I Love the 80s: Allan Bloom Edition

Rod Dreher:

I recall reading Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” when it came out in paperback, in 1988, when I was an undergraduate, and scoffing at his negative judgment on rock ‘n roll. As I recall — and please correct me if I misremember — Bloom, who was a very deep thinker, connected the reckless, anti-rational, culturally destructive passions released in the 1960s to the instinctual power of rock. I remember at the time thinking this was stupid, but not because I had an intellectual answer to Bloom. To me, it simply sounded like the kvetching of an old fart. I was frustrated at the time to learn that Bloom was not some sort of right-wing Christian, but was in fact a secularist homosexual. I was living in Washington then, doing an internship, and made an idiotic remark to someone at a party that Bloom was a traitor to his class, having written a book that was being used by conservatives as ammo in the culture war. I remember my interlocutor, an older liberal, looking at me with puzzlement and pity at the crudity of my judgment.

Now, I see that I was wrong, but I don’t say that in an ideological sense. It’s not that I’ve turned on rock and roll — most of my music collection is rock — but that I see that Bloom was onto something, that rock is a far more ambiguous a phenomenon than I could possibly have grasped at 21. To the extent that rock music hastened the demise of the despicable Soviet regime, hooray. But the same energies called forth from the human spirit by rock music, and its descendants, have affected our own institutions, traditions and self-understanding.

Roger Scruton‘s essay “Soul Music” at AEI, not writing about Bloom, but writing about music:

The ways of poetry and music are not changed anywhere without change in the most important laws of the city.” So wrote Plato in The Republic (4.424c). And Plato is famous for having given what is perhaps the first theory of character in music, proposing to allow some modes and to forbid others according to the character which can be heard in them. Plato deployed the concept of mimesis, or imitation, to explain why bad character in music encourages bad character in its devotees. The context suggests that he had singing, dancing, and marching in mind rather than the silent listening that we know from the concert hall. But, however we fill out the details, there is no doubt that music, for Plato, was something that could be judged in the same moral terms we judge one another, and that the terms in question denoted virtues and vices like nobility, dignity, temperance, and chastity on the one hand, and sensuality, belligerence, and indiscipline on the other.

Plato’s argument targeted not individual works of music or specific performances, but modes. We don’t exactly know how the Greek modes were arranged; they conventionally identified styles, instruments, and melodic and rhythmical devices, as well as the notes of the scale. Without going into the matter, we can venture to suggest that Plato was discriminating between recognizable musical idioms as we might discriminate jazz from rock, and both from classical. And his concern was not so very different from that of a modern person worrying about the moral character, and moral effect, of death metal, say, or musical kitsch of the Andrew Lloyd Webber kind. Should our children listen to this stuff? Thus question modern adults, just as Plato asked, “Should the city permit this stuff?” Of course, we have long since given up on the idea that you can forbid certain kinds of music by law. We should remember, however, that this idea has had a long history, and has been a decisive factor in the evolution of the Christian churches, which have been as censorious over liturgical music as over liturgical words, and indeed have hardly distinguished between them.

Moreover, it is still common to believe that styles of music, and individual works of music, have—or can have—a moral character, and that the character of a work or style of music can “rub off” in some way on its devotees. It makes perfectly good sense, and is often profoundly illuminating, to describe individual works, and also styles and idioms, in terms of the virtues and vices of people. The first movement of Elgar’s Second Symphony is undoubtedly noble, and if the nobility is in a measure flawed this too is part of its moral character.


Ours is a “non-judgmental” culture, and its hostility to judgment arises from the democratic belief in human equality. To criticize another’s taste, whether in music, entertainment or lifestyle, assumes that some tastes are superior to others. And this, for many people, is offensive. Who are you, they respond, to judge another’s taste? Young people in particular feel this, and since young people are the principal devotees of pop music, this places a formidable obstacle in the path of anyone who undertakes to criticize pop music in a university. This is especially so if the criticism is phrased in Plato’s idiom, as an analysis and condemnation of the moral vices exemplified by a musical style. In the face of this, a teacher might be tempted to give up on the question of judgment, and assume that anything goes, that all tastes are equally valid, and that, in so far as music is an object of academic study, it is not criticism, but technical analysis and know-how that should be imparted. Indeed, this is the line that seems to be followed in academic departments of musicology, at least in the anglophone world.

The question of the moral character of music is also complicated by the fact that music is appreciated in many different ways: people dance to music, they work and converse over a background of music, they perform music, and they listen to music. People happily dance to music that they cannot bear to listen to—a fairly normal experience these days. You can talk over Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but not over Arnold Schoenberg; you can work to Frederic Chopin, but not to Richard Wagner. And it is sometimes argued that the melodic and rhythmic contour of pop music both fits it for being overheard, rather than listened to, and also encourages a need for pop in the background. Some psychologists wonder whether this need follows the pattern of addictions; and more philosophical critics like Theodor Adorno raise deeper questions as to whether listening has not changed entirely with the development of the short-range melodies and clustered harmonic progressions typical of songs in the jazz tradition. Adorno (1903-1969) had come as a refugee from Nazism to America, where he enjoyed the usual privileges granted by American universities to European intellectuals, and where he repaid his hosts in the usual way, by writing criticisms of America that seethe with venom and contempt. His target was what he and his older colleague Max Horkheimer called “mass culture,” the principal manifestations of which he found in the Hollywood movie and in jazz.

