An essay in daimonic musicology

I want to pick up my post on demons, which I wrote back in August, when we were all so young and innocent. (This is the fifth part of a series; the earlier installments are here, here, here, and here.)

It now occurs to me that to write about “demons” is already to be taking on a certain amount of metaphysical freight. Almost every culture in the world has a notion of malignant spirits* for which the name of “demons” works well enough. But my point is not to ask whether any given incorporeal intelligence is good or wicked. In his excellent book Daimonic Reality, Patrick Harpur points out that Christianity tends towards a dualistic idea of good and evil and conceives of its otherworld entities in accordingly polarized terms, as either demons or angels. Homer’s Odyssey is inhabited by much more varied spiritual fauna — entities that are tricky, temperamental, not to be messed with, but at all events morally ambivalent. Rather than sort them into categories of good or bad, the Greeks used a catchall term for them: daimons.

Christianity later, and unjustly, pronounced the daimons demons. But originally they were simply the beings who thronged myth and folklore, from the Greek nymphs, satyrs, fauns, dryads, etc. to elves, gnomes, trolls, jinn, and so on. I am therefore proposing, for the sake of convenience, to call all apparitional figures, including our fairies and aliens, by the general name of daimons. [Patrick Harpur, Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld, 35.]

So let’s leave aside the question of whether we’re talking about demons or some more benevolent entity. The questions I want to ask are more abstractly philosophical. What I have been asking is, is there something to be gained by taking incorporeal intelligences (that is, daimons) seriously? If we don’t quite go so far as asking if they really exist (which I’m telling you right now will never be “proved” one way or another), can we ask what is to be gained by thinking and acting as if they exist? I have written about what it means to put aside questions of whether something really exists and to dwell instead in this “as if” space of suspended judgment. The question becomes not, “is this notion objectively true?” but “what truth is brought to life by this notion?” Or, put another way, “what conversations does this notion allow us to have?”

My thinking here is in line with William James’s philosophy of pragmatism. Such thinking is not justified by scientific testing, say, or irrefutable logical proof, but by the results they yield: “by their fruits shall ye know them.” When I wrote my post on the way that performers are taught to treat composers as gods, I intended to offer a modest example of what kind of thinking becomes possible when we allow ourselves to put daimons in the picture. The gist of my argument — that performers, out of an exaggerated veneration for the composer, allow themselves a sadly shrunken range of interpretive options — is nothing new. The originality of my argument lay in the way I personified this familiar problem.

Actually, even that is nothing new. Hermeneutic philosophy (for example, the philosophy of law articulated in Ronald Dworkin’s Law’s Empire) involves thinking of interpretation as a dialogue between virtual interlocutors, who in this case would be the composer and performer but could equally be a judge and the framers of the Constitution or an English professor and Emily Dickinson.** In such cases, a long-dead lawmaker or a poet or a composer is treated as a daimon, a human-like intelligence that is not quite human (because dead) but with which the interpreter forms a relationship by treating it as if it were a fellow human. One of my favorite musicological books, Elisabeth Le Guin’s Boccherini’s Body: An Essay in Carnal Musicology*** does this explicitly, arguing that the performer quite literally embodies the composer (spooky!), and that the relationship is not just one-way, not just the composer “talking to” the performer, but is fully conversational, because what the performer embodies is “that which is supposed in the voice of the executant” — an intention of the composer towards a performer who, at the time of composition, is as yet unborn. Even spookier! “An essay in daimonic musicology” might be just as apt a subtitle. Wait a minute, maybe I could use that for my book . . .

The crawling attitude of submission urged upon performers by the Maestro-Industrial Complex, then, can be seen as a particular kind of relationship with a particular kind of daimon. And my justification for seeing things in this way is the insight it yields. To suppose that a performer’s behavior is a pattern of interaction with an intelligent being is to make certain subtleties of that behavior more intelligible. When we see something as abstract as an interpretive theory in the more concrete terms of a human relationship, the weaknesses of the theory become legible as dysfunction in the relationship.****

My “daimonic musicology” adds nothing really new to an existing way of understanding musical performance; like Peter Sloterdijk, I insist that “there is nothing cognitively new under the sun.” All I am doing is making explicit of something already implicit; as Sloterdijk puts it, this is “the unfolding of the known into larger, brighter, more richly contoured surfaces.” [Sloterdijk, You Must Change Your Life, 7.]

