Home > The 'Solidarity' Group > Perception, Philospohy, Politics

Perception, Philospohy, Politics

Solidarity: For Workers’ Power, Vol. 8, No. 3 (December 1975), pp. 29-32

We are living in an era of change in Western civilisation comparable only to the Renaissance in the depth of its challenge to all existing values, beliefs, institutions and social relationships. No aspect of life has escaped this critique and no section of our society has been spared the inner doubt, turmoil and conflict resulting from it. Work and leisure, family and school, economics and politics, philosophy and science, Church and police, the Establishment and the revolutionary organisations, the theatre and the concert hall, the writer and the painter are all riddled with loss of confidence concerning the validity of their roles. It is not only property relations or authority relations that are being questioned anew, but the whole issue of what is significant or not, and beyond it even the way in which sensory data are interpreted and endowed with significance.

As in the Renaissance, while the Old founders in confusion., a new way of perceiving things and a new mentality are gradually emerging. This new mentality, the sources of which are partly conscious, partly sub-conscious, can be discerned in the works of many creative artists, musicians, painters and writers.

The following article is an attempt to describe the new attitude to reality expressed by one of the most creative musical groups: the Pink Floyd. The musical creations of this group have, over a period of a decade, profoundly influenced the mode of sensory experience, and hence the attitudes, of millions of young people throughout the world.

There have always been creative artists, and even entire artistic movements in the past whose creations propounded a new way of perceiving the world. But their influence remained limited to small sections of the population. This is no longer the case with certain types of music. What we describe is not the private experience of a handful of individuals but something collectively shared in the new phenomenon of the mass concert.

* * * * *

Imagine yourself alone, deep in the night, in a strange city. All around you trains rush from nowhere to nowhere. Not a soul to be seen. You run, run, run, and hear your footsteps echo, echo, echo. As you run you gradually become aware of the sound of panting of a gigantic creature joined by the thumping of an enormous heart. You run faster and faster, but the panting and the heartbeat grow stronger and stronger. As in a dream you exert all your energy to escape; you do your utmost but fail. And suddenly the panting and the heartbeat are on top of you, all around you. With a shock you realise that they are your own, that the other sounds you’ve heard are other common daily noises. You become aware of the difference in experiencing these ordinary sounds. You realise that you hear with your mind rather than with your ears. This is the experience which the Pink Floyd create.

It is difficult to explain – or understand – this experience by means of words. You have to undergo the experience to find out what it conveys. It is not music in the traditional sense of the word, and you don’t listen to it with your ears (the ear being merely a channel to convey the sound). It is sound and you experience it with your mind. You can carry on conversations while you listen to this music, play chess, eat, study paintings, yet all the time you float in this overwhelming sea of sound, paying attention to every note, every nuance, every intonation. You can’t whistle the tune or dance to the rhythm, but you start seeing everything around you in a different light. It is not that you hallucinate and see things which are not there: it is the things which are there that you see (or hear). But you interpret them differently. It is not so much the new mode of experience itself that matters, but the realisation that it is possible to interpret the same sensations differently.

It is essential to listen to this music, at least to start with, on headphones rather than loudspeakers. The sound then seems to travel between the ears and creates the sensation of various events occurring inside your head (airplanes taking off, people coming downstairs, etc.). At first this experience comes as a shock. But once you get over the. hump it becomes a new, ‘normal’ mode of experiencing sound.

The recent Pink Floyd open-air concert at Knebworth (attended by more than a hundred thousand people) started by two Spitfires flying low over the crowd. The drone of their engine (accompanied by the musicians to form a coherent fabric) comments on everything the Spitfire represents in England. It is not a favourable comment. By fusing aircraft engine ‘noise’ with their own, the Pink Floyd suggest that the way in which sounds from different sources are interpreted depends on the mind as much as on the sources.

