Monday, February 2, 2009

An Introductory Fragment

Reading Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca's The New Rhetoric, I was recalled to an evening with friends at the Salle Pleyel by the following line: "The great orator, the one with a hold on his listeners, seems animated by the very mind of his audience" (24). We were seated behind the orchestra, and this made the performance in some way unaccountably beautiful. I had never before this seen a conductor actually conducting, having always previously sat or stood, depending on my finances, in front of the orchestra, a member of what I imagined to be the primary audience. The line I read tonight clarified something for me, and the surplus beauty of that evening in Paris ceased to be unaccountable.

The conductor is a rhetor, her audience the orchestra itself; she persuades this collection of distinct subjectivities, who have been practicing to be persuaded in just this way, to function as--to be--one body, even in silence. It is for this reason that he faces them, and largely ignores their audience, though this is a ruse of sorts, designed to convince the orchestra still more of their unity, of the all-encompassing vibrancy of their unity as one subject, and the relative unimportance of their audience.

She is convincing them, like Kierkegaard's Abraham in Fear and Trembling, to place themselves as the subjective higher than the ethical, which is to say, to find themselves as a unified subject above adherence to the desires of their others, the audience on whose behalf and at whose material behest they exist as a unity.

In this double movement, of course and however, the orchestra executes precisely the will of their absolute--becomes ethical relative to their audience, which desires to witness an improbably unified subjectivity glorying in its submission to wordless transcendence of the ethical, a unity indifferent to the demands or existence of its others.

For those of us who constitute such an audience, this is a satisfying reassurance of the possibility--the reality and even primacy, since it occurs in indifference to our presence--of psychic unity in wordless transcendence, of a return to the extrasymbolic womb (both more symbolic, symbolically hypercharged, and beyond the domain of the symbolic). What matters in this unity is its indifference to the ethical, its absolute permissibility of being. And where better might this be found than in the domain of music, which as Kierkegaard argues (in the Either portion of Either/Or) is the proper location of the erotic?

The tragedy of the orchestra for its audience is that it is a fantasy, that the subject-permissibility it embodies has been a ruse. Music is not, after all, the erotic--the extrasymbolic real of beings-in-relation--but only the sexual, or at worst the pornographic. It is only another language, after all, though spoken ever so fluidly.

The orchestra's real appeal, however, is that it has worked, not only as an illusion of the primary unity of the subject in wordless transcendence but also as its invocation. The masterfully conducted symphony has been a seance with the spirit of absolute permissibility, departed with our accession into the symbolic order that makes unity thinkable and, in being thinkable, impermissible. This, however, is only visible from behind the orchestra, whose spirit has animated the conductor whose audience it is. The seance has been conducted within the conductor.

But this, too, reaches its conclusion, and the men and women in black and white, and the encores of the orchestra's audience, echo together as the cries of a child who cannot help but be human. Which is to say, cannot help but be impermissible.


Jason said...

I don't get this.

Why is it impermissible?

definition: "too bad to be allowed"

If you are the conductor of this writing and I don't understand it, let alone the average person - the failure of your ability to communicate simply and effectively is impermissible.

Ira J.A. said...

Hi, Jason,

I'm sorry this didn't seem gettable. Perhaps, in this moment, I will not have been your conductor :-).

I don't have the energy to explain why 'impermissible' right now--though it's a totally fair/reasonable question. That's the germ of a book project, and my head right now is all wrapped around two quite different dissertations and a couple articles, all having nothing very direct to do with what will eventually become /On Being Impermissible/.

For the moment, I'll just suggest that the structure of your response speaks, though I get that you were kidding, to something very basic in the structure of language. And that this something very basic predisposes linguistic animals to regard their own being as impermissible.

Not necessarily consciously, though--rather, as part of the structure of the possibility of experience. 'Being impermissible' is a comportment toward being that comes part and parcel with language (among other things), whether one recognizes it or not. And that, I'm hypothesizing for right now, has a series of profoundly ethical consequences.

I'm sorry not to clarify this more fully at present, and hope the above offers more of a sense of where that will head when I get the chance to return to it.