Let’s do a bit more unfolding. Once you get the hang of it, daimonic thinking becomes second nature.

If you were to think of the one thinker alive to whom all this talk of daimons would be utterly repellent, who would that be? Richard Dawkins, right? Christian apologists, New Agers, and occultists might not otherwise have a whole lot in common, but they are united in their dislike of Dawkins. In their books, he has become a powerful demon in his own right, a bringer of mockery and negation, “der geist der stets verneint,” who is invoked in chapter 1 so that he may be banished in chapters 2 through 6. (I do a certain amount of this myself.) And Ramsey Dukes has shrewdly noted how Dawkins himself summons and banishes demons: in his role of spokesman for evolutionary science, Dawkins is in the business of changing perception, which is much more a magical than a scientific occupation.

When I heard Dawkins addressing the popularity of New Age ideas at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, what struck me was the strength of his feelings on the subject. There seemed to be something stronger than reason driving his distaste for the rise of New Age pseudo science. I concluded that . . . Dawkins had evoked a demon. Like myself, he is a champion of the notion that ideas can replicate and evolve within the ecology of human culture in a manner akin to the Darwinian model. The demon he had evoked was the apparent fear that New Age ideas might now be proving fitter to survive than his own ideas. Having demoted “goodness” or “godliness” and replaced it with “fitness” as his key determinant, he has to face the possibility that Science’s “Truth” might not be enough to save it from extinction. He can thus appear as a tribal shaman dancing a devil dance to protect his mind-children from a stronger foe. [Ramsey Dukes, S.S.O.T.B.M.E. Revised: An Essay on Magic, 32.]

Dawkins is an old hand at demonology, and in ways that go to the heart of his scientific work. For one thing, Dawkins’s own idea of the meme is itself the best, most concrete example of a daimon in our present-day conceptual vocabulary.

A meme is the cultural analog to the gene. Genes and memes are both informational entities: as genes propagate themselves by the means of the organisms whose genetic information they encode, memes propagate themselves by means of the culture they constitute. Now, your eye might have snagged on the odd (though deliberate) phrasing of that last sentence — perhaps the mind balks at the reflexive “propagate themselves,” or on the double reflexivity of imagining such self-propagating entities working their own agenda through higher-order entities made up of themselves. The awkwardness is not so much a matter of the sentence’s syntax as its underlying idea: awkwardness is almost unavoidable when one tries to speak of agents doing things with ends but not purposes.

Dawkins formed his particular idea of the gene in order to dispose of the idea that there is a purpose or intention behind the natural order—an idea on which he, along with his fellow materialists, has waged war for his entire career. As William James writes, if we are “unable to banish the impression that [the universe] is a realm of final purposes, that it exists for the sake of something, we place intelligence at the heart of it and have a religion.” I suspect that Dawkins’s well-known loathing of religion is merely the logical extension of his fundamental rejection of this more basic philosophical disposition. (Though perhaps it’s the other way around, who knows?) The idea that he has championed is thus one of a creatorless creation, a universe whose intricate order is entirely self-generated. In other words, the structure and meaning of Dawkins’s universe is fully immanent.

But it is very, very difficult to banish the idea something that intends, whether we think of it as a creator or prime mover or something else. I doubt there is anyone who, when first told of the Big Bang, did not wonder “but what caused that?” Scientists get impatient with this kind of question, but people ask it all the same, and scientists find themselves compelled to answer it. Thus Dawkins’s idea of the “selfish gene.” Let’s say we see some extraordinary structural detail in nature — for example, the intricate ways parasite-zombified ants act to satisfy the needs of their parasite and hyperparasites (the parasites that feed on the parasites that feed on the ants) manipulate the ant-parasite relationship to their own benefit. This is the sort of thing that gets intelligent-design advocates talking about watches and watchmakers. But the “selfish gene” allows us to explain such complexity of design without the need for a designer. The organisms (ants and fungi) are actuated by genes, and genes do only one thing, which is to replicate.