For Adorno, music lies at the heart of modern civilization, and the destiny of music is a kind of indicator of the moral, spiritual, and political health of a society. His adverse judgment of the culture of American capitalism was influenced by his broadly Marxist perspective on the modern world. But it focused first of all—and indeed, almost to the exclusion of all other indicators—on the aesthetic tastes prevalent in America, and in particular on the music that we now know as the American Songbook. The harmonic and melodic language of that “book” has penetrated to the very bones of our civilization, and when we listen now to a jazz standard by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, or Hoagy Carmichael, we are struck most of all by the innocence of the idiom—the last time, perhaps, that old-fashioned, monogamous marriage was celebrated in our music!

Adorno attacked something that he called the “regression of listening,” which he believed had infected the entire culture of modern America. Adorno’s concern was not with isolated works of music, but with an entire musical culture. He saw the culture of listening as a deep spiritual resource of Western civilization, one whose effects he laboured unsuccessfully to express. In some way, the habit of listening to long-range musical thought, in which themes are subjected to extended melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic development, is connected to the ability to live beyond the moment, to transcend the search for instant gratification, to set aside the routines of the consumer society, with its constant pursuit of “fetish,” and to put real values in the place of fleeting desires. So Adorno thought. And something deep and persuasive lives here, something that needs to be rescued from Adorno’s intemperate and over-politicized critique of just about everything he found in America. In searching for Adorno’s meaning, we should set aside his un-nuanced and unjust criticism of jazz, and of the tradition of popular song that arose from it. Instead we should look at what is happening in our musical culture now, and in particular we should try to figure out how we might plausibly criticize pop music in general, and particular styles and songs in particular, for the things that they are, and independently of their causes and effects.

Not that we can entirely disregard the causes and effects of pop. Adorno reminds us that it is very hard to criticize a whole musical idiom without standing in judgment of the culture to which it belongs. Musical idioms don’t come in sealed packets with no relation to the rest of human life. And when a particular kind of music surrounds us in public spaces, when it invades every café, bar, and restaurant, when it blares at us from passing motorcars and dribbles from the open taps of radios and iPods all over the planet, the critic may seem to stand like the apocryphal King Canute before an irresistible tide, uttering useless and curmudgeonly cries of indignation.

James Ceaser at Postmodern Conservative:

The current essay, “Soul Music,” is highly reminiscent of the famous chapter on music that appears near the beginning of Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. Bloom’s chapter is also on the music of the youth. Interestingly, too, Bloom and Scruton both begin from Plato, referring to the Republic. The theme is that music shapes the soul, and thus shapes the way of life or the regime. (“The ways of poetry and music are not changed anywhere without change in the most important laws of the city” Republic 424c). And sure enough, as our music has changed, so have our mores and laws, in the direction, as Cole Porter put it even before the revolution in rock, of “anything goes.” And consider for a moment not the music but the lyrics of that one:

In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking,
But now, God knows,
Anything Goes.

Good authors too who once knew better words,
Now only use four letter words
Writing prose, Anything Goes.

The world has gone mad today
And good’s bad today,

Stop. “Good is bad today.” Porter saw not only where mores were heading, but what was to be a precise linguistic transformation.  Kool! Of course, the dictum “anything goes” would be strictly libertarian, whereas the new ethic is in fact more restrictive: it permits only that which allows anything to go, while excluding anything that does not. This is what is known as political correctness or the dogmatism of relativism.

Returning to Bloom, he was known best for his attack on rock music. One line stands out: “life is made into a non-stop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy” (p.75). His chapter on music, incidentally, is commonly thought to have been the reason for which this work of theory was able to burst out from beyond the narrow circle of academic readership to find its way to the top of the New York Times best seller list, earning him the envy and enmity of the academic establishment. Not even John Rawls, in his wildest, er, philosophical fantasy could top that.

