In this episode, Teague, Adam, and I discuss romanticism in music and its lasting influence on contemporary life. We explore the works of many important composers like Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner. There is also an interesting discussion on the ramifications of romanticism and 20th century music that borrows insights from Danto and Wittgenstein. Did the history of art come to an end? Is there such a thing as romanticism? If you enjoyed this episode and want more content like this, please subscribe!

John Cage and the philosophy of music

The aesthetician Susan Sontag claims that Cage’s attempt to erase authorial intent, in one sense, allowed him to erase meaning altogether. This is also reflected in Cage’s writings:

“New music: new listening. Not an attemp to understand something that is being said, for if something were being said, the sounds would be given the shapes of words. ust attention to the activity of sounds.” 

— Cage, Experimental Music: Doctrine, p. 10

But, I don’t believe this to be case. The cultural and historical context of Cage’s works show that they are trying to dissolve the distinction between art and sound. Such contexts allow sounds to refer to themselves, thereby giving them meaning and intentionality.

Plus, one could consider Heidegger’s argument that we do not hear pure sounds:

“What we first hear is never noises or complexes of sounds, but the creaking wagon, the motor-cycle. We hear the column on the march, the north wind, the woodpecker tapping, the fire crackling. It requires a very artificial and complicated frame of mind to hear a pure noise…Likewise, when we are explicitly hearing the discourse of another, we proximally understand what is said, or — to put it more exactly — we’re already with him, in advance alongside the entity which the discourse is about… Even in cases where the speech is indistinct or in a foreign language, what we proximally hear is unintelligible words, and not a multiplicity of tone-date.”

— Being and Time, 163

This means that even the sounds we encounter in ordinary life are never meaningless, pure sounds.

All in all, I admire Cage’s attempt to bring ordinary sounds to the forefront of Western music. I think he exemplifies Heidegger’s claim that art makes the conflict between World and Earth conspicuous. For Heidegger, World is the human environment in which we lead our lives. It includes our tools, houses, values, and so on; in other words, it is the habitat of Dasein. On the other hand, Earth is the natural setting of World; the ground on which it stands and the sources of raw materials for our artefacts. Through his illustration of ordinary sounds, Cage makes apparent the rift between World and Earth: musical sounds vs. pure noise. Interestingly, Cage’s take on this conflict uncovers a naked truth, i.e., the attempt to erase intentionality paves the way for a deeper unconcealment of intentionality and Dasein. 

Being and Time, Martin Heidegger

The Origin of the Work of Art, Martin Heidegger

Cage and Philosophy, Noël Carroll

Cultural Appropriation: Motoko Kusanagi is White?

In a recent article from the New Republic, Ryu Spaeth makes the case that it is fine to cast Scarlett Johansson, a white female, as Motoko Kusanagi, a robot detective in future Tokyo.

Cultural appropriation, as described by the cultural and racial theorist George Lipsitz, can exist for both the majority and the minority. It does not necessarily yield negative results as we often assume. Rather, it is a concept that reminds us to be cautious when the majority appropriates the minority’s culture, because it can often happen in a way that enforces negative stereotypes against minorities — e.g., that they are violent or servile or that they do not have a voice to represent their own culture — and entrenches existing power relations.

However, I think our usage of the term has evolved to mean only such negative instances — partly, because theorists have primarily focused on such usages. If you talk to someone about cultural appropriation, they are not going to mention Japanese animation, which often appropriates American culture; they will most likely mention black face or casting a white actor to play Mulan. So this is why I define cultural appropriation as an instance in which a dominant culture appropriates a minority culture; and this is why I use cultural cross-pollination to describe instances in which a culture benefits from using elements from another culture. In other words, cultural appropriation describes power relations; cultural cross-pollination describes fruitful interactions between cultures. I think such a demarcation will clear up our conceptual space and prevent unnecessary confusions.

One may object that the distinction between cultural cross-pollination and cultural appropriation is often blurry — samba and bossa nova are played by those who trace their ancestral roots back to European colonialists, Native Americans, and African slaves. So if such a person is a few percentages more European and plays samba, they are cultural appropriators? There is no clear way to tell whether this is an instance of cultural apporpriation. But we can tell that this is an instance of cultural cross-pollination. The purpose of the demarcation isn’t to sufficiently describe every exchange between cultures; rather, it is to clear up the conceptual space and prevent unnecessary confusions. The demarcation allows us to make sense of a cultural product that is both cultural cross-pollination and cultural appropriation — for example, the Rolling Stones. We celebrate their music, yet recognize the fact that they appropriated black artists like Muddy Waters. This is quite an intuitive answer, but the debate we often see on cultural appropriation prevents us from validating such intuitions. It, instead, insists that it is either cultural appropriation or cultural cross-pollination. Why not both? Clarifying such intuitions and preventing such unnecessary conflicts is the purpose of such a demarcation — and I believe that it is successful.

