Tuesday, April 14, 2009

(PM) Reviewing the Reviewer

After yesterday's discussion, it may be helpful to review these comments from the reviewer:

I do think, however, that Davies -- not unlike other writers in the area -- is perhaps too quick in treating the analogy between language and music. Noting a semantic deficit along with a conjoined ambiguity concerning syntactic rules on the musical side of the analogy, he dismisses the modeling of music on language summarily. But this kind of conclusion -- a "thus music is not a language, q.e.d." kind -- prevents what at least this reader would like to have seen here among the other riches: a writer of Davies' intellectual clarity and cogency grappling not with only one formulation of the analogy, but rather with a good number of the very many ways in which the analogy can come into play. The fact that music is not a semantic system the coherence of which is ordered by syntactic rules should not blind us to the fact that there is such a thing as melodic coherence as an (perhaps rough, but potentially nevertheless illuminating) analogy to the much-discussed unity of the proposition. There are antecedent-consequent melodic structures that function, in thematic terms, dialogically. There are analogues to syntactic rules that function as coherence-preservers -- and this itself would be wide ranging, from diatonic harmony to serial ordering. There are thematic analogies to Wittgensteinian language-games, where a given move is made possible by prior ordered moves within the circumscribed limits of the game. There are structural analogues in composition to metaphorical restatement in language beyond Goodmanian issues of exemplification. There are deep analogies between our ways of speaking about aspects or parts of language that directly mirror our ways of speaking about music (shown in Davies' own insightful discussion of transcriptions, where he rightly concludes that transcriptions are of independent value in their own right even where we have the original to hand precisely because the transcription functions as a commentary on the original.) There are countless intricate ways -- far more intricate, and I think far more interesting than the rather blunt semantic-syntactic point -- where the analogy between the arts and language misleads (and has historically misled) aesthetic theory. And there are very many more such avenues for explanation that are prematurely closed by the semantic-syntactic point. (And of course that point itself is not as bluntly factual as it may seem -- music, as no one would dispute, can and has often been representational, also in numerous ways, so the link between mimetic content and semantic function deserves at the very least mid-length shrift.) Moreover, the characterization of language upon which the semantic-syntactic point is based is itself highly reductive and oversimplified: language does countless things, and again it would be a considerable pleasure to see a thinker of Davies' gifts treat these matters fully. Writing of the problem of musical ontology, Davies says: "The totality of musical works from culture to culture and from time to time do not have any single ontological character. Some musical works are thick with properties, others are thinner -- some works include the performance means as part of their essential nature, and much more besides, whereas others are more or less pure sound structures" (p. 77). Should we expect the primary "home" of meaning -- language -- to be any less diversified?

To say "To understand a musical utterance is not to know whether that utterance is true or false" (p. 125) is to imply that language is fundamentally a matter of knowing whether a given utterance is true or false. That is a misstep in one of two ways or both: if we do, following Davidson, want to proceed on the belief that an understanding of linguistic meaning will follow, and be dependent upon, a theory of truth, Davies' claim is in trouble. It would be a matter of knowing the truth conditions for an utterance as the determinant of its meaning and not its truth value. Or it is, in a larger frame of reference, a misstep to proceed on the reductive and essentializing belief that language is composed wholly, or even foundationally, of "utterances", where these are regarded as uniform propositional assertions of the "The cat is on the mat" kind. Here, incidentally, one should ask how rarely, and in what particular sense-determining circumstances, we actually call something in the vast sea of human speech an "utterance". And once that is clarified, the presumed intelligibility of the generalized concept of utterance at work here is very much called into question. Davies says next "We do not regard musical utterances as subject to truth-conditions" (here the very use of the phrase "musical utterances" suggests certainly the fittingness and perhaps the value of the kind of music-language inquiry I am recommending), which seems true enough. But that is, if not like a reductive picture of language, certainly like real language -- much of it we do not hold as explicitly subject to truth-conditions. He continues the phrase with "or as meeting standards of assertive correctness or incorrectness of use". We do have remarkably clear senses of correct and incorrect uses -- think of the incorrectness of parallel fifths in the harmonization of a chorale melody, or of the expansion of what we tellingly call a harmonic language by breaking rules of correctness, as Debussey explicitly did, or of P.D.Q. Bach's hilarious stylistic fractures where a blues fights its way out of a fugue, behaving in the end rather like the increasingly unruly and badly-behaved speaker in Plato's Symposium. And on the positive side, we indeed take a distinct pleasure (as Michael Krausz has investigated at length) in the sense of rightness, the sense indeed of correctness, that some works convey; in such cases, are not standards of "assertive" correctness met, and handsomely so? Prematurely closing the avenue, Davies concludes the passage with: "In respect of its meaning, music cannot usefully be compared to a language" (p. 125). And with that blockade to further reflection on the topic installed, he can then later in the book say, falsely, that "There are no plausible equivalents in music to . . . propositional closure" (p. 174). If, to take only one of countless possible examples, the closure provided in the mature classical symphony composed in sonata-allegro form, where the thematic material of the exposition is presented, those two themes treated in the development section, and then -- once those dialogical implications have been worked out -- recapitulated where we in a sense know them for the first time and then logically and satisfyingly closed with the coda, is not a plausible equivalent to propositional closure, nothing is. (Of course that could be Davies' point -- that the music is not language, but that is only trivially true. Nothing else not language is language either -- the point concerns the illuminating analogies and comparisons (which he surely knows, since he is otherwise allergic to trivial truths throughout this book and is after all speaking of "plausible equivalents".) Davies also refers to language, generically, as a linguistic system, which it is not. One can devise systems out of little parts of language which can then work, well . . ., systematically. Codes, similarly, are parasitic on language, and are thus not revelations of its essence: code-breakers are not translators, nor, for that matter, are native speakers (contra the language-of-thought model). All of these considerations hold relevance for our understanding of musical meaning, but one will never clarify, much less initially recognize, their significance by starting with a caricature of language. Similarly, verbal creativity, rightly understood, could show us something about musical creativity and improvisation. Why close this off? But of course, no book can do everything at once, and what this book does do it does very well indeed.

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