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Peter Sloterdijk

The Aesthetic Imperative

Writings on Art

Edited and with an Afterword by Peter Weibel

Translated by Karen Margolis




Demonic Territory

Ladies and gentlemen,1 abundant attempts have been made to define the essence of music. Some people have described it as structured time or as a synthesis of calculated order and mysterious caprice, while others have seen its higher manifestations as the meeting between rigorous form and the gestures of free self-expression, or simply as passion colliding with the world of numbers. Yet none of these statements can match the famous dictum of Thomas Mann in his novel Doctor Faustus. Inspired by Kierkegaard, Mann reached the conclusion that ‘Music is demonic territory.’

This phrase, which has since become a mantra for musicologists, is notable for several reasons; moreover, it increasingly requires comment. When it first appeared in 1947 it merely aimed at illuminating the murky secrets of German culture, an area where, it was said, musicality and bestiality had become confusingly intertwined. At the same time, Mann’s dictum was supposed to indicate how, on the ground of modernism, artistically beautiful things could change into things that are artistically evil, and how diabolical guile could transform the best forces of a high civilization into their opposite. From today’s perspective, Mann’s statement has a special impact in that it replaces a definition with a warning – as if the author wanted to admit that it is impossible for some topics to lead to objective theory because they do not remain still while they are being worked on by theory. Instead, sleeping lurking monsters rouse from their slumbers and rear their heads as soon as we talk about them. According to the author of Doctor Faustus, musicologists would be well advised to study the conclusion of Christian demonologists that demons are not neutral. Instead of being model objects that can be investigated at a safe distance, they are a power that responds to invocation. Anyone who calls the dark spirit by name has already invoked him, and the invoking person should be aware that he can be confronted with an authority that will be stronger than he is. That is why folk tales say of Doctor Faust: If you know something, keep it quiet.

Let us briefly look at which kind of demonic possession is involved when we enter the territory of music – assuming that this is about a ‘territory’ that can be entered like a ground or terrain. We must seek the answer in the acoustic anthropology that has acquainted us with a large number of inspiring new findings on human hearing in recent decades. They have taught us that among members of Homo sapiens, like other mammals or creatures that bear live offspring, and even among many birds, hearing is an ability that is acquired very early, actually in prenatal space. The ear is indisputably the leading organ of human contact with the world, and this is already the case at a point in the organism’s development when the individual as such is not yet ‘there’ – to the extent that the adverb ‘there’ indicates the possibility that a person is at a sufficient distance from things to be able to point to an object or circumstance. Even in adults, hearing is not so much an effect the subject experiences in relation to a source of sound, but occurs rather as immersion of the sensitive organ and its owner in an acoustic field. This applies even more strongly to the hearing of the unborn child. If the first auditory experience signifies a foetal prelude to the mature use of the acoustic sense, it is mainly because at that moment the feature of floating in a total environment is at its purest. The first hearing experience inherently resembles a pre-school of cosmopolitanism, literally of world openness – yet we attend this school, effectively the école maternelle, at a stage of life when we ourselves are still completely worldless and pre-worldly. The individual-to-be persists as far as possible in its intimate reserve, enclosed in a warm misty night, yet still listening behind the door of existence. But it would be confusing to describe the hearing foetus merely as an eavesdropper behind the door. The primal hearer’s way of being is defined from the very beginning by its embedding in an internal sonorous continuum dominated by two emanations from its maternal surroundings: first, the sounds of the mother’s heart that set the existential beat like a constant repetitive rhythm; and, second, her voice producing free prose that impregnates the foetal ear with a melodic dialect. These two universal factors of the formation of intra-uterine hearing, the cardiac basso continuo and the mother’s soprano speaking voice, create the outline of the utopian continent of proto-music or endo-music, and we first have to overcome the almost constant presence of these two factors to reach a horizon within which more unfamiliar, more intense and more distant sonic events communicate a kind of acoustic summer lightning coming from the world.

