Untangling meaning from historicism

During the recent discussion of composers of the Franco-Flemish era, attempts at broader assessment were often forced to rely upon ideas of influence. In the transcendental sense, and even in the practical sense, what we really want instead is an ahistorical context for meaning. While such a desire is concrete enough, its basis in epistemology, especially regarding music of the past, is difficult to establish. In fact, monistic epistemology is partially an attempt to validate history as a concept, even the barest notion of history, which is memory itself. If one does depart from the phenomenological view, then in effect, one is injecting history into the context of meaning. I have already done this, in my discussion of the masterpiece phenomenon. I have gone on to insist upon the possibility of historical knowledge, the validity of exegesis, and its relevance to meaning. However, I have also cautioned against historicism, and the two impetuses run the risk of becoming entangled. One must essentially ask: How much history is too much?

It is only too easy to accept historical judgements as one's own, or even to avoid contemporary topics altogether. I have maintained an emphasis on contemporary acts and relevance, and so I never want to abandon the present to history. That would be unhealthy, as well as ultimately unhelpful. There is continuing tension on the issue, however, as one can perceive by scrutinizing the verb tenses in e.g. the article on La Rue's style. Verb tense can be a subtle, yet powerful, epistemic statement in discussions such as these. While this might be too obvious to note, one can speak of a composer's style as it speaks to us today, or as his contemporaries did or might have perceived it, or from some other perspective. Historicism has added other potential perspectives to such a discussion, which can only be considered a positive contribution overall, even if some of these perspectives might lead to distorted conclusions. Perhaps the most damaging effect of historicism is its tendency to create "golden age" ideals, and consequently to create unattainable expectations for current activity. We end up with metaphors of decline, and indeed most aesthetic orientations involve some measure of decline. I have certainly been placed in such a position, by virtue of orienting an aesthetic discussion around historical music in the first place. This orientation places an even greater onus upon making a distinction between historicism & historical evaluation per se.

Historicism implies not only a respect for, and incorporation of, history into one's epistemic foundations, but an over-reliance on history. The concept of a line of moderation with respect to historical reliance is consequently easy to accept, but drawing it is another matter. Moreover, while monistic epistemology establishes the possibility of historical knowledge, it certainly does not demand that it take precedence over any in-the-moment phenomenology. What it does do, admittedly, is introduce the danger. How does one respect history without being controlled by it? One answer is creative forgetting, but that hardly yields a satisfactory ontological foundation. Another answer is deconstruction itself, although deconstruction does not provide an affirmative path toward present action. These questions easily transcend art & music, as they become questions about who we are: Politics is increasingly based on history, previous ownership, reparations, hatred, etc. On the other hand, we have historicism as a theme in art itself, and in discourse per se. It is a topic for discussion, here & elsewhere, a topic which virtually mandates consideration. If "Western civilization" is unrelenting in its encroachment on traditional values, then historicism is just as unrelenting in its appropriation of academic discourse. Citation has become authority.

Today we define meaning as a correspondence, and it is less important that it have an external reference than that it be shared. I.e., an external reference is an additional ontological step which we do not actually need in order to communicate with each other. Accomplishing the latter, however, has been a point of emphasis here, and is an increasingly important issue on the world-wide stage. Communication revolves around meaning, even if that meaning is taken to postmodern extremes of discourse-centrism, and so we need a sense of meaning which is not necessarily dependent on what previous generations have done. I have emphasized historical "paths untraveled" as a sort of tortured actualization of this idea, largely because I do respect what others have done, and want to adopt a historical starting point. Even when it comes to existing works, the continued synthesis of "meaning" per se offers numerous opportunities for expression. One troubling fact, though, is that such a realization may rely on historicism itself, the danger of which I will restate as: Embracing historicism makes real contemporary creation impossible. Whereas I claim to be creating something here, I do not necessarily claim that it is real. It may be misdirected, and the present topic essentially summarizes an element of doubt.

Doubt is not necessarily bad, especially if not hardened into institutional skepticism. In fact, it is an important element in any answer to a broader underlying question: What role should history have in creation today? With the technology to preserve history, such questions will only intensify, especially as we continue to struggle with the issue of interpretive space. Of course, those who regard history as most irrelevant are typically the most controlled by it, precisely because ignorance discourages the alignment of perception. To others, the present itself changes as each new historical fact is uncovered. Ultimately, we must actualize ourselves in the present in order to assess meaning, because historical meaning is gone. We can understand historical facts, and even grasp at historical meaning, but it cannot be our meaning. Too many things have changed for that to be true. As much as anything, historicism involves distorting the role of past meaning, whether by relegating it to the irrelevance of a separate fictional account, or by transplanting it baldly into the present. Historicism kills history, and with it one basis for meaning, simply by ignoring context, or thinking itself above context. The problem is consequently not one of having "too much" history, but rather of how history is used. If we are to reclaim history & meaning, we must place them in perspective, which entails embracing the present.

Administrivia: Vacation time. Next column in five weeks. My Record of the Year writeup will appear in the interim.

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Todd M. McComb