There is more to the last point about selling books than meets the eye. I can testify to this first hand, for I knew Alan Bloom, as he once jokingly said to me, “before he was Alan Bloom,” meaning before he became a household celebrity. No one can say that Bloom knew he would become famous by writing Closing, as its success remains at the end of the day one of the more inexplicable events of modern culture. Still, I think its popularity was not a one-thousand percent accident. Bloom attacked rock music in large part to create a scandal. For a philosopher to jump into the mosh pit and talk about hip hop and MTV was to make him a shock jock avant la lettre. And the purpose was not so much to sell books–though the man could sure spend money!–as to try to reach and educate a portion of the youth generation. He attacked rock–he says as much at the beginning of his chapter–because he knew that modern youth would defend it. Indeed, he thought it was about the only thing they would defend as such, i.e., not on relativistic but absolute ground. And this was the kicker in his pedagogy: Defending something absolutely and with indignation is a precondition for philosophical inquiry. You have to love something first to be capable of beginning the ascent; you have to be in the thrall of a prejudice, to cling to something absolutely, before going through the wrenching experience of giving it up and opening up to the pursuit of truth.  A student open-minded to everything would remain that way forever. “If a student can … get a critical distance on what he clings to, come to doubt the ultimate value of what he loves, he has taken the first and most difficult step toward the philosophic conversion.” (p.71) Bloom no doubt meant most of what he said about Mick Jagger, but the analysis was secondary to his “rhetorical” purpose of engaging some of his students and helping them to get some satisfaction.

Samuel Goldman at PomoCon:

As we continue our discussion of popular music and its discontents, I opened up the paper this morning to find a charming tribute to the place and milieu in which I grew up: the New Jersey hardcore scene. Although it’s partly a record review, the piece does a good job capturing the local vibe of being near, but not quite of the City. One of the groups featured, Titus Andronicus, are of a younger generation than I am, and don’t sound very good. But Ted Leo is a real eminence gris whom I remember from his days in the beloved neo-mod band  Chisel (Citizens Arrest were definitely before my time).

Chisel were based in D.C. But somehow they preserved that New Jersey sound, which evokes the experience of being pressed up against the plate glass window of a cool, expensive restaurant or lounge, watching the goings-on within from the cold street. Springsteen had that sound, of course. But so did punk bands like the Bouncing Souls, Lifetime,  and a dozen even more obscure, mostly short-lived outfits of kids with guitars.

None of this is great, or even good music by Roger Scruton standards. But pure aesthetic achievement isn’t the only thing we should, or do, value in music. The new Ted Leo record contains some terrific, thoughtful rock ‘n’ roll. What’s more important to me, though, is that it sounds like home.

Changing the subject to Another Side Of Allan Bloom, William Brafford at The League:

List night I pulled down Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, and found that its one reference to Kuhn was simply dripping with disdain:

So psychologists like Freud are in an impossible halfway house between science, which does not admit the existence of the phenomena he wishes to explain [i.e. consciousness], and the unconscious, which is outside the jurisdiction of science. It is a choice, so Nietzsche compellingly insists, between science and psychology. Psychology is by that very fact the winner, since science is the product of the psyche. Scientists themselves are gradually being affected by this choice. Perhaps science is only a product of our culture, which we know is no better than any other. Is science true? One sees a bit of decay around the edges of its good conscience, formerly so robust. Books like Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions are popular symptoms of this condition.

-Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987. 200.

Bloom is contemptuous of Kuhn and other thinkers that he takes to be relativists because he takes the desire for wisdom to be the starting point of philosophy, which is for him the only truly worthy way of life. Taking non-foundationalism as a starting point — a paradoxical position, perhaps — makes mush of the yearning for truth. If the transcendentals are out of reach, why strive? A large part of the rhetorical power of Closing comes from the series of insults in the early part of the book, which Bloom designed to evoke the passion he wants to see: You have no connection to literature! You have no heroes! Your taste in music disgusts me!

But the non-academic can make good use of non-foundational thinking without doing away with the hope for the Good, the True, the Beautiful. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my reading, it’s that a good grasp on the transcendentals is hard to come by. That is to say, real access to truth, if you can get it, is either the product of immense intellectual achievement or it’s a truly precious gift, a pearl of great price. For someone who doubts her access to truth and hasn’t formally joined an intellectual tradition, a non-foundational stance is actually good way to navigate our intellectual culture, where competing conceptions of the world offer radically different answers to the question of what the world’s really like. The non-foundational stance means that the searcher puts off the task of trying to find one way of talking that explains all the other ways of talking, and instead tries to understand different speakers in their own terms. If the searcher is reflective enough to be aware of her own tradition — and searchers should be reflective in this way — then she no longer has to consider those outsider her tradition to be fools, liars, or makers of drastic mistakes.

What’s the alternative? Bloom offers a ready-made intellectual history, into which the searcher is supposed to fit other thinkers until she has time to study them on her own. Bloom wants to convince us that any thinker we come across will fit somewhere in the frame, and that we can express their thoughts and expose their errors in the language that he offers. In my experience, non-scholars who take this approach set themselves up to terribly misunderstand thinkers that don’t fit easily in the frame. While a deep and careful study of a hard-to-understand thinker could conceivably yield a real understanding of what that thinker meant to say, the non-scholar probably doesn’t have the time for such a study, and ends up with a reduced image or a bad reading of, say, Sartre or Derrida.


Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Go Meta, Music

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s