Archive for the ‘Played Twice : How To Fail With Monk, Or Listen (again) With Foucault’ Category

Played Twice : How To Fail With Monk, or Listen (again) With Foucault

November 1, 2012


The early poetry needs elucidation and annotation;

the later poetry needs simply to be read again and again

until we become familiar with it’s manner.

 – Helen Gardner, ‘The Art of T.S. Eliot’


There is a passage in Michel Foucault’s ‘The Order of Things’ where he describes how certain aphasiacs are unable to arrange ‘simple skeins of wool’ into any coherent pattern on a table top

‘as though that simple rectangle were unable to serve in their case as a homogenous and neutral space in which things could be placed so as to display at the same time the continuous order of their identities or differences as well as the semantic field of their denomination. Within this simple space in which things are normally arranged and given names, the aphasiac will create a multiplicity of tiny fragmented regions in which nameless resemblances agglutinate things into unconnected islets…But no sooner have they been adumbrated than all these groupings dissolve again, for the field of identity that sustains them, however limited it may be, is still too wide not to be unstable; and so the sick mind continues to infinity, creating groups then dispersing them again, heaping up diverse similarities, destroying those that seem clearest, splitting up things that are identical, superimposing different criteria, frenziedly beginning over again, becoming more and more disturbed, and teetering finally on the brink of anxiety’

For these people, any attempt at classification contains within it its own entropy. No sooner has the aphasiac imposed order, than they destroy it – ‘creating groups then dispersing them again’. Things, it seems, fall apart. Foucault suggests in the last sentence, however, that the constant and constantly failing attempts at classification, as well as being unsuccessful, cause suffering to the classifier – ‘teetering finally on the brink of anxiety’. There’s an irreconcilable disparity between the classifier’s wish to classify and her ability to do so. And the gap between wish and ability causes suffering. Moreover, the use of the word ‘anxiety’ suggests a double resonance to this suffering; firstly, the disappointment at being unable to classify the skeins of wool with any degree of permanence, but secondly a more subtle and reflexive suffering caused by the repetition of the attempt. We may imagine Foucault’s aphasiac at her first attempt at arranging the wool. She tries, she fails. She may experience the ‘normal’ suffering of disappointment; suffering of a commonplace sort. At this point, however, the aphasiac does something very interesting. Rather than giving up she tries again, redoubling, we may imagine, her efforts and continues to do this every time she is confronted with her most recent failure. The aphasiac ‘continues to infinity’, repeatedly trying to impose order; ‘endless with no dissenting turn’ to use Auden’s phrase. Or rather it’s as if the ‘dissent’, instead of emerging as a decision to discontinue with a task that isn’t working, emerges instead as anxiety. The ‘dissent’ has to manifest somewhere else, to be transmuted into something other than stopping the task at hand. It is, to use a term from psychoanalysis, repressed.

Repression, as Freud suggested, is always an act of exchange. The conscious mind may wish to completely expel the material it represses but is never able to fully do so. So a compromising exchange is reached. The material is banished in its original form but then returns as something else; jokes, slips of the tongue or, as in Foucault’s example, neurosis. The anxiety that the aphasiac ‘teeters’ upon the edge of is their experience of their failure to arrange the wool repressed, returning in a different form. Unable or unwilling to accept their failure to arrange the wool, the aphasiac represses it. It returns, disguised as something else: as anxiety. Now central to the thought of both Freud and Foucault is the notion that things pushed to or over the edge of ‘normal’ experience are what reveal most to us about ourselves and society. Dreams, madness, slips of the tongue and unusual forms of sexuality, excluded from ‘conscious’, ‘sane’ or ‘rational’ modes of discourse are the very things that show us truth in a way that the discourses from which they are excluded never can. These fragments of experience are excluded precisely because the truths they reveal are the weaknesses in the normative modes of discourse from which they are excluded. So it is with the failure that confronts Foucault’s aphasiac. Repressed, it hovers at the edge of experience, undermining the task in hand; causing distress by hiding. Foucault describes ‘the brink of anxiety’ andanxiety, it seems, is something we can only ever be on the brink of because it is only ever on the brink of us. It adumbrates the boundary between consciousness and the unconscious, between existence and oblivion.

A usefully obtuse question to ask at this point would be ‘Why does the aphasiac ignore their obvious failure at classification and carry on becoming more and more disturbed? Why choose neurotic anxiety over commonplace failure?’ Put more subtly, why is repression something worth doing if the exchange it effects leads to the suffering caused by anxiety? Surely the original failure would be preferable to the aphasiac than the ‘brink of anxiety’ over which she now teeters? Of course, psychoanalysis could be seen as making a living out of asking this question in all its Socratic irony. By asking the patient this question, the analyst hopes to convince them to reverse the exchange, to make what was unconscious conscious, or, in the language of our example, to choose failure over anxiety. Yet one of the ways in which Freud has been criticised over the years is for the fact that he has very little to say about what constitutes the state of ‘health’ that is implied to have been reached by the reversal of this exchange, by the reversal of repression. Compared to the complexity and dark beauty of his description of mental pathology and the unconscious, Freud’s sense of an ending seem rather bathetic. With Freud, madness seems to get all the best lines. Mental health as the ability to ‘love and work’ (in the phrase wrongly attributed to Freud) seems, frankly, rather boring. The anxiety upon which Foucault’s aphasiac and Freud’s neurotic are on the brink of seems far more interesting than the humdrum failure of Winnicott’s ‘only sane’. But psychoanalysis (Winnicott in particular) is very keen on beginnings and it is this state of failure that I’d like to suggest is a necessary and liberating place to start from. I’m going to draw an analogy between Foucault’s aphasiac attempting to classify the woollen skeins and the creative artist trying to create some sort of an artistic or musical nexus from which to create. I’ll suggest that there is a polarity for artists to navigate analogous to the aphasiac’s choice between ‘failure’ and ‘anxiety’.

