Dethroning the conductor

Paul Raven @ 13-01-2011

As unsurprising as it might be to see an essay by a Christian theologian advocating submission to authority as one of the highest ideals of our political lives [via BigThink], I’m not in the mood to let it pass without comment. I think what really bugs me is the largely unquestioned elevation of hierarchy to sacred principle:

Austin gives the example of an orchestra. If I want to be free to play the violin in a well-performed Beethoven symphony, then I must submit myself to the authority of a conductor, for without the conductor the other musicians cannot be brought into coordination with my playing.

Submission to authority for the sake of freedom is not, as Simon recognized, a function of human sin but instead finitude. It’s not the case that an orchestra can just play if everybody is selfless and cooperative. Someone needs to guide the whole so that each player can concentrate on his or her part. Nobody can both play the violin and at the same time and conduct the orchestra.

The logic there is sound enough, but it’s built on the assumption that everyone wants to play through the precisely denoted structure of that Beethoven symphony, and the implication that anything else would be a cacophony of unpalatable noise, or at the very least inherently inferior to Beethoven.

Well, look: I spent three hours last night jamming with a handful of other musicians. We don’t play from sheet music; the band doesn’t “belong” to anyone; there is no conductor or leader. We take the simple rules of harmony and melody, and we start playing; music emerges. Sometimes it takes a little while to find a groove; sometimes there are bum notes, fumbled phrases, rhythmic slips. But sometimes we come up with stuff that transcends our individual abilities – little passages which, when we’ve finished playing, we discuss with a mixture of surprise and awe. There was no planning, no leadership, but we still created something amazing. Part of that comes from the selflessness that our theologian friend above claims is insufficient, but another part comes from the selfishness of occasionally feeling that one knows what the moment demands, and the willingness to step out of the groove and extend it upwards, outwards, inwards, wherever.

The orchestral analogy’s appeal to a theologian is pretty obvious: the orchestra first has to recieve the text of the piece, a rule-set handed down to them by a distant authority figure whom they can only hope to partially channel and glorify; the text then has to be interpreted by the conductor, who plays no part in the creation of the symphony beyond grafting a personal vision and interpretation to the text. The musician’s place is to play what he is told, just as the communicant’s place is to accept, without question, the interpretation of God’s word as filtered through his priest.

This obviously works for many people, but not for all. The music I made with friends last night wasn’t perfect, wasn’t planned, but it was all the more glorious for that, because we made it without constraints. We accepted our individual failings at the same time that we accepted our individual achievements. We participated in an act of creation on equal terms, and were brought closer together as people in the process. (I imagine any other musician would agree that playing in a band lets you get to know people in an intellectually more intimate manner than other forms of friendship, and I’m sure the same goes for other acts of collaborative creation.)

So, keeping that in mind, back to our theologian:

That’s why nobody actually wants “participatory democracy,” a non-hierarchical fantasy that progressive political theorists often champion. It would be oppressive in the extreme if all of us were vested with exactly the same responsibility for the common good. As Herbert McCabe observed: “Society is not the product of individual people. On the contrary, individual people are the product of society.”

[…]

The expansion of political responsibility beyond a certain point would absorb our private lives, a result that entails the opposite of what most people intend when they endorse political liberty. Like the violinist who can’t concentrate on his part and conduct at the same time, finite human beings don’t have enough energy to attend to the ordinary duties of life and bring about world revolution.

Did you get that? You don’t really want freedom. Indeed, hierarchy is necessary, because without it we couldn’t enjoy the luxury of our lack of control over it. The shepherd graciously allows the sheep to revel in the pleasure of sheepdom; the price of never being eaten by wolves is to be kept safe until the shepherd has need of a meal. And let’s just repeat a phrase to be sure it sinks in:

It would be oppressive in the extreme if all of us were vested with exactly the same responsibility for the common good.

I cannot read that sentence and parse it in any way that makes logical sense to me, except as an indicator of a mindset that destroys lives and ruins the world the we live upon. “Daddy knows best.”

Regular readers can probably see the sociopolitical direction in which I’m driving, so I’ll stop before I belabour it too badly… but not before pointing out that when an orchestra finishes playing, it is the conductor who takes the bow, and takes the glory that the musicians have laboured for.

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12 Responses to “Dethroning the conductor”

  1. Ian Sales says:

    A man who believes in an imaginary friend with superpowers (and yet refuses to use those superpowers) is probably not qualified to comment on anything to do with the real world.