In the future we have to take these relationships into account when repeating the phrase about music as demonic territory. The nature of the demonic musical phenomenon will be easier to understand when we accept that once the auditory relation to the world becomes musical, we are in a position to address the register of deep regressions. From this it follows that, even in the case of adult subjects filled with harsh reality, music can still evoke their intimate prehistories. It recalls a phase of their development when they were not yet accustomed to being free to take their distance from things and situations, but still, the environment with its lively sounds transported them into a mode of conflict-free encirclement. At the same time, music, wherever it activates registers of intensity, can render the dynamic of earlier struggles to break through and find new openings as acoustic patterns. This locates music as the place where the transition from confrontation to immersion is continually articulated in a new way. The musical ear is the organ that participates in the reality of sound and tonal events exclusively in the mode of immersion. In fact, immersion as such is the topic of a more audacious kind of Enlightenment. If you know something, then you should talk about it nonetheless. This is probably what Nietzsche had in mind when he added the hazardous name of Dionysus to the vocabulary of musicology.

We still have to explain the ways and means by which the ear becomes a musical ear. Musicality in the narrow sense of the word assumes that the adult ear can occasionally take a holiday from the trivial work of hearing and be lured away from everyday noise by select sounds. We generally experience the world as a place completely removed from music. It is the noises of our surroundings that dominate in this world – and, above all, the inescapable chatter of our fellow human beings, which the media amplify to the maximum nowadays, and then the daily noise profile with the acoustic signatures of our households, our workplaces and our traffic systems. As a result the human ear is a slavish, servile and secretarial organ because, to begin with, it can only bow to the authority of the first available sounds around it. Unmusicality is the voice of the Lord, and the reality of things tells us to understand in an unmusical tone of command. Music, by contrast, has the intrinsic effect of carrying us away. It invites us to start over again with a different kind of response – and this implies, however obliquely, the return to the realm of the heartbeat and the archaic soprano. It is nearly impossible to fathom the implications of these anthropological observations with all their immense consequences. The prose of ordinary existence is based on the fact that from birth onwards, human children make a trivial but incredible discovery: the world is a still, hollow place in which the heartbeat and the primal soprano are catastrophically silenced. Existence in the lighted world is connected to a forcible loss we can never really fathom: for humans, from the first moment on, being in the world involves the unreasonable demand that we do without the sonic continuity of that initial intimacy. From this time on, silence transmits the alarm signal of being. Only the mother’s voice, which can be heard from outside, builds a precarious bridge between then and now. Because this renunciation is nearly impossible to accept, the being that has just arrived in the world has the task of overcoming the prosaic barrier that divides it from the sphere of sonorous enchantments. Music exists because human beings are creatures that insist on wanting to have the best once again. All music, including elementary or primitive music, begins wholly under the auspices of rediscovery and repetition obsession. The specific allure of musical art, right up to its supreme structures and including its moments of evidentness, of being carried along, and of joyful astonishment, is linked to retrieving a sonorous presence we believed to be forgotten. When music is most like itself, it speaks to us as musique retrouvée.

After the ear’s exodus into the outer world, everything revolves around the art of repairing the broken link to our first bonding. But we can only recover the essence of this incomparably intimate and entirely individual relationship later on in the public sphere where cultural groups listen to sounds together. The rule for this turn to the public and cultural sphere is that what began in enchantment should return in freedom. What we call nations, and later ‘societies’, are always sonorous constructions as well – I describe them elsewhere as the phonotope2 –, each of which solves the task by its own way of embedding its members’ ears in a shared world of sound and noise. Public hearing is a means to offer substitutes to its members for the lost paradise of intimate audial perception. This allows an interpretation of the ‘homeland effect’ – because the word ‘homeland’ primarily evokes an acoustic impact that activates the obsessive liaison between ear, community and landscape. Recent generations of musical theorists have correctly interpreted what the localized and socialized ear routinely hears as bias in a typically local sound landscape, alias soundscape. There was an erroneous attempt to give this sound environment a direct musical meaning – I say erroneous, because at best the daily sound milieus show semimusical qualities, whereas authentic music only begins where the mere hearing of sounds ends. We can confirm this for ourselves by observing how the modern music industry, as a pure sound industry, spreads the plague behind the smokescreen of folk music and causes epidemics behind the smokescreen of pop music – things we can only regard as acoustic counterparts to Spanish flu, and against which no effective medicine has yet been found.

