Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
August 28, 2000
The melody lingers on
'Soundtracked' culture robs us of substance and meaning
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
I like music, and I enjoy an eclectic variety of musical styles from classical to rock to folk to even a bit of country, blues and jazz. I've been an amateur guitar player for 30 years.
However, I've not been an aficionado of background music in real life, at least since I was a teenager, and truth to tell, even then I was never much for listening to music while doing other things. I've owned 40-odd cars since I was 15, and only one of them had a tape deck (an obsolete eight-track that I never once used), let alone a CD player. Some of them didn't even have AM radios.
Music has its place, but that place is not cultural ubiquity. When I want to listen to music, I prefer to concentrate on that. I also enjoy silence, and I don't need or want a soundtrack overdubbing my life. I like to think and music is a distraction. I relish conversation and music drowns it out.
However, those are matters of taste, and relatively trivial compared to the pernicious effects that a culture set to background music is inflicting, according to J. Bottum, in his insightful essay The Soundtracking of America, in the March 2000 Atlantic Monthly.
"Music made sense when the world did," says Bottum. "Now the sense is gone, but the melody lingers on - everywhere, . . . and the barrage may be turning our minds to mush."
Bottum advances his thesis from several angles, most notably what he refers to as "the collapse of a common metaphysics." Consequently, he asserts, a forgetting of the old cultural knowledge, which he maintains "was not meaningful because it was shared; it was shared because it was meaningful. It all fit into a frame, the generally accepted public system of belief about the way God and history and the world work."
Nowadays, Bottum laments, "we share in enormous amount of information, and we know it doesn't mean anything, and we smile wryly at one another as we sing along."
Harshly criticizing what he refers to as 20th century "emotivism," Bottum argues: "We grow confused and imagine that we must be having deep thoughts because we feel [music] so deeply. . . .
"We translate everything, even morality, from a system of ideas to be judged true or false to a set of emotions to be judged only pleasant or unpleasant. And as the constricting intellect is forced out . . . modern music promises that there will open up for us . . . an emotional wealth undreamed of by the cramped rationality of ages past."
It's hard to gainsay Bottum on this point. Nowadays, emotion is more likely to be stressed in discourse than reason. Assertive statements are commonly prefaced with "I feel," as opposed to "I think," or "I believe." In terms of advocacy and affirmation, "sincerity" is accorded as great or greater purchase than rational conviction.
Like music, emotion has its legitimate place in human affairs, but it is essentially the toy department of life, of vastly lesser importance and gravitas then the world of ideas. It is the domain of the senses, not of the intellect, and while emotion can be powerfully felt, it is by definition subjective, nothing more than sensuality and has no depth of meaning beyond that.
A century and a half ago, Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard described the lowest degree of spiritual judgment as the "aesthetic" level - the pursuit sensory pleasure and enjoyment. Likewise, Japanese philosopher George Ohsawa placed emotional evaluations, "sensory" and "sentimental," at levels two and three of his seven-levels of judgment schematic - higher only than raw, animal instinct.
Bottum agrees, noting that "music stands fairly low on the traditional list of devices by which we try to understand human experience. Who ever learned anything from music except the emotional power of music?"
"What happens in a culture without thought, a culture with expression and nothing to express?" Bottum asks. "Music is not culture. It is the mist that plays above culture. A people that takes its music as fundamental art . . . has mistaken the foam for the sea."
Small wonder so many people these days find life empty, unsatisfying and meaningless, despite our affluence and technological wizardry. By and large, our popular culture is shallow and meaningless, and ironic detachment, cynicism and despair are not inappropriate reactions from those who have been ideologically blinded to alternatives.
Of course, we can't blame popular obsession with background music for all of this. That is more a symptom than a cause; but it does signalize the philosophical and spiritual bankruptcy of our era, and as Bottum concludes, our "all-encircling noise" is "in the way" of our rediscovering "a unified idea and a public metaphysics" which is our only hope for restoration of a functional culture.
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