Time-binding and the music-history survey


There is an interesting concept popular among occult thinkers (no, that’s not a contradiction in terms) called “time-binding,” which comes from Alfred Korzybski’s theory of “general semantics.” It posits that human beings are unique among animals for their ability to create abstract symbolic representations and pass them along to future generations. Thus human time is not homogeneous, as we might imagine ant-time or antelope-time. It is bound up in a structure of change and continuity. Hence the term “time-binding”: culture is that which binds time, so that your existence takes place within a time in which Socrates and Beethoven and the patriarch Abraham (etc.) also figure as structuring elements. Time-binding is the ability of each generation of humans to learn from the previous one; it is also the human ability to conceptualize time at all, and to understand that what happens now is compounded from what has happened before and will continue to compound in the future. Exactly what “compounded” means varies radically from one culture to another, or for that matter within a single culture.

Time-binding is both precarious and precious to human societies through most of human existence. For a Paleolithic, pre-agricultural tribe* without a writing system, the lore of the tribe — its cosmological stories, its techniques of hunting and warfare, its arts — is literally a matter of life and death. Without written language, its survival is precarious and relies on human memory, specifically the cultivation of collective memory by the tribe’s shamans. Which in turn means that the tribe’s survival relies on the way it trains and initiates generation after generation of shamans. (One definition of the slippery term “shaman” might be something like “a specialized class within a tribe in charge of time-binding.”) Which finally implies a very strong, society-wide force of conservation — conservatism in the most literal sense. Innovation is dangerous. You don’t mess with the formula: that could get your whole tribe killed. People in such a society don’t go around shooting their mouths off about how shamanism is a patriarchal social construct or that the gods don’t exist and this whole shaman thing is a charade. That’s a characteristically modern style of thought, and one that would have been literally unthinkable for human beings throughout a great preponderance of human history.

Now, there is a whiff of sociobiology in my account here, because I am emphasizing the way culture is an adaptive strategy for biological survival and reproduction. But I think it is also important to note that human survival is not such a simple matter. Having a sense of belonging in the world or a role to play in a cosmos properly understood; a sense of what is proper conduct towards the dead; a sense of what is owed to human beings like yourself and to all sentient beings (including gods), past, present and future; in short, a sense of the sacred — this axis of meaning is just as important as mere physical survival for so-called primitive peoples. I emphasize this because it is the habit of a reductive modernist style of thought (of which sociobiology is an eminent example) to view these kinds of meanings as mere window-dressing for more urgent and fundamental biological needs. Like, music and dance is just a means of sexual display — that sort of thing. I absolutely reject this style of thinking, as I have written repeatedly on Dial M.

I think that there is another dimension of “survival”: not just the survival of the body, but the survival of human identity. And by “human identity” I don’t mean any specific identity, I mean human identity as such: the sense of being human as opposed to being something else. I imagine human beings emerging from a biological pre-modernity — Australopithecines separating from chimps, early Homo separating from Australopithecines, each step into the human world of symbol-making and abstract thought accompanied by a shuddering look backwards at the endless night of the animal mind left behind.** In other words, the technique of making a better stone axe is not the only thing worth preserving; human identity itself is as well. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, human identity is what’s at stake in making a better stone axe, or indeed in any means of biological survival. This is why art is so important, even when it doesn’t really contribute much to our material necessities.

So anyway, time-binding has, at first glance, a profoundly conservative function. But time-binding isn’t just about continuity; it’s also about change. Human beings want to conserve the fruits of human cultural adaptation, but they also have to learn stuff in the first place in order to have adaptations worth preserving. If you think of time-binding as a simple equation of T = GN, where time-binding (T) equals generational adaptation (G) multiplied by the number of generations (N), if G = 0 … well, any multiple of nothing is still nothing. Time-binding means that your own generation can and indeed must add something to the previous generation. In a very traditionalistic society, that something might be tiny, but it is always something. The alternative is living as non-human animals do, in a no-time of eternal sameness. Again, human identity is what’s at stake.

Writing immensely speeds up the time-binding process and radically empowers it: now you can store cultural memory far more efficiently and compendiously than you could when everything had to be consigned to a shaman’s individual memory. As Marshall McLuhan pointed out, printing squares this power and electronic media cube it. The total of all that has been said and thought by humans, not only in our own culture but across the world, becomes exponentially more available to us, instantaneously and simultaneously (as McLuhan liked to say).

