HowTheLightGetsIn | A Festival of Philosophy and Music

Talks / Debates: Hay-on-Wye, June 1 2013

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In last fortnight’s issue of Wales Arts Review, Gary Raymond made a compelling case for arts criticism as an art-form in itself; a kind of writing which, at its best and most passionately engaged, not just distills and evaluates works of art, but springs from the same creative drive to explore the arts and their place within the wider culture. I too hold that good, enlivened criticism helps to enable artistic understanding and participation – and hence the arts themselves – to grow, and I believe that, central to this, lies the inter-relationship between the arts and the world of ideas, as well as the senses and emotions. Critical thinking and debate are as vital to the arts as to science, politics, history, philosophy – indeed, any aspect of a society aspiring to well-being for itself and its citizens.

HowTheLightGetsIn is a festival of philosophy and music which celebrates ideas and, as such, it is itself to be celebrated. Each year, the festival has a theme. This year, it was ‘Errors, Lies and Adventure’; investigating notions of truth and contingency, and the idea that new discoveries often seem to come from mistakes and ‘errors’ of thinking. On June 1, the sub-theme was ‘the Transcendental’, explored in gloriously diverse ways – and through many more talks and debates than one person was able to get to – in the sense of how we might venture beyond perceived limits of knowledge or understanding.

If there was one discernible thread running through the five events I attended, it was a celebration of paradox; perhaps encapsulated by the day’s highlight for me, an event curiously entitled ‘This Debate Has No Title’. But first came an event concerning a subject close to my heart: ‘Music’s Mystery’ was billed as a debate about whether theories to ‘explain away’ the power of music are a) possible or b) desirable (taking as a cue Pythagoras’ theories of mathematics and harmony). I am glad to say that none of the panel – made up of composer Joanna Bailie, physicist Michael McIntyre and science-writer Philip Ball – ultimately answered ‘yes’ in either regard, although Bailie was alone in showing no interest whatsoever in reductive analytical theories. Rather, she espoused the post-Cageian view that all sound can be music and that it is simply a matter of perspective, whilst quietly pointing out – for those who insist on seeing significance in a supposed correspondence between musical and mathematical ability – that Bach’s ‘maximising of the potential of the tonal harmonic system’ is ‘not the same as [his] being good at maths’.

Actually, to make a general point here, it does seem perverse that a festival focusing on music as well as philosophy, and at which a composer is invited to debate, should offer no live performance of their music – nor of any live contemporary art music, which is an art-form that often seeks consciously to explore matters philosophical, albeit in sonic form. Neither McIntyre nor Ball seemed ever to have heard Bailie’s music – and Ball seemed frankly uninterested in it – which is all too familiar in terms of the ongoing general malaise so often greeting contemporary art music.

Alas, Bailie was not so eloquent as her musical precursor John Cage might have been in putting their common aesthetic case, allowing McIntyre and Ball to go largely uncontested in their differing formalist approaches (regardless of Gabrielle Walker’s largely excellent chairing). Some interesting areas were touched on but I also found myself frustrated by the lack of a musicologist – or, even better, a philosopher of music – on the panel (Nicholas Cook or Lydia Goehr maybe?) Ball was keen to demonstrate that musical meaning can be found in such phenomena as the interruption of expectation through manipulation of harmony, and asserted that this is a key area of investigation for musicologists. But, whilst it is accepted that harmonic resolution or lack thereof is an important factor in our emotional response to some kinds of music, this kind of thinking is now largely confined to areas of music-scientific research within clinical psychology and neuroscience rather than musicology per se (a notable research team has been music-theorist Fred Lerdahl and linguist Ray Jackendoff, inspired by the very 1950s writings of Leonard B Meyer that Ball referred to in this debate); for very few musicologists now choose to privilege harmonic analysis over other musical parameters such as rhythm and timbre – precisely because harmony is only important to certain kinds of (largely western) music and in certain ways. Moreover, less and less musicologists conduct musical analysis in any form these days, choosing to look at issues of historiography, performance and cultural context, say, rather than technical aspects of musical composition, as indicators of music’s function and meaning. Nevertheless, Ball spoke interestingly and lucidly, as well as neatly refuting Wittgensteinian notions of music as logical process; contending that the whole point of music is that it bypasses logic.

