The Problem with Ineffability

Western University of Ontario, Annual Graduate Symposium, 17 August 2019

Lately, the notion of ineffability has enjoyed renewed attention in the musical studies community, thanks in part to Carolyn Abbate’s 2018 SMT keynote address. In a famous 2004 article, Abbate opposed ineffability to the practice of hermeneutic (“gnostic”) interpretation, which to her seemed insufficient to capture any “drastic” experience of music itself. Over the years, this reversal of the traditional mind-over-matter hierarchy has been attractive because it seems to free music from being perpetually explained by a hegemonic, all-knowing, Cartesian subject. But not all revolutions are liberating.

The idea of a drastic musical experience (precluding linguistic description) mirrors what Paul Guyer has called the “precognitive” interpretation of Kant’s “Analytic of the Beautiful.” In this model, a subject contemplates beauty before grasping a determinate concept of the beautiful object; the experience of music seems drastic and ineffable when we can feel its effects but cannot communicate them through conceptual language. However, Guyer argues that the contemplation of beauty can begin only after the cognition of a determinate concept. In order to say “this music is beautiful,” one first has to say “music.”

The problem with the idea that “music is ineffable” is that it always requires music to be already effable. And to say “music” is immediately to concede that its ontology is embedded within language and culture. In Lacanian terms, there is nothing beyond the symbolic order of language but the traumatic breakdown of consciousness.

Anxiety about the inability of language to exhaust experience is not new. Kant may have recognized this insufficiency, which is why he based his critique of judgment on “common sense”—a subjective principle substituted for an objectively universal category. Banishing language, because of its inherent failures, from the realm of musical experience is an overcompensation that necessarily denies music’s cultural contingency. Even though proponents of ineffability reject the existence of autonomous “absolute music,” their overcompensation actually reifies music by isolating it from language and culture. Ineffability is not the means of restoring a presumed lack of humanity to musical discourse: ineffability is the symptom of music made inhuman, autonomous.