Perhaps paradoxically, the rate of cultural change increases in proportional measure to the increase in cultural memory. Writing and its successor media of prosthetic memory enact a contradiction: the easy preservation of cultural memory enables us to break with the past, to unbind time. At its furthest extremes, this is manifested in the familiar and dismal spectacle of fascist and communist regimes, impelled by intellectual notions permitted by the intensified time-binding of literacy, imagining utopias that will “wipe the slate clean” and trying to force people to live in a world entirely divorced from the bound time of social/cultural tradition. (Think of the Khmer Rouge.)

There is a useful idea, also vaguely occultish, that Jung called enantiodromia. (I write a bit about this in the fifth chapter of Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture.) This is the notion that when something is pushed to the furthest limit of its potentialities, it reverses into its opposite. This is the ruling principle of the I Ching, where broken ying lines reverse into solid yang lines and vice versa, and we can supply many examples from our observation of everyday life: the familiar les extrêmes se touchent phenomenon, for instance, whereby hard leftists and the hard rightists start to resemble one another. Time-binding also presents a spectacle of enantiodromia. Time-binding is a dialectic of change and continuity, and clearly if there is no change and all continuity, then there is no time-binding, because there is nothing to bind. But oddly, if you push all the way to the other extreme — all change and no continuity — the same thing happens. The condition of culture comes to resemble that guy in Memento who couldn’t remember anything more than five minutes ago. If you live in a permanent now, with one novel sensation succeeding another and no sense of connection between them, no possibility of holding them in mind and making a shape from their succession, it is hard even to imagine having a human identity at all.

It is the latter cultural condition that postmodern theorists have been writing about since the 1970s. The loss of human identity vouchsafed by cultural memory is what the French postmodern thinkers meant by “schizophrenia,” though they didn’t think of it in terms of time-binding. An interesting recent book, Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock, makes a similar argument.

If the technologies of time-binding accelerate cultural innovation to the point that it becomes runaway feedback cycle, then the survival of human identity itself it at risk, and it becomes a cultural imperative to tap the brakes. Here, we can see the value of all kinds of conservative structures that used to be hardwired into society: censorship (picking and choosing which cultural innovations to bind into our temporal structure), hereditary forms of government, religious taboos and prescriptions, and assigned gender roles. The point isn’t their content: it doesn’t matter whether your society decides to be exclusively Christian or Muslim or anything else, it matters that you decide to be something and stick to it. This, in effect, is what Edward Gibbon writes about monarchy, which he cheerfully acknowledges is absurd but which he nevertheless defends:

Of the various forms of government which have prevailed in the world, an hereditary monarchy presents the fairest scope for ridicule. Is it possible to relate without an indignant smile, that, on the father’s decease, the property of a nation, like that of a drove of oxen, descends to his infant son, as yet unknown to mankind and to himself, and that the bravest warriors and the wisest statesmen, relinquishing their natural right to empire, approach the royal cradle with bended knees and protestations of inviolable fidelity? Satire and declamation may paint these obvious topics in the most dazzling colours, but our more serious thoughts will respect a useful prejudice, that establishes a rule of succession, independent of the passions of mankind; and we shall cheerfully acquiesce in any expedient which deprives the multitude of the dangerous, and indeed the ideal, power of giving themselves a master.***

Modernity is the point at which almost everything becomes a matter of individual choice. You can choose you religion, gender, and government, and much else besides, and no-one is telling what you can and cannot read. But the problem with this is that once all those aspects of human identity are seen as elective and a matter of individual choice, the genie is out of the bottle. Once you have deposed your kings, you can’t just decide to have a king again, because the whole thing about kings is that they aren’t chosen by anyone: they are part of the natural order that enfolds each individual subject. This is why it is always a bit comical when alt-right fringoids call for a new monarchy. Guess who they have in mind for the job? Ross Douthat amusingly writes that American neoreaction has a “’look at me, Ma, I’m a pirate‘ sensibility.” What he doesn’t say (it would doubtless cut too close to the bone) is that being a religious convert has the same sensibility. There is a whiff of absurdity that comes of trying to reinstall a religious identity once it has been uninstalled. (In my own case, I could never entirely lose the “Look at me, Ma, I’m a Buddhist!” feeling.) And yet those who have uninstalled religious identity, or have had it uninstalled for them, often find themselves yearning for it, and are nevertheless unable simply to believe in the naïve way of someone who has never had to negotiate that aspect of their identity. How do you just decide to believe? This is one of the fundamental quandries of modernity.

