled for a while by their eclectic tastes and prodigious archives. Film Forum has thus far survived the pandemic, in case you haven’t wandered down to Houston Street lately. There are more literary journals, independent and university-affiliated, than there have been at probably any time in history, cranking out truly remarkable assortments of stories, poems, graphics, etc. New York is still a hothouse of music discoverable for the intrepid and pure of heart. The tourists step around the street drummers, even if they don’t look up from their phones or take out their Airpods. Some of them throw money. If you stop and listen for four minutes and thirteen seconds, you’ll walk away a better person, I swear.


*  I’ve often wondered if moments of transcendent connection with the artwork are necessarily fleeting, and might even be best defined by their fleetingness: moments of dumb luck and serendipity and surprise, best captured in a passage from Jean Genet’s Miracle of the Rose I have often had occasion to cite, where a bouquet materializes in the corner of the narrator’s eye. Perhaps, more than the transcendent exaltation Berenson describes and Lerner pokes fun at, the aesthetic experience is a state of continual longing for exalted states that never quite arrive: yearning as such, punctuated by occasional, distant glimmers of the Celestial City. This is somewhat closer to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s famous argument about Beethoven, but (mostly) shorn of presence: the artwork opens (us) out to the infinite, but only to withhold it.

†  Kassabian uses the example of her “Armenianness” to buttress arguments about the way identity shifts according to context, noting that she feels “more or less Armenian” depending on the situation in which she finds herself (xxvii). But it is the boundaries of a contested term like Armenianness that shift according to social context, not the identity of the individual Armenians who contest it. The mistake here is to assume that “Armenian” is a static thing, universally defined, rather than a bric-a-brac construct in which the self will more or less feel at home depending on which facet is emphasized. The fact, as she relates, that she feels “written out” when she is in a group of “nationalist, patriarchal, heteronormative” Armenians is case in point. If identity really were so susceptible to context, one would never feel alienated or exiled; one would simply put on the mantle of the moment—say, by comfortably mouthing ethno-nationalist platitudes—and be done with it. The fact that she recoils from some construct called “Armenianness” in such moments implies some basic “I” with an Armenian identity that is not only more or less expressed at certain moments, but also felt in a highly idiosyncratic way.

**  How can we judge silence, from which music takes its value, if we no longer know how to experience it, if it has become an object of terror? Today, there is only silence … or rather a white noise that serves as a new silence: the hum, the drone of the machine, the flat line, as R. Murray Schafer once described it. Like the denizens of E.M. Forster’s future earth in “The Machine Stops,” we no longer know what silence sounds like; we live in the constant hum of the machine. (See “Archeaology of Noise” (1.8.22), note O.)

††  I can’t do an in-depth discussion of Cronenberg here—maybe some future post for the Charnel House. Suffice to say that, for all that Cronenberg has said that the technology human beings create are natural extensions of human biology, and for all he may be right, he is, after all, a horror director; his vision is pervasively dark. Of course, Cronenberg has also advocated for the liberation of the unconscious in the artwork—with which I wholeheartedly agree—so there’s no reason we should expect what Cronenberg says to be congruent with what he does as an artist. (It is, in fact, part of the way he participates in the economy of selling his films, and himself.) I’m also reminded of one of Robin Wood’s arguments about horror: that the genre’s revolutionary potential is one that can only be realized by overthrowing the genre itself.

***  I’m somewhat less persuaded by this argument, but since a blog is always at least partly about throwing things against the wall to see what sticks, in that spirit I append it here, for all you fans of the art of splats, smears, and dribbles: The idea that linearity, structure, coherence, and the like can no longer do “justice” to contemporary experience, no longer reflect our contemporary “reality,” also strikes me as deluded, assuming as it does that that a form as conventional and removed from reality as a novel or symphony (as theorists of realism have persuasively argued in the last few decades) ever did something called “justice” to something called “reality.” Manipulating form exposes aspects of reality not present in earlier forms, and historical (and technological) progress makes it possible to imagine forms previous periods could not—and this is all wonderful. But these forms are no more or less adequate to that ineffable something called “reality,” which is always multiple, fragmentary, and (I would argue) only made accessible to us through such conventional forms. Narrative, which in varying forms stretches back to the birth of language, is still one of the best tools we have for trying to make sense of it.

†††  I’m reminded as well of the Chomsky/Hermann argument in Manufacturing Consent, about the way liberal societies employ “filters” to limit and control information flow, and so effectively censor information without heavy-handed government repression. One needn’t be the Taliban to quash music; turning it into aural wallpaper is just as effective. A population actively denied something takes a great deal of effort to contain; a population kept sedated through the IV drip of ringtones, jingles, and algorithmically-repeated hits from one’s youth, each exposure carrying a low-level affective charge, forgets to care about what it lacks.

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