McIntyre’s interest also focused on musical pitch but was – unsurprisingly for a physicist – more overtly scientific, encompassing pattern, musical memory and ‘organic change principles’ – including the idea that the harmonic series is a kind of ‘Platonic object’; a series of concepts that he went on to develop more closely in relation to perception itself in a fascinating and highly entertaining talk which he gave after this debate, entitled ‘Lucidity, Science and Acausality Illusions’. I confess to being suspicious of his somewhat glib references to ‘rules’ of musical harmony, which smacked of an outmoded text-book approach to music (not to mention his sweeping generalisation that the music of the Darmstadt School is ‘dead’). But there was nothing old hat or unsophisticated about his notion that we humans perceive a model of reality rather than an actual reality, shaped from unconscious, ancestral memories and by our biological need for simple, coherent patterns. (Rather than make a doomed attempt to convey his highly complex ideas, I would urge anyone wanting to know more to read his paper ‘Lucidity and Science’ and, in particular, Part II: ‘From Acausality Illusions and Free Will to Final Theories, Mathematics and Music’.)

Philip Ball popped up again on another fascinating panel later in the day, with philosopher Christopher Hamilton and psychoanalyst Mike Brearley, for a discussion about the Enlightenment; namely, whether the Enlightenment has bequeathed us a legacy of false ideals and ungrounded optimism such that ‘Nasty, Brutish and Short’ – the debate’s provocative title by way of Thomas Hobbes – is actually all we can reasonably expect of life. Opinions were duly offered pro and con – citing social and medical progress on the one hand, against Schopenhauerian illusions of freedom and the fragility of the human mind on the other. But, interestingly, no-one posited the idea that the Enlightenment might still be occurring; that it might, as the philosopher Jürgen Habermas and others have argued, be an ongoing project so to speak, despite the recent, now exhausted, distraction of the post-modernist turn. Whether this is a consideration that might alter the issues at stake – or make the answers more or less relevant – is perhaps beside the point, but the assumption that the Enlightenment is a matter of history is as intriguing as it is widespread.

Here, Hamilton and Ball proved the strongest debaters, with many interesting points made concerning key aspects of Enlightenment thinking, such as teleological notions of progress and the valorisation of reason; Hamilton pointed out, for example, that Christianity has played a key role in Western society’s coming to laud the individual over the collective, as it is an inherently selfish religion in its focus on the ‘saving’ of the individual. Ball spoke of his frustration with rose-tinted, overly simplistic notions of Enlightenment ideals, given the lack of secular, truly democratic concepts found within 18th century thought, and the diverse nature of the philosophies, politics and social thinking active at that time (notably through the writings of Rousseau and Voltaire). All panelists agreed that, whilst social progress is palpable since the onset of the Enlightenment, there have been differing levels of scientific progress on the one hand and moral progress on the other, and that, whilst a state of war is now more of an aberration than the norm for Western societies, there is no room for complacency because – as Brearley pointed out – human nature has not changed and ‘civilisation’ remains but a surface veneer.

One of the sharpest and most celebrated challengers of that veneer of civilisation, and the hypocrisy and failure of moral courage which lie beneath it, is the writer Oscar Wilde. In a talk/semi-performance event, literary critic Terry Eagleton set out to explore ‘The Doubleness of Oscar Wilde’, promising to ‘strip[s] the mask … to reveal the depths that lurk beneath the gentlemanly façade’. I’m not sure what I expected, but I was disappointed that this turned out to be an ‘audience with’ Eagleton in which he more or less read extracts from his 1989 play Saint Oscar – a play currently out of print, but yielding many such talks over the years, variously titled ‘The Contradictions of Oscar Wilde’, ‘The Ambiguities of Oscar Wilde’ and so on. Eagleton’s main point was that Wilde straddles more cultural opposites than many people (still!) realise: as an Irishman/English ‘gentleman’, socialite/sodomite, socialist/would-be ‘aristocrat’ and so on. Clearly, notions of dialectics were but a sleight of hand away and, sure enough, Eagleton managed to cite Karl Marx in answer to a question about whether he could name a contemporary writer who has inherited Wilde’s brilliantly withering combination of pinpoint critique and merciless, un-self-sparing wit.