So modernity is (among other things) the condition in which time-binding is threatened by its own exponential expansion, and yet where it’s not clear exactly how we are to slow its growth. Very modern people are reflexively opposed to anything that would slow down the acceleration: for them, the essence of the human is change. Reactionaries are reflexively opposed to anything that will speed up acceleration: for them, the essence of the human is continuity. Both are right! Each side, given the opportunity to realize its imagined utopia of change or continuity, would make a world no sensible person would be caught dead in. At times we feel a whisker away from postmodern dystopia (think Blade Runner), and at times we feel that a neofascist dystopia (think V for Vendetta) is about to break out at any minute. If you voted for Donald Trump, you probably fear the former; if you voted for Hillary Clinton, you probably feel that the latter is now upon us.

Now, what has all this got to do with music?

Humanistic scholarship is caught on the horns of the time-binding dilemma. Think of the “classical music is dead” arguments you hear in arguments over music-department curricular reforms. The old-fashioned “chant to minimalism” music history survey is everywhere under attack. “Relevance” is the key word: how is Perotin’s Sederunt relevant to a jazz major? Or a kid who wants to make EDM on his laptop? Recordings constitute another technology of time-binding, and the proliferation of musics in the recorded era — the way that recordings make all the world’s music instantaneously and simultaneously available — means that American culture has en masse withdrawn the western art music’s former unquestioned privilege. Classical music is just another (increasingly dusty, dim, and small) corner of the record shop.

And yet for me the best argument for keeping Sederunt in the classroom is that it is one of the nearly-infinite forms of music that the human mind has contrived, and the memory of those forms — time-binding — is crucial not only to the craft of musicians but to our continued sense of what it is to be a human being.

Now, this argument is as true for Japanese gagaku or Steely Dan’s “Peg” as it is for Sederunt. It does not settle the question of which pieces we put in our syllabi and which we do not. But it does suggest that the survey style of class — the creakiest, most old-school model imaginable, the kind of class we are repeatedly told is dead, dead, dead — continues to serve a function in the modern world, and always will. The survey is not just (as we are also repeatedly told) a covert imposition of race, class, and gender ideology. Nothing is ever “just” anything: it is only the reductive modernist style of thought that tells us otherwise. No, the music-history survey is the repository of cultural memory, and the preservation and care of cultural memory has an autonomous value, regardless of what that cultural memory is. To tell the story of who we are is to engage in the scholar’s highest mission. It is the gift that shamans give their tribe.

Yes, that’s right: I am suggesting that a music history professor is, or can be, a shaman. Go ahead and laugh. I find this to be a productive way to think of my own work. At least it beats thinking of myself as a “content provider” or “thought leader” or any of the other feeble roles to which neoliberal educational ideology seeks to reduce us.

*We usually assume that human history properly begins with agriculture, which is both chronologically wrong — consider that the time between us now and the Neolithic revolution is only a third of the way between us and the cave art at Chauvet — and historically has served as a warrant for genocide, since people whose cultures resemble those of the Paleolithic, like the Australian aborigines, tended to be seen as pre-humans by their conquerors.

**This is not to denigrate non-human animal consciousnesses. I am only suggesting, speculatively, that as the human species evolves through different forms it collectively rejects the consciousness associated with its previous form (Adorno wrote about this in The Dialectic of Enlightenment), rather as children reject their own earlier selves, sometimes with appalling ferocity. Children will love their stuffed animals when they are five and make a big show of rejecting them a few years later; likewise, the child of 13 will look at the enthusiasms of the child of 9 with similar contempt and will vigilantly police any sign of backsliding, either in themselves or in others. At each stage, the previous stage of mental development is rejected utterly, and its appearance out of season (a ten-year-old boy caught clutching a well-worn teddy bear) is a childhood taboo. But of course the parent’s heart melts at the memory of a child snuggling a teddy bear; to the parent, all stages of development are equally valuable. 

***I used this quote in my last post (on monarchy, etc.). Thought I’d mention it, in case you were experiencing déjà vu.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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2 Responses to Time-binding and the music-history survey

  1. Chris Smith says:

    Beautifully written and exceptionally acute, Phil. I might quibble over just how much the art of memory could accomplish, and I would definitely speak up for the unique cognitive and aesthetic experiences that practicing the art of memory provides, but nevertheless I find this a fantastic articulation of why long-span history study matters. Thank you!

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