Sunday, February 03, 2008

The End of History
This article regarding the composer Schoenberg dovetails somewhat with my earlier post about the lack of progress in getting beyond rock & roll. The article discusses how the classical composer Arnold Schoenberg effectively ended classical music composition by composing music of pure atonality and "wrong notes". The author suggests that what we have had since Schoenberg is a century of atonal classical music with no possibility ahead of a new musical innovation to discover.

I've thought of this idea of historical progression. There is one notion of history that believes its course of events is circular. That there is nothing done now that has not been done before. For instance, this thought is best encapsulated in the phrase Nothing new under the sun. There is also the view that history is one continuous linear evolution of improvement and progress. Think of Santayana's maxim "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.". Sometimes these two views of history can be clumsily merged. An example of this can be observed when someone expresses criticism of today's popular music. Usually this kind of criticism is waved away with a response such as "Elvis shocked people in his day". The idea being that Elvis' expressed sexuality was no different than what Christina Aguilera does today in terms of confronting sexual mores, etc. Such a response contends that: A) what shocks today shocked us yesterday and is no different (circular view of history) and B) our view of sex today is more liberated than the view held by previous generations (progressive view of history).

I am sympathetic towards both views of history, but the idea that history moves forward as progress does not always hold true for me. In fact, one might argue that history can regress even as it moves forward. Going back to the Schoenberg article, I think there is something there to the idea that progress in music is essentially dead given the fact that Schoenberg's use, overuse, and subsequent only use of dissonant atonal wrong notes effectively culminated the body of music by composing what can be thought of as the opposite of music. If after Schoenberg one can compose static (see John Cage) and call it music, where does music go after this? Can music progress beyond such a point? The same for the painted arts. Does painting have anywhere else to go beyond Jackson Pollack's splattered canvases? Essentially the essence of Pollack is that after centuries of artists painting the outside world, Pollack painted the innerworld of the subconscious. With both external and internal space revealed through art where can the painted arts go after that? Everything else will seem retrograde.

Examining further, perhaps the worst example of regress as "progress" has to do with the practice of sex. So much of the recent era has been marked by a cultural motivation to demystify sex. Everyone knows that we must talk about sex or risk being prudes or repressed individuals. Sex on ads, in the way clothes are designed, the push to make sure kids receive ample sex education. Unintended in this push to explain sex has been a failure to realize that there is really nothing new left to explain.

Certainly a good example of this comes from an report on the popularity of an online sex show aimed at teenage viewers. Produced by a single-mom (creepily obsessed with teen sex), the show holds back nothing in talking frankly to kids about sex. As a clearest indication that our culture has reached the end of the line regarding taboo boundaries, one video segment of the sex show gets into the mechanics and safe practices of proper Backdoor Business. Indeed, as a barometer of the present culture, if "backdoor business" has emerged as a commonplace staple of the teenage sexual experience, what does that about where else sex can go? With acts once out of bounds or certainly on the exotic side now becoming de rigeur, a wilder, risque, taboo and mystified side of sex essentially no longer exists.

Given such a state of events, a critic of such might employ the slipperly slope argument to try and express outrage over such cultural developments. Subsequently, such critics are then shouted down with argumentation along the lines of "Elvis swirled his hips and outraged parents in his day, and what goes on today is no different." But that argument is kind of sad really. Is "backdoor business" an indication of cultural progress with regards to sex and how it is practiced, that "backdoor business" is no more shocking today than how Elvis moved his pelvis back in his day? If "backdoor business" is routinized and no longer taboo, what is left over in the pantheon of sex and sexual acts for the next generation to liberate? Is sex demystified and de-tabooed an indication of sex's end? In essence, like the death of music and the death of art, has sex suffered the same fate? (Stylistic hat tips to Carrie Bradshaw with that last sentence.)

Indeed, maybe there is nothing new under the sun. History has been marked by progessions through the human arts and acts. At this point in our history, with everything known and everything been done or being done, does history proceed from here? Where would it go? What new new is out there to be discovered as new? What new music is possible, what new art revealed? What new exotica can be performed between two (or perhaps more) people?

Or are we at the point of history's death? The end of history?


At 2:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

All I want to know is whether or not that information regarding backdoor business? What makes her the expert on this topic?
Mrs Rants


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