Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Experts? Experts? No experts here.

By Barry Johnson

Theodor W. Adorno/by Leandro Gonzalez de Leon
I've mostly missed out on the Theodor Adorno wave, which has floated so many post-modernist boats in the past couple of decades.  Adorno isn't easy -- it's good to know your Kant, Hegel and Marx before jumping in -- and he's cited most often in the deepest academic writing. But his ideas about art and culture are far broader than that description suggests and remain pertinent to our problems today.

I can say that with some assurance because of an Adorno passage I encountered last night in his Quosi un fantasia: Essays on Modern Music.  It's a fragment really, a diary entry written in 1929. It starts: "Nowhere is the struggle against the expert ... more necessary than in music."  And here I thought Adorno was the expert himself, especially in music.

In a post last month I discussed some of the points in Christopher Lasch's The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, specifically the chapter about the emergence of journalism elites and their determination to convey the opinions, assertions and working orders of the other elites that run our businesses, government, arts and academic institutions -- a press by, for and of the elites. We could argue the fine points of Lasch's argument (and the broader points of some of his other ideas, for that matter), but the general ring of it sounded about right to me, at least for the serious press.

So it was interesting to run into Adorno on the same topic but 65 years earlier, already assuming that we understood our peril when it comes to "elites."

Adorno's entry continues:
"Nowhere is the power of the dilettante greater (than music). But expert and dilettante mutually complement each other. The dilettante feels he has has been raised to a higher plane as soon as he understands the expert... The expert needs the dilettante in order to prove to himself that he isn't one (a dilettante)." 
Perfect: the expert needs his champion, his interpreter, his conduit. His power, the domination of the musical discourse, depends upon it.

But then Adorno veered in a different direction. I'd been thinking that he was talking about critics -- the critic as expert. But no, that wasn't it:
"This is why it so essential for the critic to extend his immanent [subjective] listening as far as possible, while at the same time approaching music radically from the outside. To think about twelve-note technique at the same time as remembering that childhood experience of Madama Butterfly on the gramophone -- that is the task facing every serious attempt to understand music today."
The critic, in short, must make sure not to get caught in the conversation and opinion-formation of the expert and the dilettante, that little self-serving loop that quickly reaches its own tail and distracts us from the real experience of music, which is both more direct (technique) and less analytical (memory, feeling, experience).  We are far more likely to understand and describe music in interesting ways the closer we are to the experience of it and the more widely we allow ourselves to consider it.

This is advice I take to heart and useful in far wider applications than just music. Philosophy for example. And Lasch might have argued that among those applications is democracy itself.

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