Trump and the Crisis of Identity

Donald Trump will be our president. Despite the looming dangers of a Trump presidency, I think we have learned a valuable lesson: Identity is central to politics. Trump garnered support by appealing to the sentiment that our country is being taken over by them. Sanders rallied his supporters by pointing out the fact that they —Wall Street, moneyed interests, etc. — have been taking over our country. Like I said, identity is central to politics.

On both sides, we wanted someone who did not compromise and fought for the values we actually believe in. Why? Because politics as usual has never delivered to us the policies that affirm our identity and values. Identity is not a good that we can compromise. For example, I can share a loaf of bread with others, but I cannot as easily compromise my religion or feminism. So what would be the solution to bridging such irreconcilable differences?

The philosopher Michael Sandel identified this same problem decades ago. He criticized liberalism for its pretension of neutrality by privileging the right over the good, because, he believed, it caused a dissonance with our actual moral temperament. In other words, we do not, as politicians often say, “disagree but respect the right to have a different opinion.” We want to change the other person or destroy them. His solution was communitarianism — the idea that politics needs to be organized based on small, self-governing communities. Such communities will share the same space, community, and, ultimately, values.

I find this idea appealing but ultimately insufficient. First, it is unlikely to see large behemoths like the US or China dissolving into tiny self-governing communities. Second, we are pluralistic. This might sound confusing, since Sandel is suggesting communitarianism as a remedy to the conflicts of plural values in a given society. Sandel is right. Our society is pluralistic. My point is that so are we. We are not simply tribal creatures who conform only to what is preached to us by our communities. We are also cosmopolitan. We recognize universal duties and values. Furthermore, we operate under multiple modes of ethics. We are sometimes utilitarian, sometimes Kantian, and sometimes virtue ethicists. The conflicts between such modes and, manifestly, between the cosmopolitan and the communitarian are often irreconcilable. This means that even small, self-governing communities need to deal with irreconcilable differences.

Sandel was aware of the first criticism that transitioning to small, self-governing communities is not happening anytime soon. So he proposed a temporary solution: we should recognize the art of a democratic debate as a good. A democratic debate, conducted in a virtuous manner, bids one to attentively listen and respond to the other person. This is different from respecting rights, since respecting rights often entails disengagement. One does not need to engage another person’s belief in a virtuous manner if all one is concerned with is respecting that person’s right to have such beliefs. On the contrary, engaging in a democratic debate entails engagement. The benefits of engagement would not only mean a healthier dialogue but also a development of camaraderie. There is a Korean television show called 썰전where pundits discuss politics. There are two pundits from opposite sides of the political spectrum who discuss various topics. This sounds like an awful time, but the reality is quite the opposite. Despite irreconcilable differences, they have come to respect each other’s company. Through their debates, they have come to respect each other’s values, candor, and honesty.

However, I think there is a problem even with this approach. It takes a person of a particular disposition to engage in such a manner. There are multiple modes of ethics under which we operate and the preference of one over the other is determined by our personal dispositions. If someone is an absolutist Kantian about religious doctrines, then it is more difficult for that person to fruitfully engage another person who believes in everything they see as vile and sinister. The same is true of someone who absolutely hates everything about Trump because of his misogyny, racism, and xenophobia. Furthermore, people tend to favor debates with flowery rhetoric rather than the one espoused by Sandel. Encouraging people to favor one type of debate over the other might spell trouble, since it is obvious that not everyone has the appropriate personal disposition to engage in a democratic debate. I don’t subscribe to the optimistic view that humans are capable of being rational if they had a good education and so on. Take a look at debates between the most educated persons and there is always more rhetoric and spite than curiosity and temperance.

There seems to be no way out of this conflict. A few days ago, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek endorsed Donald Trump, arguing that his presidency will cause instability in the political establishment —which would carve up space for leftist reforms. I think it will be the exact opposite. Trump’s supporters are currently the most enthusiastic and angry group in American politics. The Supreme Court, the House, the Senate, and the White House are all Republican. They will use this instability to push their agenda forward. Progressives like Jill Stein won just 1% of the vote; however, Gary Johnson won 3%. This country, despite its politics having shifted more and more to the right throughout the 20th century, wants to go further to the right. This might have something to do with the fact that the average American feels like the country is liberal. Take a look at the sheer number of celebrities who endorsed Hillary Clinton. Mainstream media outlets like the New York Times endorsed Hillary Clinton. College professors are predominantly in the left. For many, entertainment, the news, and universities impact how they see their identity more than policies. They feel isolated. Their leaders tell them that minorities are taking away their jobs, and that Muslims are trying to install Sharia Law. They feel like the country is being taken over by others. Right-wing politics took away their savings and gave them to the wealthy. One can only imagine their anger.

Nonetheless, I cannot bring myself to compromise on immigration, abortion, wealth inequality, or healthcare. Such a move would be equivalent to supporting racism, misogyny, classism, neoliberalism, and bigotry. This, I believe, is how many liberals feel; this is also, I suspect, how many conservatives feel. Our differences are irreconcilable. We are angrier than ever. I can only envision a bloody clash between those with irreconcilable differences. There is no better figure to incite a civil war of culture than Donald Trump. If such a war is inevitable, then we must be prepared to fight and organize; to protect and safeguard immigrants and refugees; and, hopefully, discover a peaceful alternative.

Meruem: a Hegelian Odyssey

Meruem is one of my favorite characters from Hunter x Hunter. He was powerful, cunning, brutal, sympathetic, and all so human as Nietzsche once exclaimed. I would love to write at length about how great of a character he is, but this is not what I will be doing in this essay. Instead, I will be writing an analysis of the Hegelian aspects of Meruem. Why Hegel one might ask? I chose to do a Hegelian analysis of Meruem, because I found an unmistakable parallel between the character development of Meruem and Hegel’s thoughts on self-consciousness.

Let’s begin with Hegel’s theory of self-consciousness. For Hegel, the most primitive form of consciousness is certainty at the level of sense experience. It is the experience of “this” or “here” rather than classifications like red or round. Such sense-certainty’s utterance, Hegel argues, is incoherent. For example, suppose I uttered the sentence “here is nighttime,” wrote it down, woke up the next day, and read it aloud. How is here nighttime? This is indeed very peculiar. Why does the truth of sense-certainty disappear when written down? Hegel explains that sense-certainty cannot be expressed because it is knowledge of the particular, and language expresses knowledge of the general or universal. (71) Here, there, and now cannot express sense-certainty, because there is more than one here or now – it is a universal. Wait! How do we then make sense of proper names one might ask? Aren’t they particular? Hegel’s answer to this question was that proper names are meaningless because they only refer to the name itself. One could push further on this issue; but I won’t pursue it anymore since this essay’s aim is to draw a parallel between Hegel’s theory and Meruem’s character rather than to criticize Hegel’s philosophy.

At the next level of perception, consciousness classifies objects according to their universal properties; this proves inadequate and so at the level of understanding, consciousness imposes its own laws on reality. Such laws include Newton’s laws. They classify raw sense data under concepts like gravity and force. They “are not things we see existing in reality, but constructs made by our understanding to help us grasp reality.” (74) Beyond this level of perception is the level of understanding in which consciousness begins to reflect upon itself. However, Hegel noted that, “self-consciousness…cannot exist in isolation. If a consciousness is to form a proper picture of itself, it needs some contrast.” (75) This means that we must be aware of something other than ourselves. Hegel explains that we have a desire to possess that other entity of which we are aware. We want to “transform it into something that is [ours], and thus strip it of its [sovereignty].” (76)

This all sounds similar to those who have witnessed Meruem’s character arc, as he first began as a being that merely satisfied his basic desires – sense-certainty and the particular rather than the universal. This is evident in the way he forcibly ripped himself out of his mother’s womb and immediately embarked on a search for food. According to Hegel, Meruem would be in the first stage of self-consciousness at this point. It is interesting to take note of the fact that Meruem did not speak very much during the first few days after his birth. He was simply performing whatever action seemed to satisfy his desires rather than reflect upon his actions or himself through language, which Hegel believes is juxtaposed with desires – desires are subjective and language is universal.

Sure enough, when we begin to see more of Meruem’s inner dialogue and conversations with other people he isn’t merely focused on his primal desires anymore. He has arrived at the next stage of self-consciousness. This is when we see him classifying human beings and chimera ants according to their properties. He is now interested in the differences between those who possess Nen and those who do not. Such contemplation eventually leads him to impose universal laws unto the world as we can witness from his rather extreme form of social darwinism – power is the only thing that matters. He tries to organize his underlings and the food he eats according to this philosophy. However, it is quite obvious that this mode of thinking is immature. It resembles a caricature of Nietzsche’s übermensch that people often tout as profound and enlightening. Such immaturity begins to be expressed through the desire to possess and destroy another entity. This can be seen in Meruem’s battles against chess masters and Komugi. But even such relationships are unstable as we see Meruem destroy the chess masters and grow agitated by the fact that he cannot best Komugi.

Hegel argued that, at this stage of self-consciousness, one needs to observe another self-conscious entity to grow. He believes that this allows one to see what self-consciousness is like. He believed that social interaction was crucial, for an isolated child would never develop mentally beyond the level of mere consciousness without social interaction. (77) We can observe such growth from Meruem as he interacts with Komugi. He begins to notice the majesty and complexity of other self-conscious beings. He wishes to be recognized as a worthy adversary and he becomes angered when he mistakenly believes that she does not consider him as one. Hegel explained it could destroy one’s identity if others fail to recognize his or her self-consciousness. Like nations that need to be acknowledged by other nations to be a full-fledged state, self-consciousness needs to be recognized for what it is, which peculiarly makes it what it is. A nation was already there, but recognition makes it more complete. (78)

Nonetheless, even such interactions can be toxic. Hegel believed that self-consciousness tries to be pure – detached from material objects – yet it is very attached to its body and others’ bodies. In order to show that they are not attached to such bodies, they try to kill each other. (79) One can observe this from Meruem’s bid to wager his arm and Komugi’s life over a game of gungi. Surely, such violence is pointless. If the loser dies, then the victor kills the person by whom they need to be recognized. Such insight led Hegel to write his famous master-slave dialectic. The victor keeps the loser alive so that he can have someone by whom he can be recognized – the master is dependent on the slave. This concept is quite revolutionary as it turns the usual thoughts regarding this relationship upside down – the master is the one who needs the slave, but the slave does not need the master. The slave shapes his ideas into objects and labor. Through this process, he becomes more aware of her own consciousness that is poured into her labor and the objects of her labor. Through such labor, she learns that she has a mind of her own. (80) On the other hand, the master sees the slave as a thing; therefore, he doesn’t get the recognition he needs.

Analogous to Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, Komugi the slave is confident of her own identity through her labor –gungi. We see her crying over her the product of her own labor – her original gungi move– for it reminds her of her essence. Meruem is destabilized by such confidence, for he had seen her as a mere thing rather than a self-conscious being. And once he begins to treat her as a self-conscious being he begins to contemplate his own identity – What is his name? What does it mean to be a King? In other words, he becomes more self-conscious.

Unlike Hegel’s odyssey, Meruem’s journey doesn’t end with the recognition that Mind or Geist is the essence of all reality and that our individual minds are parts of a whole that shapes and constitutes reality. His journey ends with the recognition that he can choose to be human, that he wishes to spend the rest of his life with Komugi. This decision isn’t so surprising if one realizes that Komugi herself is an existentialist figure. She embodies Heidegger’s argument that a worker who is absorbed in their work is more in touch with their Being. Komugi, as we have surveyed, is very in touch with her Being. She looks ahead to her death and believes her life to be finite, which Heidegger insisted was the essential nature of our relationship with Time. She sees her life as a series of choices that she makes for herself rather than what they tell her; hence, she sets up her own principles for her own life as we see from her vow to take her life if she loses a gungi match. It is all the more meaningful to take this into account and witness Meruem’s choice to be with Komugi rather than fulfill his genetic and socio-cultural destiny as a Chimera Ant King who must procreate with another female to continue the prosperity of his race. Instead, he chooses the person who is dearest and this very choice itself is a lesson she has taught him – that life is a choice rather than what they tell you to do.

Peter Singer, Hegel: A Very Short Introduction

Michael Inwood, Heidegger: A Very Short Introduction

3 x 3 of my favorite anime shows

These are my favorite anime shows! I didn’t include any feature length films because I feel like they deserve a separate list.

3x3 anime shows.jpg

Space Dandy, Hunter x Hunter, Cowboy Bebop (top row from left to right); Bakemonogatari, Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, Monster (middle row left to right); Samurai Champloo, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, and Steins;Gate (bottom row left to right)