Sunday, August 10, 2008

Imaginary Lands

More than a few composers — from Ligeti's Kylwiria to Kraig Grady's Anaphoria — have invested formative time, whether in childhood or as adults, in the invention of imaginary lands. Once one starts imagining a land, all of the details start to emerge: maps, languages and writing systems, mythology and literature, customs and rituals, postage stamps and passports, poetry and music. These newfound countries tend to be more systematic, more orderly, than any real, existing messy and conflict-prone places, which shouldn't be much of a surprise, as these are often refuges from bright and creative people who don't quite fit into the world as it is, and imagining utopia is certainly one of the functions that artists and writers and composers can often perform superbly well.

Ron Silliman has a pair of posts (here and here), contemplating the relationship between "grand theory" and practice (in his case, poetry and left politics) and this bit of text stands out:

... author, whether the Ur-situationist Lefebvre or Charles Olson writing in his most telegraphic critical mode, saw their work, these specific books, as making contributions to practice(s) whose hoped-for fruition existed principally away from the university, whether writing in writing poetry or making a political revolution. They are not contributions to a professional debate.

Professional music "theory", as practiced in universities and conservatories, is largely an account of practice in music already made, recipes for synthesizing new music that is similar to old models, or suggestions for the interpretation of existing music through the articulation or projection of particular features, but speculative music theory is the domain of composers, the work done in preparation for and during the composition. A speculative theory inevitably has the same utopian qualities that the grand theories Silliman discusses and many composers spend their creative lives, in effect, building imaginary worlds that follow their own sense and logic, accumulate their own habits and histories, and, as they grow, undergo all the successes and failures, consistencies and contradictions, tragedies, comedies, and farces that real lands experience. You create music to put it into the world, but it inevitably lives two lives, one in that real world, cruel or kind as it may be, the other, private, and cruel or kind as your own imagination.


Samuel Vriezen said...

Daniel, I find the link you're making here intriguing, but I do think your analysis misses a difference between the invented world and what we'll for the moment call 'utopia' that I believe is at the very heart of both. The invented world is meant to get you away from the real world, whereas the utopia is the impossible thing that the real world should become; utopian visions exist in order to inspire activism and change in the real world. In music, that means writing pieces that *actually bring about a glimpse of the vision*.

But doesn't a fantasy world bring about a vision? In my experience, not quite. Perhaps in some rare cases. But somehow the substructure of fantasy worlds tends towards conservatism. This is because generally, they want to get away from the world into another world - which ends up having a map, a history, customs, religions, social structures, a language - *just like our world!* That's why I think the genre of fantasy so often (and more than SF) tends towards the culturally conservative, if not reactionary.

As a teenager I used to be a big D&D fan, and I did my share of inventing worlds. I kept trying to make those worlds at the same time exciting (to have adventures in), original (having a very special flavor somehow), and - the basis for the other qualities - believable: the histories I'd invent would have to have the "stuff of history" in them. As I went on and got better at inventing worlds I noticed more and more that all the stuff I put in to make it believable was actually strongly modelled, at some level of abstraction, on actual world history. You'd have spectres of Empire (there hardly exists a fantasy world without the Roman empire in its distant past), colonialist movements, etc. If you get better at it, you could get better at disguising these things.

But utopian thought seems to operate in a different way. It attempts to think a world that isn't so much an alternative to ours as one that never was but that our world should be - which makes it more challenging, more disturbing and ultimately more inspiring. They make you act.

Importantly, utopias that you think up must always have something very open, something empty about them, which gives them a universalist appeal. You don't go design the flags and languages for your utopian vision. An utopia with such specific tribal elements in it is not one that would make me act.

Likewise, in music, you can have pieces that are in themselves brilliant evocations of 'other' worlds, crafted as if magically by a distant genius, and ones that seem to be at the same time very 'real' in that you recognize sounds and structures and musicians at work and that also seem to point to the open possibilities of even newer music. (I hope I'm making some sense here...)

Daniel Wolf said...


I don't think I quite buy your distinction between what we might call the escapist and visionary worlds; I think they exist on a continuum and intentions are often a mix. The greater problem is simply that some imagined worlds either just won't work, or are too ugly to accept. The conservative fantasy worlds you mention are great examples of the latter, or anything in Heinlein. China Mieville's essay in the David/Monk Evil Paradises volume really hits the nail on the head when he notes that all of those libertarian-utopian schemes (his examples is a recent scam to build an independent state on a large cruise ship) become so obsessed with securing private property that they become police states. With the kinds of imagined worlds that turn into music or some other artform, however, playing them out into success or failure has consequences of a dimension altogther different than those of fantasies implemented into real lives.

We are stilling struggling, Ithinks, with Shelley's pronouncement that "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world". What does that mean? Wouldn't acknowledging that mean the recognition that, given the state of the world, that poets have done a piss-poor job of it?

Office of the Cultural Liaisons said...