If we accept these conclusions, we realize immediately why the way to music is inseparably linked to reclaiming the individuality and intimacy of hearing. As we have noted, this restitution can only happen in a roundabout way through public sound events and at the level of technical methods. In this sense we can say that participation in civilization means being on the path to individuated music. This statement gives an idea of the scope of the adventure that the composers and musicians of European modernity embarked on when they set out to discover the new lands of audible structures.

In the Curvature of the World

Let us reaffirm what we have just stated: civilization, in the higher sense of the term, is the process during which opportunities for individualization are released, including those that promote an intimate atmosphere of listening for adult members of a nation with a particular culture. This immediately reveals the tension that arises between the demands of individualized adult existence and its tendency towards intimacy. It is this tension that leads to music being described as demonic territory. Individualization includes musicalization. This involves the fact that individuals are increasingly able to tap into the conditions of music in terms of flow, reception and media, regardless of whether we understand them as pre-subjective or pre-objective, so that the entirely musicalized person, the ultimate educational product of European modernity, would also be the person who can handle work and conflict skilfully and, moreover, has the most profoundly developed freedom for regression. Whatever the case with such psychagogic3 idealizations, it makes sense to speak of a development of music only within the context that combines availability of instruments and processes with abandonment to the flow that carries one away. In fact, this is the only context in which it makes sense to speak of a history of music oriented to trends, and finally of the part that musical productions have played in the inventions, discoveries and research of modern times.

We cannot refer to the concept of modern times without mentioning Jacob Burckhardt’s resonant formulation that the culture of the Renaissance consisted of ‘the discovery of the world and of man’.4 The classical approach has the virtue of understanding the process of modernity generally as an outward turn. A mind that is serious about research always wants to ‘go towards things’. New countries only exist in cases where the inhabitants of old, inward-looking cantons wake up and embrace extraversion. From this perspective, the new music that has been articulated since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries stands side by side with the expansionism of European cultures of competence as a whole. Just as the clear notation of the maps of seamen who regularly crossed the oceans since Columbus made it possible to navigate previously unpredictable seas, the new maps of musicians charted the written scores, the journeys of the voices in the space of tonal events, for future vocal and instrumental movements. In both cases, nautical or musical enterprises were wholly aimed at being repeatable, and what the investments of shipping owners and their timetables achieved in the one case was echoed by the business of courtly, clerical and bourgeois performance and staging in the other. The new, modern aspect of authentic modernity lies in the fact that it simultaneously secured and extended the radius of supply – if civilization is on the way to music, music is on the way to virtuosity. In this respect it is united with technology in movement. That it has been handed down through generations of accomplished musicians encourages the chronic willingness to move on from what has already been achieved to what still has to be achieved. If the stock of competence did not incorporate the previous achievements, it would not be possible to develop anticipation, preliminary knowledge and advance intentions to guide the next steps. Conversely, if no consciousness had been created about living on a continent that is now called the Old World (for good reason), there would not yet be a coast from which people could make their own plans and attempt to set out for the New World.

Part of the constitutive experiences of the modern age is that we cannot discover the world without experiencing the curvature of the world at the same time. In speaking of the curvature of the world, we are borrowing a speculative phrase that Thomas Mann used to characterize the paradoxical – or dialectical, if you like – interaction and intertwining of constructivism and primitivism in early twentieth-century music.5 It is a phrase involving Freud’s and Rank’s suggestive psychoanalysis just as much as Einstein’s doctrine of the curvature of universal space. It is saying that there is no exit into the unknown that does not have consequences sooner or later for the way the person on the outward journey feels about him- or herself. The same applies to elementary manoeuvres such as Magellan’s first circumnavigation of the earth and more subtle excursions such as those made by modern physicists, systems operators and biologists to reach the last particles of material and the complex structures of the brain, the genome, the immune system and biotopes. In both of these cases the outward turn causes shifts in the identity of the discoverer.

