Voyou Désœuvré

Despite his reactionary politics, I have a bit of a soft spot for Roger Scruton. This  stems from taking an aesthetics course as an undergraduate, in which Scruton was the only analytic author who actually discussed aesthetics, who was interested in the sensory qualities of actual works of art. His genuine skill in explaining how the sensory qualities of music relate to its cognizable structure is, however, certainly used for evil in this viciously ignorant article on modern pop music. As Ian Mathers says, it’s a spectacular example of “erudition squandered on a man who refuses to actually engage with the things he wants to demonize; demonizing them because he doesn’t understand.” But it’s instructive to see Scruton going so wrong here, because it illustrates something interesting about aesthetics.

Scruton attempts a phenomenological analysis of pop music, comparing Crystal Castles with Elvis, claiming that “the difference here is not material; it is phenomenological—a difference in how repetitions are heard.” And this is true, although not perhaps in quite the way in which Scruton thinks: the problem is that Scruton cannot hear what is happening in the music he condemns. This illustrates something interesting about aesthetics, and indeed phenomenology; we might think that aesthetic responses are due simply to unmediated sensory impressions, but what Scruton illustrates is that, in the absence of an ability to cognize the input of our senses, we have no aesthetic response to them: Scruton cannot hear pop music because he doesn’t understand it.

I’m not sure Scruton himself realizes this; his claim that the pop music he dislikes “works like tickling” suggests he does indeed think an unmediated aesthetic response is possible, and his unreflective, didactic assertions about the music he does like imply a belief in the naturalness, even obviousness, of his own responses, even if they can then give rise to more detailed elaboration. I disagreed with Ian in his comments over his description of Scruton as an “emotivist,” but he’s likely right; even if Scruton represents a sophisticated form of emotivism, he is at bottom engaged in the cognization of a fundamentally unmediated aesthetic response.

For someone who actually can write about pop music, see jane dark on Jordin Sparks.


  1. Ian Mathers, 1:18 pm, March 29, 2010

    “we might think that aesthetic responses are due simply to unmediated sensory impressions, but what Scruton illustrates is that, in the absence of an ability to cognize the input of our senses, we have no aesthetic response to them”

    Interesting… this brings to mind Nietzsche’s point about the metaphorical quality of language, for some reason. If I’m reading you right, you’re not saying that ‘unmediated sensory impressions’ don’t exist in some odd way, but that if we lack that ability to cognize them – the ability to in some way abstract away from those sensory impressions – they might as well not exist. I mean, Scruton (or whoever) clearly has SOME sort of visceral response to Crytal Castles et al, but he’s got no language for it, and he resorts to politics instead.

    I’d say all good music (or art in general) writing is the process of responding to your own visceral reaction, and so part of my problem with Scruton – especially his “tickling” comment – is that I don’t think he’s really being honest. Not that he or anyone else is required to like Crystal Castles (I’m not much of a fan myself) but Scruton’s in a weird double bind – he comes across both like he dislikes the music for pre-existing ideological reasons, and also that he viscerally dislikes the music so he’s come up with ideology to support why no-one should like it. Both sides feel a bit insincere.

  2. voyou, 10:44 pm, April 4, 2010

    I think where I might disagree a bit is that I think “visceral reactions” are cognitive reactions, they just depend on cognitions we’re not currently aware of. This might explain Scruton’s double-bind: because he’s not willing to really question his reaction to Crystal Castles, he just repeats explicitly the implicit judgements that led him to respond the way he did, so there’s something unilluminating and tautological about his response.

  3. John, 10:31 pm, April 21, 2010

    Scrutons reactionary politics ARE his message to the world altogether.

    Look at the dreadful dark company that he keeps, and writes for.

    He is a “scholar” at the AEI, and the Opus Dei Institute of Psychological Sciences.

    His essays appear in magazines published by right-wing outfits that are loud champions of the military-industrial-”entertainment” complex.

    The right-wing death beasts.

  4. voyou, 1:28 am, April 22, 2010

    “Right-wing death beasts” is probably too self-aware to be the name of an NSBM band, regrettably.

  5. George, 8:41 am, June 15, 2011

    “…there’s something unilluminating and tautological about (Scruton’s) response.”

    Tautology permeates much – if not all – of Scruton’s “thought”. I once tried to read his “Aesthetics of Music” where he starts by asking what IS music, then goes on to tell us it obviously sound but not just any sound. It is made up of special sounds called tones. But what is a tone? It isn’t just pitched sound because a machine could generate pitched sound. And music isn’t just defined by intentionality since that would take us into John Cage territory i.e. the composer or listener decides what is music. So what IS tone? After much rumination, Scruton decides that tone is …. wait for it …..MUSICAL sound!!!!

    It takes him 200 or so pages to tell us this. i.e. 200 pages to say that music is, well, music.

    The best essay I’ve read about Scruton’s approach to music is by Ben Watson and you can find it here:


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