Saturday, October 9, 2010

Getting One's Perceptual Categories in Order

My recent attempt to do justice to this week’s performance of Edgard Varèse’s “Amériques” by the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas reminded me of my current round of struggles with reading Jacques Derrida.  Specifically, I have been wrestling with Dissemination, Barbara Johnson’s translation of La Dissémination, and the mind-bending games Derrida plays with the concept of “preface,” trying to make the case that the text that appears where one would expect a preface is not really a preface (nor could it ever be).

For those unfamiliar with this work, the first sentence is:

This (therefore) will not have been a book.

Think of that as the ascent to the top of the roller coaster ride before the free fall begins.  The basic game that Derrida plays is to ask what it means for a writer to write something that tells the reader what (s)he will be reading in the future.  In far blunter language than Derrida would ever use, it comes down to asking:  Why would you say what you are going to say when you have already said it?  (This presumes that the preface is written after the “work” has been completed, which is usually the case.)

If all Derrida wanted to do was get me lost in a labyrinth, I could appreciate his intention with some amusement;  but I still wanted to get a bird’s eye view of the labyrinth he had designed.  After a bit of groping around with his convoluted sentences, I found myself falling back on Friedrich Hayek’s speculations about sensory order and Gerald Edelman’s efforts to pursue those speculations through the investigation of brain behavior.  Edelman’s work revolves around the capability of the brain to perform perceptual categorization;  and, as I wandered through Derrida’s labyrinth, I realized that there are actually two aspects of perceptual categorization.  The better understood aspect is the one motivated by Hayek;  and it involves “ordering sensations” according to “known categories.”  The more challenging aspect, however, involves how mind maintains a repertoire of the categories it “knows.”  From this point of view, writing a preface is a strategy for making sure that the reader has those categories that are prerequisite for making sense of the text to follow.  Thus, it is less a matter of saying what you are going to say and more one and more one of inducing a set of perceptual categories in the reader such that, when you get around to “saying it,” the reader can then figure out what you “mean.”

This brings me to the challenge of listening to Varèse.  For his time Varèse basically laid siege to those perceptual categories that we all assumed would serve us when listening to music.  What he wrote just did not “fit” into those categories;  but, what is worse, he never bothered to provide us with the benefit of any sort of preface.  Thus, there is little a listener can do other than roll his/her own categories as the music unfolds.  The good news is that there is now music that goes beyond the Varèse canon;  and much of that music can help us establish new perceptual categories as much as “total immersion” in Varèse’s own works can.  This would explain why I found myself thinking a lot about the music of Frank Zappa while I was listening to “Amériques” on Thursday night.  I might even suggest that, if one wanted to prepare a “preface” for this particular composition, a good start might be a screening of 200 Motels!

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