We still have every reason to remember the following picture as a founding scene of the modern age: on 22 September 1522 the Victoria, the last of five ships that had set sail under Magellan’s command three years earlier on a journey on the western route to the legendary Spice Islands, arrived back in the port of San Lucar de Barrameda in Andalusia. On board were eighteen half-starved figures who were promptly put in penitents’ chains and led into the cathedral of Seville. A Te Deum struck up for the unprecedented return – profoundly justified, we realize, because after the completion of this oceanic loop nothing could ever be the same again in relation to the world picture. The people who discovered that the earth was completely curved had paid a high price for their experience. Out of two hundred and eighty men, only the eighteen mentioned above returned to their home port as the first eyewitnesses of globalization. Each man was drenched in the horror of the meaning of world openness, of what it meant to be open to the world, stamped forever with the memory of epic tortures and many miraculous rescues. We can still read about this today in the laconic entries in Pigafetta’s ship’s log. At the same time each of the returnees must have felt the irony of homecoming in his own way. Anyone who went through the whole process and returned to his starting point saw it with different eyes forever after. His home town was no longer the egoistic epicentre of life that arranged the world around itself like a periphery that became increasingly indifferent the further away it was; it was no longer the hub of the universe resting in comfortable ignorance. It became a point in a turbulent grid and a node in a mesh composed of transport routes, flows of goods and currents of news. The full representation of the curvature of the earth on the new world globes, those effective media of the modern age, signalled the beginning of the continuing crisis of the homeland triggered by the changes in the self-image of those who stayed behind, perpetually wavering between fascination and repulsion as they absorbed the news from the new territory of the earth.

It is not hard to see that the nautical evidence for the global shape of the earth was only a first step. The adventure of extraversion revealed its true dimensions the moment the outward turn was also transposed into an inward turn. The process revealed a curvature of being that leads us towards a deeper irony of research. Anyone who stays focused strictly on the course and single-mindedly dedicates themselves to the search for the hidden structures of the real world must realize sooner or later that they are operating on themselves and their own background. In its advanced state of progress, the ‘discovery of the world and of man’ that was begun under an Apollonian sun turned out to be an enterprise in which the world ceased to resemble its inhabitants’ own familiar home. The bias of the Greeks and the ancients towards an existence in which the universe inherently addressed mortals in terms of domesticity gradually lost its hold on affairs. Wherever research becomes radical, the living being becomes estranged and alienated in the total picture. Humans see themselves as beings that increasingly have an uncanny feeling of not being at home. This feeling means that the presence of restless, insatiable strangeness, even at our own front door, can no longer be ignored.

We have known since Heidegger that the curvature of being must be understood as the curvature of time. What we call human existence is not a straight line between the beginning and the end. Rather, the existential line is bent by a strange kind of tension: the ‘ends of the parabola’ that define a single life mark out segments in the circle of Being. At least this is the teaching of the most resolute Western metaphysical thinkers from Parmenides to the Master of Meßkirch.6 They had their reasons for persistently returning to intensive study of the circle or the sphere as figures. According to this way of thinking, origin and future should merge into each other in immense curves, or emanate from separate sources. It is this bold speculation to which Serenus Zeitblom gave a new tone in his apologetic commentary on the ‘Apocalypse’, the major work of the composer Adrian Leverkühn, a work that was allegedly barbaric and over-intellectualized, when he remarked that the ‘union of the oldest and the newest’ had been achieved in this horrifyingly modern artistic construct. He went on to say that this approach ‘by no means’ represented ‘an arbitrary act’, but was part of ‘the nature of things’: ‘It rests, I might say, on the curvature of the world, which makes the last return unto the first.’7

Departure to the Musical Treasure Island: Caliban’s Legacy

In the light of the above we can begin to see that the history of music is closely related in its own way to the departure of modern, enterprising, inventive humans for new shores. Music is very often invoked to portray the curvature of the world in its own specific fashion but rarely does so intelligently. It expresses this curvature according to its demonic nature by articulating the curved temporality of human existence.