Can the sounds of eggs and bacon sizzling in the pan, milk and cornflakes flowing down your throat, cash registers in operation, etc., be woven into a harmonious and meaningful pattern? It can – and the experience is sublime. But sense or no sense (who decides, and according to what?), it matters little. What matters is the sheer realisation
that the mode of experiencing sound can be modified, and that the way in which we experienced it hitherto (taking it for granted) is not the only possible way of doing so. If the mode of hearing can be changed, what about seeing, smelling, touching? The answer implied by the Pink Floyd is unambiguous: all modes of experience can be changed.

This kind of music is an innovation comparable with the invention of perspective in painting. Before the Renaissance all painting was in a sense ‘symbolic’, representing the idea of the thing painted rather than the way the things themselves appeared to the eye (look at any Egyptian, Greek, Roman or early Christian painting). The introduction of perspective into painting (and this was only in the 16th century) was part of a new attitude to nature. People began to relate to the world not as a manifestation of the Divine Will but as it appeared to them from the viewpoint of the eye. Similarly, the Pink Floyd type of sound is part of a new attitude to ‘reality’. It makes us aware that it. is not what the ear hears but what the mind makes of it that really matters.

The introduction of perspective in the Renaissance was accompanied by similar ‘naturalistic’ changes in music, sculpture, philosophy, cosmology, architecture, medicine, political institutions, etc. The changes known by later generations as the Renaissance (rebirth) were to shape the mode of experience of European society for four centuries. This Renaissance was not initiated by the Church, by the nobility or by the peasantry, but by the merchants, bankers and craftsmen in the cities, by the city-zens and bourgeoisie. It became – and still is – the dominant way of experiencing the world and of relating to it.

The era which passed away during the Renaissance was the era dominated by the Church and the Nobility. It was an era in which people’s lives were regulated by a belief in God (existing outside of Nature and of History) who controlled everything down to the minutest detail. The Renaissance introduced the era wherein Nature replaced God, and Natural Law replaced Divine Law. The arts and sciences of Europe were to express this conception right up to the present day. The current crisis in the arts and sciences expresses the growing difficulties of this approach.

The emerging new conception – of which the Pink Floyd music forms an element – shifts the emphasis from Nature to the mental processes, from the sensory data themselves to their particular interpretation by the mind. A variety of investigations concerning the mental processes indicate that the interpretation of the sensory data. by the brain is not – as the traditional scientific attitude would have us believe – a passive process determined exclusively by physiology (and therefore hardly modifiable). Modern work suggests that the same sensory data can be interpreted differently by the same brain (i.e. same person) in valid, though different ways.

The Pink Floyd demonstrate this in their music. They force us to focus our attention on sounds we hear but tend to ignore as ‘irrelevant’, or to dismiss as mere ‘noise’. By endowing such sounds with musical significance we are made to realise the manner in which we endowed them with insignificance hitherto. As long as only a single set of significances and inter-relations is imparted to the sensory data, it can be argued that ‘interpretation’ has no role to play. But once it is realised that the same data can be differently interpreted by the same person it becomes impossible to evade the problem of the interpretative faculty, its role and structure.

In philosophical terms this means that the separation of the ‘objective’ world from the ‘subjective’ one breaks down. If what ‘is’ (i.e. exists independently of us) can only be grasped by us as we experience it to be (and not as it exists independently of us), and if moreover the mode of this experience can be modified, then the age-old philosophical controversy about the nature of existence is bound to be superseded by a new controversy about the nature of experience. The problem shifts from that which exists to that which is aware of existence, from that which experiences to that which is aware of experiencing.

This has revolutionary implications.

Marx’s ‘re-interpretation’ of history (as determined predominantly by economic forces as distinct from blind chance or Divine Will) was one of the cultural reverberations of the Renaissance and was itse1f to become an important factor in remoulding society. The emerging new culture (now challenging the fetishism of ‘laws of nature’ and placing emphasis on the interpretation of processes rather than on the ‘physical essence of the processes themselves) has not yet produced the conceptual tools for a ‘re-interpretation’ of social and historical phenomena, but it is providing the raw materials out of which such tools will eventually
be forged.

A. O.

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