Monday, 19 March 2018

changing to stay the same

There's a strange passage in Wittgenstein's Zettel:
37. (At the beginning of a piece of music it says crotchet = 88, written there by the composer. But in order to play it right nowadays it must be played crotchet = 94: which is the tempo intended by the composer?)
I find it hard to know quite what Wittgenstein here had in mind. But perhaps (to recall some suggestions from members of my reading group) it no longer sounds right at that speed on modern instruments. Or perhaps the cultural times have changed - 'speeded up' as we might put it - in such a way that the emotional experience of this music played at 88 just would now feel lugubrious when before it wouldn't have. (The remark is, incidentally, in parentheses.) I suspect that the important work the remark does it to open up the question, to get us thinking about what doing justice over time to an original meaning consists in.

There are easier examples. Currency inflation makes for a rather obvious case: in order for a house to remain the same value it must increase in price. Or, to take a simpler musical example: if you change the key of a piece of music, to now sing the right note at the start of the fourth bar you must sing not what was originally written, a C sharp, but a D sharp. Yet such examples may be rather too easy in that with them we can appeal to a singular criterion to justify our choice of revision, and I suspect all the interesting cases are ones in which that won't be available. 

There's a kind of cultural illness we often meet with which pretends to be a friend of conservativism - conservativism in the sense of: valuing the preservation of what is of deep value in our cultural and environmental legacy - yet which betrays itself by insisting that in order to remain the same you just gotta remain the same. The idiocy of this position shows itself in how it never stops to ask what it is to remain the same when so much around is changing. The result is a fetishising rather than a preservation of the past. The past no longer lives in this tradition, but instead merely serves the function of quelling current obsessional anxieties. ('We'll be ok so long as we keep on doing just what they used to do.') When the world has changed key we find this faux conservative coming in with the C sharp, a C sharp which now but clangs.

The effects are striking when we turn to religion. Orthodox practitioners are perhaps the most often guilty of practices which corrupt the original meaning of belief and ritual by keeping it 'the same' despite the new context. The Word now risks being reduced to an idol. The faux conservative wants to substitute the grasp we have of the meaning of scripture which comes from something like the application of a criterion for the grasp we enjoy which comes from our living faith. In non-scientific ages it was natural for faith to be expressed in ways which to us now seem almost incomprehensible (e.g. that we always have an angel standing over us; I don't deny the fact but ask what today, given our best understandings of how the world works, it could even mean to assert this). When the range of conceptual distinctions available to us was not so great - for example, in times before reflective thought was even alive to the conceptual/empirical distinction - it made sense to simply proclaim all sorts of beliefs which now, said like that, are surely just incredible.

Which is the tempo intended by the composer? What would the Christ or Prophet have us do today? What is it now for that spirit to live? In answering this you can't read the scripture the way one reads an instruction manual. For the scripture might say 'play it at 88 Joe' whilst today, to really hear The Word, you gotta play it at 94. And how do you know that 94 is the right tempo? Through prayer; through listening to your heart; through talking it over with others; through weeding out the egoism of fetishistic idolatry within oneself; through imagination. What, you wanted it easy? What, you'd forgotten that the whole point was to encounter not the world but the living spirit? You really thought that to be informed by The Word you could just comprehend the words? Really?