I actually wrote “genes seek to do only one thing” but Dawkins was very insistent that he doesn’t mean to imply that genes seek, mean, or intend anything, so I corrected the sentence. In Dawkins’s account, genes don’t “want” to replicate, they just do: a gene is a packet of information, and over time the information gets more and more complex, but the progress from lesser to greater complexity is managed through an entirely mindless and algorithmic process. But as Dawkins himself notes, it is practically impossible to purge the language of purpose from causal accounts of anything behaving in ways that have discernable ends (that is, greater complexity and the resultant spectacle of zombified ants, etc.).

Throughout this book, I have emphasized that we must not think of genes as conscious, purposeful agents. Blind natural selection, however, makes them behave rather as if they were purposeful, and it has been convenient, as a shorthand, to refer to genes in the language of purpose. For example, when we say “genes are trying to increase their numbers in future gene pools,” what we really mean is “those genes that behave in such a way as to increase their numbers in future gene pools tend to be the genes whose effects we see in the world.” Just as we have found it convenient to think of genes as active agents, working purposefully for their own survival, perhaps it might be convenient to think of memes in the same way. In neither case must we get mystical about it. In both cases the idea of purpose is only a metaphor, but we have already seen what a fruitful metaphor it is in the case of genes. We have even used words like “selfish” and “ruthless” of genes, knowing full well it is only a figure of speech. Can we, in exactly the same spirit, look for selfish or ruthless memes?

Emphasis added! Does that “as if” look familiar?

What Dawkins is doing is trying to explain away the appearance of intentional design in our experience of the natural world by creating an engine of design in a smaller, molecular realm and then saying that that engine (the gene or meme) is itself mindless. But all he has really done is to shove mind from one part of the world to another, creating tiny intelligences that move the visible world, like the fairies in John Crowley’s Little, Big, which escape ever inwards into tiny realms nested, like the chambers of a nautilus, within the gross human world. Dawkins waves this implication away by saying it’s as “as if” and justifying it in terms of the yield in insight that it affords, but of course that is exactly what I have done by thinking of composers as daimons. What is left to say is how much force in reality this “as if” really has. But that’s the job for another future blog post, if I ever get around to writing it. This one is, as I always say, long enough.*****

*except of course for we moderns, bathed in the glow of the Enlightenment, who alone of all cultures in human history disbelieve in all forms of incorporeal intelligence and who mysteriously are also the only people in human history to be completely free of error in this matter, which makes me think of a meme evolved to make fun of religious people but which seems awfully relevant here:

Condescending Wonka – Religion

**For those of you still feeling hinky at having strayed into such an unfamiliar and downmarket intellectual neighborhood, you can take comfort in the idea that our daimonic speculations can be sanctioned by such upmarket philosophy. This is another version of my “you’re soaking in it” argument: we actually use magical styles of thought all the time but maintain our rationalistic amour propre by relabeling magical thinking — for example, talking to people who aren’t there — as (say) a “hermeneutic dialogue.”

***An early version of the first chapter can be found here.

****In order to do this, I didn’t need to argue whether composers really are gods, or whether we’re really talking about gods or some lesser entity, or where the true place of the Abrahamic God (or any other god) should be in the interpretive relationship between performers and composers, as Robin Wallace did in his response. The latter is certainly an interesting and valid line of inquiry for those who might want to follow it up, though, and I liked what Robin had to say on the matter.

*****[added later] Oh, let’s make it just a bit longer. A pragmatist would probably dismiss Dawkins’s distinction between the heuristic of a selfish gene and the reality of a dumb, purposeless gene as a distinction without a difference. Dawkins might say, genes and memes act as if they as if they “want” things, as if they act in order to attain certain ends, as if they’re selfish — they may bear all the marks of sentience, in a Turing-test sort of way — but they don’t have sentience. William James would ask, is this a distinction that makes any kind of difference? Or course there’s a difference to Dawkins, because he’s spent his whole life trying to get rid of any notion that there is intelligence in matter and breaks out in a rash when he hears the least suggestion otherwise. But that’s not what I mean by a practical difference. James writes,

The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that might otherwise be interminable. Is the world one or many?—fated or free?—material or spiritual?—here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to any one if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. [William James, Pragmatism:A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, Library of America edition, 506.]

A simple thought experiment should suffice here. Imagine you have two memes, one dumb and blind just as Dawkins says it is, and the other somehow imbued with intelligence—a daimon, in other words. Could you tell which was which by observing their behavior? Clearly not. This is what I mean by there being no practical difference.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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