IRCAM, I saw, I squatted

Rationalizing Culture - The Politics of Time
June 21, 1996

Cultural history and continental philosophy have begun to question prevailing views of the relationship between philosophy and history. Instead of a "philosophy of history", which would synthesise historical events into a grand narrative justifying the ways of God, the nation and the proletariat, or the more modest second order philosophy of history, which would analyse the speech acts of historians, the emphasis rests on the elaboration of philosophical histories.

For historians this involves a renewed sensitivity to conceptual structures, while for philosophers it requires the sustained historical analysis of their categories. Peter Osborne and Georgina Born's books, the one on the philosophy and the other on the cultural history of the avant-garde, exemplify the potential and the possible limitations of the new rapprochement between philosophy and history.

In The Politics of Time Osborne identifies a "philosophical deficit in contemporary cultural theory" and a "sociological deficit" in the "forms of universality of the philosophical tradition". His response is an ambitious attempt to show that an immanent critique of the philosophical tradition will provide the categories of time and experience suitable for a reflective cultural history. Osborne pursues this through critical readings of a number of modern philosophers, above all Walter Benjamin, Heidegger, and Paul Ricoeur. He finds in these philosophers the elaboration of a concept of concrete, lived experience that substantially qualifies the claims to universality implied in philosophical concepts. For Osborne this experience is "everyday life", where a philosophical history would combine "ontological and historical discourses".

Much of his book is taken up with analysing the differences between phenomenological and Marxist accounts of everyday life, in particular those of Heidegger and Benjamin. He criticises Heidegger's analysis of the everyday in the first part of Being and Time for reducing the concept of the everyday to "averageness" and thus losing the sense of the possible transformation of the everyday through philosophical reflection. Benjamin, on the contrary, makes the passage from philosophy to a cultural history of the everyday, his Arcades Project. This was a philosophical history that transformed philosophical categories through historical research, but also vested that research with a philosophical agenda regarding the transformative potential of the everyday and the avant-garde.

In spite of its many insights and provocative arguments, Osborne's work stays within the limits of philosophy: "the everyday" remains a concept. Although his book issues a call for philosophy to think historically, it only occasionally ventures into history. Born's book Rationalising Culture approaches the same phenomenon, but in terms of a concrete and detailed cultural history of the everyday life of the Paris-based avant-garde institution IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/ Musique) associated with Pierre Boulez. Her analysis of what it meant to make music in a self-consciously avant-garde institution at a critical point in its history (1984) tackles many philosophical problems raised by the theory of the avant-garde, while showing how the complexity of its practice exceeds the terms of theoretical debate.

By using an ethnographic methodology Born can discern far more complex cultural logics at work than are allowed in the opposition of an autonomous avant-garde and a market-oriented popular music. She shows that IRCAM was not simply trying to maintain its freedom in the face of the state and the market, but was traversed by entangled networks of official (legal-rational) and unofficial (charismatic) influence and authority.

She begins with the transformation of the postwar musical avant-garde's bid for mastery over the materials and the logic of music into subjection. Its serialist project sought to extend the 12-tone technique of the Second Vienna School to the entire set of musical parameters, including rhythm and timbre. Total control of all musical parameters required an amenable sound source, which Stockhausen and others in the mid-1950s thought they had discovered in electronically generated and treated sound.

However, the freedom from traditional instruments promised by this development entailed an intellectual and institutional dependence on science and technology, as well as on the technical, ie, non-compositional skills required to use it.

Born sees the tension between composition and technology as one of the sources of IRCAM's difficulties. Dependence on technology manifested itself in a social division of labour at the level of composition. Composers visiting IRCAM lacked the necessary technical expertise to make full use of the equipment, and relied upon the technical assistance of resident expert "tutors". The latter suffered inferior conditions of work, and responded with resentment and conspicuous lack of motivation.

Born's description of the inversions of freedom and dependency at IRCAM is consummate. And she takes her analysis further. Resisting the temptation of much recent cultural theory to celebrate hybridity, she describes the emergence of new spaces for invention, the "squatters" and other unofficial initiatives within IRCAM. These are not presented in terms of a romanticism of the marginal, but as the product of a complex cultural logic characterised by a struggle for time, whether against the delays and deferrals of an unreliable technology, in the face of the silence or noise produced by a computer programme, or in the figural death of the crash of the system.

Born questions the abstraction of recent cultural theory, yet remains sensitive to the field's complexity. Her book has considerable implications for critical theory, and for the philosophy of the avant-garde. Here her work complements that of Osborne, since both end in a recognition of finitude and the politics of time. They point to a philosophical history that would combine historical and philosophical analysis in a way that does justice to the complexity of historical events and the formal demands of philosophical reflection.

Howard Caygill is professor of cultural history, Goldsmiths College, University of London.

Rationalizing Culture: Ircam, Boulez, and the Institutionalisation of the Musical Avant-Garde

Author - Georgina Born
ISBN - 0 520 08507 8 and 20216 3
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £45.00 and £14.95
Pages - 390

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