Transcendence IV: Meaning

Invoking transcendental constructs is one way to justify, at least on the philosophical level, the idea that we can know something about early music. While the transcendental unity of the world yields a corresponding unity between the past and our reconstructions, on a more practical ontological level, it must be emphasized that the radically changed context of the present — not to mention the context of reconstruction per se — precludes any more concrete identity between past & present perceptions. This would be true even if e.g. the sound waves produced were otherwise identical. The aim of a transcendental sense of exegesis lies in the establishment of communication between past and present, the idea that we really do know something about early music. While this point, or rather its negation, would not necessarily diminish the value of our actions, our being inspired by contemplating the past, it would question their meaning. Notions of meaning per se consequently arise, and with them, the more specific recurring theme of relevance for musical or artistic action.

In linguistic philosophy, the concept of meaning can be technically prescribed, as a correspondence between an utterance and some external reference. Transcendental thought gives us a framework for that reference, but also tends to charge the concept of "meaning" with more than a tautological definition. It immediately suggests "deeper meaning," or more fundamentally, some means of evaluating our actions in terms of a larger purpose. More concretely, especially with the increasing marginalization of artists & musicians, we are often left to ask whether what we do is genuinely worthwhile, whether it is relevant or good in some important way. Some kind of reference to meaning is necessary to answer this question, if in fact the question is answerable. At its most simplistic, the urge to express simply exists. We could proscribe it, in some sort of never-ending battle against ourselves, or we could decide that everything is as good as everything else. While some people insist that they want to do just that, they never really do, and both options are essentially impossible. We are left, as always, with a cluttered body of action & expression, and a need to make sense of it.

Rather, those of us without such a need never have this discussion, perhaps for the better. The Buddhist phenomenological view provides a pregnant analogy, and underscores the connection between epistemological stance, analysis, and ultimately relevance. If we accept a yearning to make sense of things, including our own place in them, we can see it as a choice, as an undifferentiated act of being entertained by our own self-questioning. What such a view does not do is answer that very question, or indeed provide a course of action. Instead, we can grant a transcendental predisposition to act, and then ask the basic question of recognition: What is the meaning of our act? Beyond communication & fidelity, what is the meaning of music? If we claim communication, what is it which is communicated? What, if anything, is actually the same? A transcendental stance is not about solipsism or disrespecting other opinions, but rather the reverse: It is about feeling connected to other people, about having a basis for exchanging opinions in the first place. Monism is not omniscience, just as the questions of this paragraph indulge a human need, rather than reject life & activity. Undifferentiated assessment is ultimately just such a rejection, with relativism as the abdication of responsibility for the processes around us. It is a cozy position for just this reason, at least for as long as events allow one to retain it.

The union of expression & responsibility will be deemed meaning, not necessarily implying intent. Expression can find its own meaning afterward, although it might not. There is still integrity to expressing (for) oneself, because that is what one knows best, but not because there is no option other than solipsism. There can even be meaning to expressing for oneself, as a means to some other end. Here, though, we are concerned with the meaning of music, of public expression. A public gathering is already a designation of responsibility, and so a concert setting is already charged with meaning. We can let it upset us that individuals will not take the same personal meaning from a concert, but if we are looking for unity, "the meaning" is the sum of those meanings, the more the better. Absolute music can be such a success precisely because it can generate such a large complex of meaning, and certain pieces have achieved that level of relevance. It would be inaccurate to attribute that success to quality alone, and so it is dangerous to attempt to divest meaning from circumstance. Transcendental thought tells us that there is meaning divested from circumstances, but it is rather singular. In the realm of ordinary existence, meaning is all circumstance.

Rather, meaning is understanding circumstance, partially uniting it with phenomenology, and affirming the positive nature of discussing it. Indeed, the continuing exegesis of art is art, maybe very literally, and becomes its own relevance. How & where does "meaning" appear in music then? Many hermeneutic stances have been developed, even to the point of attributing particular emotions to particular ornaments. While these ideas may or may not help us interpret, they can easily become misdirected, i.e. about themselves: Meaning within a bubble of meaning. Or maybe I should say, meaning means something else, which becomes remarkably close to linguistic philosophy. More than that, we create meaning, meaning that we create relevance too. Such recognition yields a heart-warming feeling today, but it also ties assessment inexorably to history, a history which is necessarily imperfectly known. Our exemplars often came about their meaning in mysterious ways, but in music today, the situation is nearly the opposite: Meaning is supposed to be pre-designated, effectively setting up a culture of failure. We end up with a fine line between the foolish rejection of meaning per se, and letting others dictate impossible circumstances. Musical assessment, however, does not follow creation into this dilemma, at least not assessment of the past. Much of early music is still wide open for assessment, i.e. assigning meaning to a large body of fine music which is still poorly known. It represents a latent pool of meaning, meaning whose designation does not interfere with creation, indeed meaning whose designation may be re-creation.

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Todd M. McComb