Failure is a deeply conservative word. It is axiomatic to much conservative philosophy that human ability and reason are at best severely limited and at worst destructively anarchic. So most conservative ideas of the good life or good society are modest in their scope. They suggest that the recalcitrance of individual human nature be tamed by the institutions of the state or of civic society. They see a fundamental ‘failure’ as inherent to human nature and suggest that we aspire to the more modest notion of happiness that is commensurate with this. Psychoanalysis’s ‘love and work’ would seem to fit squarely into this conservative idea of a happiness of reduced expectations, a happiness predicated, paradoxically, on failure. It’s not suprising, given this association, that ‘failure’ and the kind of happiness it leads to aren’t particularly beloved of creative artists. Any history of success that failure has with this group of people is of a more Promethean kind; the artist’s heroic struggle against adversity. Not for us the smug, cautious, even bourgeois happiness of the conservative (‘smug’, ‘cautious’, ‘bourgeois’ and ‘conservative’ all being adjectives directed at Freud at times). Anyone that knows me might be rather amused by the idea of me as an apologist for conservative thinking, but I would like to try and reclame the word ‘failure’ from conservatism by teasing out a subtle resonance of the idea suggested by Foucault’s anecdote: Failure as the idea of the acceptance of limitation in the face of impossible conceptions of completion. This, I think, relates closely to a central problem facing contemporary artists: given the sheer volume of information made availabe by the digitalised world and the bewildering number of starting points, diversity of genres and interdisciplinary approaches, how does the artist today begin to forge some kind of aesthetic identity for themselves? In facing this question, it seems artists need to be beware of two extremes. One, a sort of neo-conservative retreat to canonical ideas about genre that frequently end in mere imitation; an aesthetics based on a willfully small-minded engagement with art and ideas. But the second (and this would be analogous to the anxious aphasiac) would be a relationship with what is available that is so wide-ranging, so diffuse as to preclude the forming of a coherent identity. The treating of art as something to be completed rather than engaged with, to be conquered rather than related to. The artist hysterically trying to consume faster and faster in the infinite digital world, losing themselves in the process. An endless task with only one end. I suggest that both extremes would be missed opportunities to usefully or creatively answer the question posed by the infinite availability of information. Both fail by not conceiving of failure imaginatively enough. By failing at failure.

If joy is about spontaneity then spontaneous creation must be one of life’s most joyful experiences. Diverse influences juxtapose, alchemise and free-associate in ways beyond the conscious mind’s limitations. In the performing arts, these processes are compounded by the live interaction with other artists. The result is a complex, valent intimacy of beauty and suprise that proceeds from simply listening. But full engagement in such a process is predicated on exposure to and love of a wide range of influences. Real love of art and ideas is surely in part a love of their diversity; their constant reinvention and ability to confound. Great artists revel in the diversity of their influences like children playing. I’ll put it bluntly and say I don’t believe you can reach this type of spontaneity by limiting your exposure to a small, rigidly defined canon of art or ideas. A deadness creeps into the creative process and a lack of ability to react associatively. Or a slavish recreation of an older artist’s style that removes one’s own voice. Creativity becomes impersonation; listening to the past not the present. Returning to the artist’s conundrum, this shutting down to possibility would be too pessimistic a type of failure. But the opposite attempt to avoid it all together would be too utopian, ending in a failure just the same. If paucity of influence precludes making great art then so too does a relationship with influences subordinated to a quest for completion. The artist trying to reach total knowledge will never achieve it. In a world with infinite amounts of available information total knowledge is impossible. Just as with Foucault’s aphasiac, it’s only by repressing this basic fact that the quest for completion can continue. In both the aphasiac’s attempts at classification and an artist’s desire for complete knowledge the limitation imposed by reality must be repressed in order that the task continue. If this brings the aphasiac ‘to the brink of anxiety’ then it brings the creative process to an analogous place. The richness, depth and resonance that come from living with influences and from revisiting them never have time or space to flourish. Creativity becomes grasping and superficial, an endless taxonomy.

In an attempt to avoid these two extremes then, we might reconstitute ‘failure’ as a liberating acceptance of limitation. We would explore art, ideas and influences with voracity but also with a lightness of touch, without shutting ourselves off from the beauty either of their diversity or of their depth. By way of illustration and to finish, I’d like to play a recording by an artist who I think demonstrates in the music itself the balance I’m suggesting. The piece is ‘Played Twice’ by Thelonius Monk. One bar of Monk’s music is a synecdoche of his entire career. Fragments of melody or improvisation develop or manipulate phrases, phrases mirror forms of tunes. An entire performance of a Monk tune elides composition and improvisation so that one derives from the other. A Monk album or Monk band is very often a revisiting or reworking of an earlier line-up or set of tunes and as his career went on Monk constantly revisited groups of his compositions, mining them for new insights. All of these traits can be heard in ‘Played Twice’, the music reflexively encircling itself, reading itself ‘again and again’ as in Helen Gardner’s advice on reading Eliot. Monk is one of the most complete geniuses of the piano, of composition and of improvised music precisely because of his highly disciplined and creative use of limitation through repetition; in form, repertoire, line-up or improvisational materials. His work imaginatively reconstitutes ‘failure’ into a limitation that allows for profound resonance between musicians, composition and improvisation. The resulting music is erudite, playful and spontaneous art of pure joy.