Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

Learning to hear

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.