Having said this, it takes little extra effort to explain plausibly why music had to become the real religion of the modern age – beyond any confessional schisms and sectarian splits. If religion has always offered more or less profound interpretations of the inexorable return of the mortal person to the unborn, the emergence of modern music created a powerful alternative to give this dynamic of return a safe and secure setting. In fact, modern music is more religious than religion because its privileged alliance with the latent faculties of hearing allows it to reach into our inner depths, the layers where we hardly ever encounter simple religiosity. The basis of modern music’s great advantage over religion is that music acquires an annunciatory power that conventional religiosity still barely understands, even today. (This has been particularly true ever since the change in music from polyphony to forms of chord-based expression, and the transition from composing under categorical laws to free composition of tonal events determined by the composer’s own programme.)

From the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries onwards, the intrinsic essential dynamic of higher music has made it irresistibly effective, because it was in the process of evolving a superior kind of eloquence in relation to questions of paradise or, more generally, of tension and relaxation. It shared this only, if at all, with modern poetry, which, ever since the age of Goethe and Eichendorff and of Lermontov and Lamartine, has not hidden its ambition of vying for the ear of the musicalized person. Consequently, since the days of the first Vienna classics, music in its enhanced form has opened up an endless tonal conversation on the difference between paradise and the world. Music’s superiority resides in the fact that its sole task is to address the ear – the ear that, as we know today, uses the memory of its own internal constitution to construct the place of differentiation between the world and the pre-world. We can estimate the greatness of modern music and its solidarity with the project of modernity if we recognize it as the medium of a powerful relation to the world that nonetheless does not deny the call of the deep. The adventurous heart of modernity throbs in the medium of music. If religion in its ordained form had to rescue human souls from earthly life and its depredations by regularly promoting retreat from obsessive worldly cares and even escapism, flight from the world, the music of modern times had the merit that it created a transitional medium in which the unrenounceable rights of regression and remembrance of the primal pre-worldly wounded state were tempered with the sense of self-development and love of the world.

The ‘project of modernity’, and the solidarity of music with this project – it may be appropriate to conclude by briefly explaining these dubious terms. In fact, what right would we have to speak of an era called the modern age if we weren’t saying that this was the time when people in the West began restructuring their desires? For the Renaissance truly to become an age of discovery it had to define itself as a great turning point for human aspirations. To sum up, what was always important for the people of modern times from then on, whatever their own pronouncements on their latest goals, was to redirect the arrow of desire away from the goals of the nether world towards objects this side of paradise, objects that were attainable and enjoyable in their own lifetime. The geographical symbol for this turn is called America, the fictional symbol is Treasure Island and the mythological symbol is the goddess Fortuna. To be sure, since time immemorial people from the Western cultural context saw the striving of a bad ‘here’ for a good ‘there’ as healthy and rational, even if for the foreseeable future the ‘there’ was only attainable in the heaven of the Holy Trinity. The centuries following Columbus’s journeys made Europeans into treasure hunters, not just incidentally and occasionally but principally and constitutively. Treasure hunting has been the real metaphysical activity of the European psyche since the discovery of the continents beyond the ocean.

The image of treasure involves the idea of the magnetic object that shares a common trait with the demonic: it does not stay still while it is being turned into theory. It is impossible to imagine the treasure without starting to look for it, and it would be impossible to look for it without already being caught by its allure. It is enough to describe the world as a place where treasures can be found to turn oneself instantly into a seeker, no longer in the sense of the transcendent and masochistic quest for God but in the sense of the modern, aesthetic-magical-economic enterprise. Being an entrepreneur means adjusting from reward in a nether world to expectation of profit in this world. The treasure hypothesis provides justification for the hybrid courage with which people of the modern era approached the vast expanse of the world and the earth. In the future the only meaning of new territory could be that it contained the possibility of treasure caves. When we suddenly praise the new, it is because it is linked with the human right of finding. Finding the treasure means providing evidence that nobody is happy for the wrong reason. Conceiving happiness implies believing that the coincidence of justice and favouritism is possible, and not just possible but legitimate.