To be fair, Eagleton did at least cop to evading the question. But the taste of circular self-reference lingered after the event – if perhaps less sourly than it might have done, in the light of that superb, aforementioned ‘debate with no title’ earlier in the day, and to which event – though, admittedly, via my own sleight of hand – I come at last:

This was a discussion which aimed to explore the very phenomenon of self-reference as a paradox ‘found in mathematics, art and philosophy from the Greeks to Derrida’, with the help of panel members from each of those disciplines: the mathematician Peter Cameron, literary critic Patricia Waugh and philosopher Hilary Lawson (coincidentally, founder of HowTheLightGetsIn). The proposal was that such paradoxes, far from constituting problems to be resolved, might themselves ‘hold the key’ to deeper truths. Each panelist had the customary four minutes to outline their position before debate ensued, and Cameron kicked off with some playful examples of self-referential paradoxes. He held up a series of statements written on cards, beginning with  ‘the statement on this card is false’; which statement, he explained, can also be – logically speaking – true. He then held up another card on which was written ‘the statement on this card is true’ – which, of course, can either be true or false – but not both as the first statement can be. From here, he went on to talk about the creative opportunities that such paradoxes afford for mathematicians, referring to the theoreticians David Hilbert and Kurt Gödel, who first grappled with crises of paradox and inconsistency in mathematical logic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Waugh took up the baton, speaking of the many ways in which literature – in particular, post-modern literature – actively engages with self-referential paradox; as happens, for example, when words are used to describe worlds, thus bringing those worlds into existence. Citing Samuel Beckett as a clear example, she described various circular ways in which language can refer to itself through the play of signifiers – and through the phenomenon of the narrator; an ‘I’ both inside and outside the framework of the narrative, from whose dual positioning also arises the ‘instability of changing the self in the act of naming’. Literature, she concluded, amounts to ‘lies’ that have a ‘tremendous cognitive power’.

For Lawson, self-referential paradox has been a central problem of philosophy for the last 120 years, culminating in the post-modern circularity of ‘there is no truth’ and the consequent undermining of meaning. But, he maintained, it is language that is divided, not the world; that is, truth and falsity is a function of the system, not of the world itself. The problem arises when we see language as the point rather than a tool; for language is merely a way of ‘holding the world in order to make sense of it.’

It was agreed amongst the panel that some kind of closure of the system, so to speak, is necessary in order to make sense of the world. Much discussion ensued about the ongoing search for the resolution of paradox across the disciplines, with Lawson maintaining that most 20th century philosophy involves the language and perception of closure. Some fascinating points were made; for instance, regarding realism – which was described as a ‘mistake’ because it relies on a consensus of reality that always breaks down at some point. Indeed, Waugh suggested that the problem of self-referential paradox can be traced back to the Renaissance, when perspective was introduced into painting – and that art has been grappling with the problem ever since. In her view, a ‘yearning for the real’ is a key aspect of modernism; shown, for instance, by the constant cycling of assertion and negation through solipsist reflection that can be seen in James Joyce, as well as in writers that also straddle post-modernism such as Beckett and Jorge Luis Borges – for whom ‘the search for closure is presented as a kind of nightmare’.

Cameron picked up on Borges’ fascination with mathematical paradoxes and agreed that his writing utilised this fascination in seeking always to keep open the possibilities. But he disagreed that scientists would necessarily be threatened by Lawson’s proposal to imagine that we simply cannot describe the world; for, in Cameron’s view, mathematics is actually ‘the engine that drives description of the world’ – precisely because it holds the world conceptually rather than mistaking its description of the world for the world itself. Indeed, for Cameron, mathematics is the place wherein we can learn most about human beings because mathematics is entirely human-created and, therefore, a ‘closed’ world.

The panelists agreed that the imprisoning circularity of post-modernism was more or less burnt out and that, now, what is needed is a kind of neo-pragmatism, since irony is fine in art, but not fine in politics, say, where solidity is needed in order to act. And they agreed that, whilst we have no choice but to go on with the attempt to resolve the problem of paradox in order to ‘close the world’, in the final analysis, human maturity could be defined as the ability to live with doubt and uncertainty, and a truth that may not be ‘true’ but nevertheless ‘good enough’.

This discussion amounted to a dizzying and quite thrilling hour in the company of thinkers who were not just articulate, but intellectually generous, and who sparked off each other with brilliant ease (helped by exemplary chairing from author and filmmaker David Malone) – and I hope, if nothing else, I have given a flavour of the sharp and creative thinking on display. The event epitomised for me the best of HowTheLightGetsIn; a place where questions are asked in the knowledge that asking questions rightly begets more questions than answers – and a place where the question ‘why?’ is understood to be at least as important as ‘how?’, and infinitely more exciting than the mere factual engagement of ‘what?’, ‘when?’ and ‘where?’. Nevertheless – as shown so beautifully in this particular debate – HowTheLightGetsIn aims not simply to interrogate meaning for its own sake, but to sift ideas for their practical utility in the world rather than in abstract realms of language alone. In both regards, the festival seems to me to be highly successful. May it continue to grow, remain free of celebrity clap-trap, and never lose its intimate feel.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis