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Position and Participation

Robert Solomon

"Post-modernism refines our subjectivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable"


"Ambiguity [is] endemic to the order of things and it's multiple dimensions"


Deconstruction and Destruction are two conceptual tools (developed by Derrida and Heidegger respectively) that further the phenomenological project by undoing stagnant, reified concepts and moving us back into the midst of description, discovery, and the ambiguity that perception tries to organize.

The movement of phenomenology is a response to the history of philosophy and other disciplines. But it is most fundamentally a response to our most ordinary and usual way of being and experiencing. We are perpetually getting lost in the structure of language and consequently we may be only partially present in our immediate experience. Phenomenological methods offer the possibility of return to the living heart of our experience.

Historically, objectivist disciplines have proceeded into areas of inquiry with a presupposed split. The basis of this split is the separation of observer from observed--thus creating an illusory belief that discrete "facts" or "truths" can be ascertained about the separated world. According to objectivist thinking, these facts can exist because the world exists as some thing in and of itself, apart from any particular observer. Consequently, this perspective has supported a variety of fundamental rifts between person and environment, self and other, mind and body, and so forth. Historically, the split itself was rarely examined, yet it has always led logically to the results of the inquiry (i.e. to the perpetuation of a fragmented world-view). In post-modernism, these splits are seen as maintained by a socio-political establishment invested in this split perspective. In phenomenology, these splits are seen as maintained by and expanded upon by Cartesian presupposition.

One of the primary ways that objectivist science proceeds is through the classification and explication of objects. Even abstract concepts and dynamic processes may be ultimately scuttled in lithified, technified, and inhuman language. There is, however, another level at which these sciences can be interpreted: objects may be seen as metaphors illustrating a set of relationships, patterns, or processes occurring between those objects. We can shift our attention to those relationships and develop an inclusive, integrating science that can be relevant to any system or phenomena that is characterized by relationship, process, or interaction.

My current label for this new orientation is matterless reasoning. Matterless reasoning directs its attention to movement, direction, and position: which seem to be the universal qualities of all metaphor and matter.

I have also considered the term interactive science to denote those disciplines that consider relational effects between objects and forces. For example, the physical metaphor of gravitational forces holding planets together, maintaining orbital systems, and leading to the birth of stars is immediately relevant to considering group dynamics of people, or the evolution of language. One is not implied to be the other in some kind of metaphysical concept of cosmic unity, but rather the patterns abstracted from observing one appear to shed light on understanding the other--perhaps in new ways. To some extent, this way of thinking has been with us a long time. Consider how psychoanalytic theory was modeled more on a Newtonian mechanics, than on Quantum theory--which is certainly more popular as a paradigm these days.

One may ask what this approach offers beyond what already exists in the philosophical repertory. So I must clarify at this point an underlying position I hold in all my thinking: I want it to be accessible to everyone, and I want it to easily translate into and from others' experience. I want the rigidly compartmentalized disciplines and topics in my organization to flow and interact freely. I want the discoveries from one area to illuminate impasses in another. But most of all, I want to be able to talk to anybody this way, not just the 'experts'). Matterless reasoning is useful in that it allows an immediate dialogue across disciplines and experience, in which observations from one can be relevant to another.

Another note: as beautiful and helpful as I find terms such as "differance" and "altarity", I know that it is just a matter of time before they too become clichéd idle talk. I know that I must always be on the lookout for language using me in uncreative ways. And I know that I have to keep refreshing and enlivening my use of language with new words and novel juxtapositions. Otherwise growth and challenge cease, and then what's the point of the exercise?

So in the spirit of inclusion and participation, I move onto the next movement of this essay. Post-modernism has canonized difference and otherness in the arena of Western intellectual thought. Therefore, I would like to introduce my view on a non-Western perspective that may serve as a fresh source of critique, challenge, and inspiration for Western thought.

Very little has been written about (sub-Saharan) African modes of thought as anything that could approximate a philosophical orientation or intellectual tradition. Perhaps this is understandable given the lack of any extensively-used, indigenous system of writing in that region. Writing, however, is not the only way that knowledge is developed and conveyed in a society. People speak and discuss. Within speech and discussion, there is content (the subject matter) and process (how the content is conveyed or performed). In both cases, speech (along with all socioculturally embedded activities) can be seen as ritual displays of community membership and involvement (i.e. "if you're one of us, this is what you talk about and this is how you talk"). What I would most like to draw attention to in this essay is a predominant structural theme in the process of sub-Saharan African ritual displays: namely, polyrhythm. In the abstract, polyrhythm can be seen as a philosophical orientation valuing and facilitating participation, integration, and unity in a social and phenomenal context of diversity, distinction, and chaos. It is my position that the essential vehicle of African philosophy is not writing but music, and moreover a particular kind of music. Furthermore, in polyrhythmic thought, meanings are conveyed metaphorically--that is indirectly, with the complexity and ambiguity of multi-referential symbolism intact, and with the compellingness of actual bodily involvement. African modes of thought are not justified or critiqued based on scientistic, objectivistic categories or values--which is not to say that there is no consistent and objective mode of critique. On the contrary, conceptual/artistic products are considered in light of their inclusion or exclusion of the audience's interest and concern; their ability to represent multiple perspective and meaning; and their ability to capture and convey the passions inherent in the trials and triumphs of human existence (e.g. these passions are not sidestepped or deleted as distraction from pure purpose, but are rather understood as an essential part of the whole package).

In contrast, let us consider the Western classical tradition. The music itself is generally based on a linear, melodic/lyrical/narrative theme. A solitary artist composes a piece of music with intricate details about how it is to be performed. The composer need not be present at the actual performance. The conductor and musicians perform in a separate space from the audience. The rule is silence, since extraneous sound is understood as interfering with precise conveyance, and as distraction from subtlety and mood. The audience listens or doesn't listen, stays or leaves. Those are the only real options.

In African traditional music, musicians and dancers are in close proximity. This is essential since musicians and dancers are constantly improvising and responding to each others' moods, movement, and creation. Everyone is part of the dance and music. The success of a performance is judged on the basis of participation, not on the basis of comparison to an external point of reference (e.g. that a "good" performance has x,y,z qualities). Rather, a good performance is one in which the musicians get everyone dancing and maintain a high level of participation for the duration. Therefore, responsiveness and inclusion are built into the structure of performance.

The structure of the music itself is such that it invites and welcomes many levels of participation. Polyrhythmic music is composed of a variety of repeating and interlocking rhythms which together create the feel of a complex conversation of call-and-response. Improvisation occurs in the context of an ongoing foundation which everyone can hear, predict, and build upon. Hence all contributions, although varying, are in relation to the music that is already playing. In contrast, Western musical compositions may vary only depending on the inspirational whims of the composer (otherwise, performers' interpretations are limited within the confines of a tightly-structured organization. If they didn't remain largely within this structure, the result would be noise). Audience (literally "listening") members may or may not like what they hear. The music may be downright irritating to the ear, yet still be considered a successful performance.

Polyrhythm is a paradigm for the integration of diversity without reducing the differences inherent in that diversity into common form. Polyrhythm is an attitude toward how all can coexist and build interactively, responsively. In a given performance, a virtuosic performer may diverge into a magnificent solo. But without the polyrhythmic context, the solo is flat. The polyrhythmic tradition gave rise to the current media practice of "sampling": taking bits of recorded music, speaking, sounds, and even video, and mixing them into a polyrhythmic piece of music, or actually creating a polyrhythm out of the combined, sampled elements. I have always considered "sampling" to be a quintessentially postmodern art form--building new structures from the rubble of deconstructed modernist creations.

In this contrast between Western and African styles, I am emphasizing the theme of participation versus detachment or exclusion. The Western tradition has generally favored genius-experts--leaving the rest of us without a voice. I reflect on this distinction when I consider the direction that Western classical music has pursued. Prior to the integration of the music and performance standards of other cultures (evidenced by composers such as Reich and Stockhausen), classical music had evolved in the direction of Atonality and Serialism. Serialism was an invention of the mid-twentieth century that involved constructing a random sequence out of the 12 notes in the Western tonal scale. In a composition, all twelve notes must be used in sequence before the sequence is repeated. The sequence can be played forward, backward, or upside down with each note played with any value of length or volume. This was a radical, new approach--qualities valued by Western culture (i.e. inventiveness, originality). Unfortunately, it hasn't been well-received; it doesn't relate to where people are coming from. This to me is always the danger when performance is divorced from participation: it can (and often does) become disengaged from the concerns of real people.

I could go on at length about the social and personal problems stemming from being excluded from participation and either having one's voice silenced or silencing others. Suffice it to say, I assume this to be a problem. However, post-modernism, a Western invention, has opened up the arena for additional voices in calling into question the centrality of the dominant ideas and figures of the Western intellectual and artistic tradition. As a final thought, I would like to discuss the work of a contemporary Italian architect, Paolo Soleri.

Paolo Soleri, the futurist thinker, architect, and sculptor, is best known for his Arcosanti project. The building of Arcosanti, in the Arizona desert near Phoenix, has been unfolding over the past two decades. The rotating group of resident-builders has gradually altered the original design to meet the ongoing and evolving needs (and resources) of those who live there now and who will someday live there in the future. The design itself was created to be built in stages, with opportunities for alteration, upgrade, and addition. It is meant to be a structure that adapts to meet the changing needs of people. The basis for this evolving construction is his concept of Arcology (from architecture and ecology). This idea grew out of his concern for urban and suburban sprawl with its inefficient use of land and energy. Sprawl wastes time and energy in commuter travel. In addition, energy used to heat office buildings during the day dissipates, unused, at night. By integrating work and living, space, time, and energy are conserved. In general, Soleri conceived of the importance of planning greater complexity into buildings to facilitate the integration of all of life's activities as well as integrating cross-sections of individuals and cultures. Again, as in the idea of polyrhythm, arcology represents the goal of constructing opportunities for the integrating function of participatory activities which involve the entire range of people and action.

My hope for the After Post-Modernism conference is the free play of difference through an opportunity to engage in open dialogue across disciplines and perspectives which may not always have the opportunity to intersect. I feel that what this event (which undoubtedly has already begun) may offer others is a model for beginning the process of this type of dialogue. If our aim is to advance the body of knowledge (content) for other specialized thinkers, then we set ourselves up in the same kind of exclusive, expert status that characterizes Modernism.

The Samba, an African/Portuguese creation, evolved in Brazil over the past two centuries beginning with the abduction/importation of African slaves to the Portuguese colony. The Samba is a form of dance and music performed in the streets during Carnival celebration for about three days (similar to New Orleans' Mardi Gras). The Samba groups prepare costumes, parade floats, music and choreography over the course of the year to culminate in the brief period when they go outdoors--taking the music to the streets, to the people. During Carnival, everyone is dancing together: white and black, rich and poor, the whole gamut of society. Then, after Carnival, it all goes back indoors. A form of music evolved from the going-back-indoors: bossa nova. Bossa Nova is the virtuosic jazz style of Samba. It began as a predominantly "white" music with its orientation toward listening and lyrical melody. Samba and Bossa Nova exist in a kind of energetic complementarity--each nurturing and keeping the spirit of the other alive. New forms of music continue to emerge from this complementarity.

At APM, we must preserve the spirit of otherness--knowing that otherness keeps us alive as well. This may mean bringing our efforts out into the street of our own "native" groups, institutions, and milieus. And as always, we must find the way to bring those experiences back into the free play of our differences.


[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]