  2. Ted says:

    This is the kind of metaphor where everyone casts themselves as the conductor aka, “society would work perfectly if everyone would just line up and take my orders.” If you carry the metaphor even a little further, the conductor starts to sound like a dictator, a sentiment many violinists probably wouldn’t be quick to disagree with.

  3. Chad says:

    I’m sure the theologian has his own “flock” to command. Like Ted suggested, it is easy saying this when you are the conductor.

    If we would all just go to church and do as they say, not as they do, then we could all live in harmony. Boring, uncreative, soul crushing harmony with a jackboot on our necks.

  4. Sterling Camden says:

    Extending the metaphor to include improvised music was well played, sir.

  5. Joe Carter says:

    You seem to have missed a key connection between two of the quotes you cited. Here’s a third to add context:

    “With his usual insight and wit, Oscar Wilde succinctly diagnosed the trouble with socialism: “It takes up too many evenings.” The expansion of political responsibility beyond a certain point would absorb our private lives, a result that entails the opposite of what most people intend when they endorse political liberty.”

    You read the article to be saying that Reno is claiming that we don’t want freedom. But his point is exactly the opposite. If we truly had a participatory democracy, you wouldn’t have the freedom to jam with your musician friends. You’d be at a town hall meeting arguing about Obamacare or the whose going to fix the road outside of your house. Our political freedom comes from being able to pass such stuff off to representatives who can deal with that stuff for us.

    Indeed, the fact that you were playing music with your friends last night instead of watching C-Span or attending a city council meeting confirms Reno’s point that not everyone wants the same level of responsibility for the common good. Similarly, anyone who has not served in the military obviously does not want to share the same responsibility for national defense.

    Reno’s article is based on realism, how people really act and not on some abstract sociopolitical theory about how people should act.

  6. Paul Raven says:

    Thanks for the comments, Joe; always nice to get a new visitor!

    I see the argument you and Reno are making, but I disagree on a few fundamental points.

    If we truly had a participatory democracy, you wouldn’t have the freedom to jam with your musician friends.

    Of course I would, if I so chose; there’s nothing in Reno’s or anyone else’s definition of participatory democracy that implies everyone is obliged to attend every single meeting. This is a very black and white argument: either you spend your entire social life participating in the democratic process, or you spend none at all. Admittedly, the way most Western democracies are set up means that it works out looking rather like that, but that’s a flaw implicit in the status quo of non-participatory democracy, which – or so it seems – is very much what Reno is arguing in favour of, no?

    Our political freedom comes from being able to pass such stuff off to representatives who can deal with that stuff for us.

    It’s not freedom if you don’t get the choice. I’ll confess I’m not an expert on the US democratic process, but here in the UK I either get to vote once every however many years for someone who may or may not keep the promises they and their affiliated party made in order to secure that mandate, or I get to not vote and suffer the same fate. Perhaps if the pparticipatory option was available, I’d give it a go and find it, as you suggest, too much like hard work. But then I’d be making the choice of a free man based on personal experience, rather than having that choice made for me. And that’s my core objection, here: Reno’s making that choice on everyone’s behalf, and I do not acknowledge his, God’s, or anyone else’s authority to do so.

    Similarly, anyone who has not served in the military obviously does not want to share the same responsibility for national defense.

    But that’s what a democracy’s taxes are for, isn’t it? Unless there’s some loophole I’ve not been told of, you don’t get to opt out of those in the same way as opting out of military service… unless you’re a registered church, of course. 🙂

    Finally, if participating actively in the democratic process were so inimical to the ability of the citizens to produce art, I rather think we’d have a very different view of, say, the Athenian Greeks, who managed to balance what was arguably the most demanding format of participatory democracy (for those enfranchised by it, admittedly) with a rather staggering output of art and creativity.

    You may say Reno’s article is based on realism; given the number of appeals to the authority of the Bible and the philosophy of the numinous, I’d have to beg to differ. 🙂

  7. Josh says:

    Wow, that’s some Orwellian shit right there. Freedom is Slavery, Slavery is Freedom.

    The thing is, subordinating yourself to a conductor is temporary and only applies in a very limited context. It’s aim is to produce a specific effect in a specific time-frame. And if you decide you don’t like the result, you’re free to leave and jam with your mates, as you say. There are no goons standing by to abduct you into a cage at gunpoint and no threat of eternal torture at the hands of a pitchfork-wielding maniac.

    You can’t compare that with permanently giving up responsibility for the day-to-day circumstances of your own life, which is clearly just a terrible idea. Why do people seem so surprised when things don’t go as they’d like?