New territory: this term shows the spirit of utopia in its true colours; it is also the spirit of risk. That makes it sound like a gospel in the guise of geography. Believing in it means being convinced that treasures lie waiting on distant shores, on hitherto inaccessible islands, in nature’s nocturnal workshops, in glowing flasks, in glittering grottoes, waiting for their finders. They lie waiting thanks to a primal accumulation of means of happiness, and we still know too little about their origin, production and distribution; they are waiting because no luck exists that does not already have its eye on the person it will favour. Where Fortune returns, Fortunatus is on the spot – the man who has specialized in taking gifts from capricious hands.8 This is why Fortunatus was the first artists’ name of the modern age. Fortune’s treasures are a priori haloes that would be happy to decorate a wearer’s head as soon as they identify themselves as a finder.

Having said this, and having issued the requisite warnings, we can give the idea a final twist to suggest how the musicians of modern times could become agents of the treasure hunt. It is obvious why they did not board ships to reach treasure islands. They used different maps from sailors and drew other coastlines to represent their America. The true, interior America attracts composers as soon as they set off, seeking and finding in another way, to discover the melodious treasure caves. But the artists themselves first had to produce what they found there. What they retrieved had never existed before they found it.

To conclude, I would like to suggest that it was Shakespeare in his island play The Tempest who first touched on these dangerous liaisons between the New World of sound and the New World illuminated by treasures. The chief witness of this discovery is none other than the original inhabitant of the exquisite island that, thanks to wizardry (what today we call technology), has become Prospero’s empire – an aboriginal named Caliban whom one of the visitors, with colonial arrogance, calls a ‘mooncalf’, a ‘stinking fish’ and ‘most ignorant monster’, a Caribbean Papageno, a natural human and original proletarian who possesses, however, a privilege that the stiff new masters of the world can only hazily imagine. He has the prerogative of living in the midst of Nature that is producing sounds for the first time – and of observing from this vantage point the fabrications of higher culture with a mixture of scepticism, astonishment, submissiveness and rebellion. The lines that Shakespeare gave to his amphibian monster who was born yet unborn, who was entirely human and entirely an artist, should be studied as the permanent manifesto of the New Music:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,

Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,

That, if I then had wak’d after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open, and show riches

Ready to drop upon me; that, when I wak’d, I cried to dream again.9

This description created a misunderstanding that still lingers on in today’s music business. Stefano, the pretender who claimed power on the island, drew an ominous conclusion from what he heard: without further ado, he believed Caliban’s description of the melodious treasure island as the picture of a territory, a domain, a comfortable palace, in which musical servants performed their duties. This explains the staid, thoroughly feudal and thoroughly bourgeois conclusion:

This will prove a brave kingdom to me, where I shall have my music for nothing.

Ladies and gentlemen, centuries have passed since this prophetic dialogue. The Calibans and Stefanos still meet up now and again to discuss this peculiar and strange island realm. These gatherings, which are usually held in summertime, are conventionally called festivals nowadays, but it would make more sense to see them as constitutive assemblies. They are concerned with the musical constitution of the world. Acute observers are doubtful that a common statement will emerge from this in the foreseeable future. The advocates of the Calibans persist with their argument that music is demonic territory; the Stefano fans stick to their position that if music cannot be entirely for free, at least its costs should be reduced. People still scarcely realize how the curvature of the world also affects the realm of values. Here, under the festive umbrella of a music event, we are still giving voice to the idea that nothing should be as valuable as the thing we want to have for free again from the moment of birth onward.