Essay: The death of Power-Knowledge and the connections to classical contexts of Rhetoric

Author: Alan Walker 26 August 2008

Following the philosophies of the Stoics and Cynics, journeying through Determinism and Rhetoric; on to Modernism and Post Modernism I draw conclusions on the formation of small internet communities. Rhetoric has been shaped into the modern concepts of Semantics and Discourse. Thus we have a golden thread running from ancient to modern thought, but with broadly the same values-structure as those in ancient Greece and Rome. Discourse as defined by the modern philosopher Foucault encompasses not only traditional modes of communication: speech and the written, but also new media.

Combining the Latin-derived etymology of Discourse - "running to and from" with the definition placed on the term "the limits of acceptable speech" by American Post Structuralist philosopher Judith Butler (who incidentally contrasts Discourse with it's mirror image Censorship in her work). In other words, within the rules of Discourse you are allowed to put forth ideas based on ideas in a context that are supported and complement the internal logic of your argument. Thus two perfectly acceptable threads of Discourse can be assembled with opposing points of view on the same topic. Succinctly exampled by the aphorism "War is the terrorism of the rich upon the poor and terrorism is the war of the poor on the rich.

Where things get interesting is when one drills down into Structuralism - distant relations to Stoicism and Cynicism with their basis on causal events. The basis of Structuralism: "systems of related elements" self contained, self regulated and self transforming units of ideas which leads us back to the fundamental of Rhetoric.

And the point of this Discourse: to try and fit instrumental, non lyric music into the slots in accepted Structuralist philosophy: to regard experimentation as a form of Discourse - using building blocks to express an idea as metaphor, a parallel that does not have a literal equivalent but conveys meaning nonetheless. By the use of metaphor as the bridge, the master composer will translate, circumventing literal language, subliming, if you will, a sound into a mental association. This association will be formed by fuzzy logic associations based upon the experience of the listener. And within the confines of Structuralist theory, the listener will need either a knowledge of the genre the musician is operating within or some visual or literal clue to seed the intended associations. Piece titles, websites and cover-art provide a stepping off point for listeners less versed in the genre and will provide associations and clues to point them in the right direction.

Foucault, in the beehive of ideas that is late 20th century philosophy headed off into new territory with his refinement of the theories of Discourse, ending up "examining the variety of experience of individuals and groups", adding another dimension to the accepted structure of Discourse, moving away from single minded truth-seeking and embracing the infinity of possibilities opened up by context. So all texts within the orbit of the Discourse are acceptable within the context of that discourse as long as the internal logic within that context is watertight. Foucault went on to elaborate - into the politics of ideas - that the legitimisation of ideas is based upon truths, how they are maintained and what power relations they carry with them.and. that power is always present and can both produce and constrain the truth. This theory was posited before the internet was born, and the opportunities for the democratisation of ideas on the world wide web undercuts it somewhat, returning the boundaries of discourse to their Structuralist beginnings (in this authors view) - causal-based, context-watertight thought open to the great and the small.

In addition to the cultural associations and philosophical structures of explanation are the physical effects induced by sequences and spacing of notes; effects which are less easy to place and which may work directly on the brain in the physiological sense, separate from cultural historical associations. Indeed that is where cultural associations may originate - with fundamental feelings stimulated by a certain kind of music to those that the music seeks to depict, that the artist has instinctively shaped. Proving the physiological associative effect would not however be impossible - most forms of music-cultural contexts are rigidly established. Putting music into neutral laboratory conditions and interpreting the associations would have to be on the basis of taking a culturally isolated individual and playing a succession of different pieces of music that have established cultural contexts and seeing if the individual made the same associations to those contexts. In other words they are isolated from the established structures of Discourse but draw the same conclusions. I personally doubt whether the physiological associations would win over the cultural ones.

And the point of this essay? To support and reinforce my agreement with the statement "art is not art without a social and political context". Add to that "art is impossible outside the confines of Discourse". If there is no fundamental linkage between sound and association, making noise with no connection to cultural Discourse is pointless. Music to be music has to have an intimacy or a proximity to culture, even if the connection is a distant one as in the case of "experimental" music - which is not experimental in the extreme sense because it takes existing contexts and mixes them up or pushes them further than others have in the past. And in labelling it "experimental" it immediately positions itself within Discourse. John Cage's 4'33'' supports the idea that silence within the boundaries of musical Discourse can be regarded as music, albeit ironically by placing it in a musical context in the same way that placing a pile of bricks in an art gallery context defines it as art simply by virtue of the fact that it is in a gallery.

So I willingly submit my own music for categorisation and placement in the complex taxonomy that defines the Discourse of modern electronic music. I want to belong, and I seek the opinion and approval of my peers attempting to achieve this. I am not an outsider and although I experiment in the broad sense of finding new ways to express myself, it is within the confines of refining and selecting from a finite pool of possibilities, and within the comfort zone of classic Discourse.

And in seeking those associations in history, I am at odds with the Baudrillardian notion, in his Discourse on the end of history - that globalisation has ended history. That theory held water in the short period between the end of the cold war and 9/11. And now, post 9/11, Baudrillard's ideas seem redundant. New ideas or rather refinements of old ideas are assuming prominence, driven by the ideologies of commodity geography and the mis-synchrony of cultures. A new Discourse is taking shape, and history is reinvented, the fire is re-kindled with the real possibility of the Old Testament plagues of pestilence, disease and war on our doorstep. A reversal of globalisation is happening and with it the potential to return to classical, causal notions of Structuralism and the confines of Rhetoric may be the only way to describe the world in simple digestible terms. Post-modernism and Modernism may be over-elaboratisations; too many decorations on the Christmas tree of ideas. Complexity is best described in simple reductive terms else the complexity of complexity multiplies in complexity becoming a meaningless circle of words.

Post 9/11, new artistic communities are developing; fractured shards of the globalised music industry, villages of ideas paradoxically using the global communication mode of the world wide web; micro-communities that form almost organically as nodes of like-minded individuals are drawn together by commonality of vision, and the possibilities afforded by meta-data sifts. Taking refuge from the storm of ideas in their comforting niches, the Discourse as shaped by the democracy of ideas is being confined to narrow parameters on a human scale with a return to the elegance of simplicity and the rejection of flamboyant theories of possibility.

Coda: This short essay could be said to be Rhetorical in nature, using the basis of accepted philosophy with a tint of opinion and considered speculation. And it comes with Julian Cope's caveat "never believe anything you read on the internet".