  8. Wintermute says:

    “I rather think we’d have a very different view of, say, the Athenian Greeks, who managed to balance what was arguably the most demanding format of participatory democracy (for those enfranchised by it, admittedly) with a rather staggering output of art and creativity.”

    Oh yes, the ancient Grecos, in their infinite socratic wisdom discovered a way most ingenious method of participating in democracy while putting out pantheons of statues and filling libraries of epic poetry.

    90% of the population was slaves. 🙂

    I think there’s some truth in either side. Ideally, we’d have full participatory democracy where every citizen and legal immigrant took a semesters worth of time and energy to study the facts, hear all arguments, and form a well-informed, non-media biased opinion of every single piece of legislation (hundreds or thousands per year), then meeting with all the other millions of citizens (the sheer logistics of that boggle minds) and together form legislation with their collective wisdom. Oh, and every citizen should be required to obtain a law degree in order to deal with all the governing ON TOP of any education they need for their ‘day job’.

    On the other hand, if there is zero participation of the citizens, then yes you will likely wind up with dictatorship.

    There has to be a balance between too much participation and too little, if nothing else for the sheer pragmatic reality that there is just not enough time in the day for total participation of everyone. On one end of the spectrum you have tyranny of authoritarian government, on the other end, you have the tyranny of choice, and/or mob rule. Or you just can’t get there realistically, because everyone is too busy playing music with friends or posting on the internet.

    And thus we invented representative democracy. 🙂

    Individuals who represent us, act on our behalf, take the copious time to study up on the issues, weigh the options, get the law degree, etc. etc. and ultimately act as a conduit for government by the people. Yes, it’s imperfect, yes they are corruptible, yes they don’t always act on our wishes or in our best interests. But it’s the best we’ve got thus far.

  9. SpeakerToManagers says:

    The hilarious aspect of that metaphor of the symphony orchestra is that it’s wrong: there have been orchestras which got along fine without any conductor. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, for instance, has performed that way since 1972. Of course this does mean that the individual musicians need to spend some of their time helping to develop the interpretation that will be given to a work when it’s performed; but then again they don’t seem to mind. Maybe society doesn’t need a conductor either.

  10. Rick York says:

    This is a little long, but these are issues with which I have concerned myself for many years.

    First, orchestras; The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has functioned for nearly 40 years without a full-time permanent conductor. They rotate the conductor position between all the members. So, in the final analysis, they do have a conductor.

    Next, participative democracy; Be careful what you wish for. The cure for political corruption in the US has been the initiative and referendum which a number of states have. Particularly, the initiative. Initiatives give the people at large the power to place proposed statutory/constitutional laws before the voters. These are often laws concerning issues the state legislatures have ignored or, refused to enact. Gay marriage is a classic example.

    The initiative was proposed by progressives at the beginning of the 20th century to fight the high levels of corruption in state legislatures. It was quickly hijacked by the right wing.

    I spent most of my adulthood in New York, a state which does not have any statewide initiative. One of the consequences has been that New York State has one of the most corrupt legislatures in the US. I won’t go into detail here but, I’d be happy to answer any questions on this.

    I moved to Oregon over 10 years ago. Oregon, like California, has a wide open initiative system. Anyone who can get enough signatures on a petition can get a measure on the ballot. Now, Oregon is one of the least corrupt states in the US. Unfortunately, it has some of the worst laws in the country. Anti-gay marriage articles of the constitution are an obvious example. The worst effects have been on state finances. An initiative can force expenditure without providing income. And, conversely, an initiative can force reductions in taxes without stating what services must be cut to compensate for lost revenue.

    So, participatory democracy has a large downside. The most obvious is the tyranny of the majority. Initiatives per se are not bad. It’s just that there must be strong limits on them. Upper class though they may have been, the Founding Fathers understood quite well the dangers of absolute democracy.

  11. Luc Reid says:

    I can see the virtues of both types of freedom as long as freedom-by-submission is done voluntarily and with understanding of what’s being done; that kind of freedom certainly graces the Taekwondo workouts where I strive to do exactly what the instructor instructs. About the other type of freedom, I hadn’t yet realized you played. If you ever get to Vermont (or I ever get out there), I’d love to jam a bit. I play clarinet, flute, sax, guitar, etc.

    It’s unsurprising that Reno chooses the single most rigid and hierarchical type of musical ensemble known to man. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy good orchestra music, but it’s like using the example of a souffle to typify cooking.

  12. TheShiffy says:

    UGH, Romans 13. I have a couple of scriptures I prefer a great deal more:

    We are to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).

    Do not conform to the pattern of this world (Romans 12:2).

    Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. (Mark 10:42-43a)