I have always enjoyed Henri Corbin's term "Visionary Geography" to represent such things. Not all imaginary lands are Utopias. Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County would serve as a good example. Like Noh theater, the unreal is used to more clearly represent what is truly real.

Samuel Vriezen said...
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Samuel Vriezen said...

Daniel - there's two points I'd like to answer now:

First, I do think that realizing an artistic dream is a case of 'fantasy implemented into real life'. The thing is there, but not only the thing; there's the concert hall, there's the schooling, there's the organisation... the difference with politics is that its object is different, and indeed the potential consequences, but not everything on the abstract level. Thus, you *can* have things like 'terror' or 'repression' or 'corruption' in art. It doesn't involve sending bourgeois, or revolutionary, or whatever composers off to Siberia or to the concentration camp of course, but you know the forms it can take - pressure to write in a certain style, etc.

Second: it's true that conservative fantasy and utopian fantasy can both lead to horror in being implemented. But that doesn't mean their internal structure isn't fundamentally different. Regardless of whether or not they lead to horror, they are different, and that's an important thing to analyse. Even the structure of political horror that they could lead to itself can be different. It's worth following Badiou's analysis in Ethics of Nazism as "simulacrum" (meaning that it's notion of racial purity is based on a non-empty given content - that of the German People) and of Stalinism as 'disaster' (in which an abstract principle that /is/ universal - based on an empty determination of Man - is "overstretched", so that reality is made to fit this principle. which ended up targetting potentially just about everybody - not even party membership was a guarantee)

Daniel Wolf said...


We're in absolute agreement on your first point; in fact, I'm pretty much of a broken record on this blog about the abuses of the tiny bit of power sometimes accumulated by individuals and institutions in Newmusicland.

(And at this moment, one in which authoritarian states tend to be far less ideological, the habit of direct state censorship or locking up composers is out of fashion, as such states have learned the that one can be as effective a censor by just ignoring unfavored music (or whatever), and the market mechanisms they have adopted generally oblige in the process).

On the second point, I think we disagree that (to remove your double negative) "their internal structure is fundamentally different". In fact, I suspect that there is an internal structure common to disasters and horrors, but in both of the cases you mentioned, the mixtures of fundamentally flawed analysis of real, existing situations and
disastrous incompetence in implementing policies that would actually be useful to the states were often so startling similar, that discussion of the structural differences in the respective fantasies are basically besidens the point. So much so, in fact, that any conservative/utopian distinction is here lost to the fundamental and implemental wrongness of both schemes and and deep resemblance in the structure of the state, the powers reserved by the state and its institutions, and the relationship of individuals to the state.

Samuel Vriezen said...
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Samuel Vriezen said...

Well, Daniel, we're getting a bit distant from your original post here, but anyway... I can't agree that the structural differences are besides the point. For example, if I read about "flawed analysis of real, existing situations and disastrous incompetence in implementing policies that would actually be useful to the states", this is I guess quite true for Stalinism and might also be true for Nazi Germany, but it just misses the essence of what was going on there. The extermination of the Jews was not a category of flawed analysis and policy mistake. As if the Nazis wouldn't have done if they only had had a better economical theory.

The structural differences do not only imply a different mode of operation of the totalitarian state. They also imply different meanings. As Zizek points out in some passages of The Parallax View that I came accross just now:

[...] In short, Stalinism is not prohibited in the same way as Nazism: even if we are fully aware of its monsterous, aspects, we find Ostalgie acceptable: "Goodbye Lenin" is tolerated, "Goodbye Hitler" is not - why? Or, another example: in today's Germany, there are many CDs on the market featuring old GDR revolutionary and Party songs, from "Stalin, Freund, Genosse" to "Die Partei hat immer Recht" - but we look in vain for a CD featuring Nazi Party songs...

Already at the anecdotal level, the difference between the Fascist and the Stalinist universe is obvious; in Stalinist show trials, for example, the accused has to confess his crimes publicly and give an account of how he came to commit them - in stark contrast to Nazism, in which it would be meaningless to demand from a Jew a confession that he was in volved in a Jewish plot against the German nation. This difference is symptomatic of different attitudes toward the Enlightenment: Stalinism still conceived itself as part of the Enlightenment tradition, withiin which truth is accessible to any rational man, no matter how depraved he is, which is why he is subjectively responsible for his crimes, in contrast to the Nazis, for whom the guilt of the Jews is a direct fact of their very biological constitution [...]

[...] This is also why we do not find in Nazism anything that could be compared to the "humanist" dissident Communists, those who went even to the point of risking their own physical survival in fighting what they perceived as the "bureaucratic deformation" of Socialism in the USSR and its empire: in Nazi Germany, there were no figures who advocated "Nazism with a human face." [...]

paul bailey said...

doesn't every piece we compose imply its own universe?

in the act of creation one of the best places to be is the time between when the universe becomes "real" and when you put the pencil down. on the good pieces every time i play the piece its like visiting old friends.