Friday, March 28, 2008

Vindicated by John Dewey!

As I probably anticipated, my recent attempt to take a semiotic approach to listening to the blues met with resistance. Since my post here had grown out of a comment I had submitted to Truthdig, the resistance came in the form of another Truthdig comment by one Greg Todd. Here is Todd's reaction:

I suggest this entire area of academia—critics criticizing critics - be depth-charged, funding cut off, so people can get back to studying science or history and LISTENING to the blues, from Bessie Smith (if you like) to Robert Johnson to Washboard Sam to Sonny Boy W. and Little Walter…

While I appreciate the aggravation expressed in this text, my guess is that Todd does not appreciate (or care to appreciate?) the distinction that Stravinsky tried to draw between hearing and listening; and it is only through the recognition of that distinction that we can take on the sorts of arguments that Marybeth Hamilton set out in her In Search of the Blues book and that Anthony Heilbut brought to bear in his review of that book.

Now I can understand that there are those who would take umbrage at Stravinsky for suggesting that we lack a "natural talent" for listening; but that is where the speciousness of Todd's position lies. Our genetic code endows us with "natural" capacities for sensation; but the capacity for perception is up there in the cerebral cortex. It begins to develop in neonates, but that development can continue into adult life if the variety of our experiences is rich enough. So there really is more to listening than just letting the sounds pour into your ears.

This then raises the question of whether or not poor souls like me should labor over writing about that development or whether we should just allow it to happen "naturally" among those who hear. In that respect it appears that, once again, I have an ally in John Dewey in the text of his Art as Experience:

The function of criticism is the reëducation of perception of works of art; it is an auxiliary in the process, a difficult process, of learning to see and hear. The conception that its business is to appraise, to judge in the legal and moral sense, arrests the perception of those who are influenced by the criticism that assumes this task. The moral office of criticism is performed indirectly. The individual who has an enlarged and quickened experience is one who should make for himself his own appraisal. The way to help him is through the expansion of his own experience by the work of art to which criticism is subsidiary. The moral function of art itself is to remove prejudice, do away with the scales that keep the eye from seeing, tear away the veils due to wont and custom, perfect the power to perceive. The critic’s office is to further this work, performed by the object of art.

I suppose that some (possibly including Todd) would see this as academic arrogance. However, having been immersed in Dewey for about a month, I feel justified in saying that, while he can often be opaque, he never comes off as arrogant (quite the contrary)! Indeed, it was precisely that problem of perfecting "the power to perceive" that occupied my writing yesterday about Nikolaj Znaider's violin recital; and it is why I shall continue to indulge in my right to listen to the blues!

No comments: