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New German Critique

Three Blind Mice: Goodman, McLuhan,


and Adorno on the Art of Music and
Listening in the Age of Global Transmission

Lydia Goehr

Three blind mice.


See how they run. . . .
They all ran after the farmers wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife.
Did you ever see such a thing in your life
As three blind mice?
nursery rhyme
In the electric age we wear all mankind as our skin.
Marshall McLuhan

This essay investigates global discourse in the shadow of the 1960s. It draws on
the views of Nelson Goodman, Marshall McLuhan, and Theodor W. Adorno to
explore three concepts central to music in the age of global transmission: compliance, current, and virtuality.
Many thanks to many, many people who commented on this essay. The talk version was almost
globally delivered. It was published in an earlier and shortened version in German as Three Blind
Mice: Goodman, McLuhan und Adorno ber die Kunst der Musik und des Hrens im Zeitalter der
globalen Transmission, in Die Knste im Dialog der Kulturen: Europa und seine muslimischen
Nachbarn, ed. Christoph Wulf et al. (Berlin: Akademie, 2007). I am grateful for permission to reprint
the essay here.
New German Critique 104, Vol. 35, No. 2, Summer 2008
DOI 10.1215/0094033X-2008-001 2008 by New German Critique, Inc.

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Global discourse is about the gains and losses, optimisms and pessimisms, of traditional culture and society under new conditions of equality and
democracy. As far as the tone of the terms is concerned, consider, first, such
words as disembodiment, disassociation, disintegration, displacement, dematerialization, degeneration, dehumanization, and decapitation. Then pit these
words against expansion, enhancement, extension, enlightenment, entertainment, and equality. Moving from D-words to E-words, or from E to D, is a
single tonal step in the traditional Western harmonic system. Sometimes this
single step demands an entire change of mood, altering our attitude, finally,
toward the C-words of global discourse: capitalism, corporation, commodity, conglomeration, calculation, commerce, and currency. Three tonal steps,
EDC: these are the steps of Three Blind Mice. Henceforth my argument
attends to how far one can go by taking little-by-little steps without assuming,
however, that where one ends up is necessarily where one wants to be.
I begin with a passage from Goodmans Languages of Art that has
intrigued me for many years:
Since complete compliance with the score is the only requirement for a genuine instance of a work, the most miserable performance without actual mistakes does count as such an instance, while the most brilliant performance
with a single wrong note does not. Could we not bring our theoretical vocabulary into better agreement with common practice and common sense by
allowing some limited degree of deviation in performances admitted as
instances of a work? The practicing musician or composer usually bristles at
the idea that a performance with one wrong note is not a performance of the
given work at all; and ordinary usage surely sanctions overlooking a few
wrong notes. But this is one of those cases where ordinary usage gets us
quickly into trouble. The innocent-seeming principle that performances differing by just one note are instances of the same work risks the consequence
in view of the transitivity of identitythat all performances whatsoever are
of the same work. If we allow the least deviation, all assurance of workpreservation and score-preservation is lost; for by a series of one-note errors
of omission, addition, and modification, we can go all the way from Beethovens Fifth Symphony to Three Blind Mice.1

In what follows, I corroborate Goodmans statement that there is nothing innocent about the innocent-seeming principle that runs the risk that all perfor1. Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols (New York:
Bobbs-Merrill, 1968), 18687. Hereafter cited as LA.

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mances whatsoever are of the same work. Moreover, I ask, as no one seems to
have asked before, why his extraordinary choice of examples. It is not surprising that he chooses Beethovens Fifth; almost everyone uses it as an example.
But why does he choose Three Blind Mice, and how could one ever get from
one to the other? My argument pursues two paths, one that juxtaposes the views
of the three theorists regarding the global transmission of music, another that
seeks possible sources for Goodmans reference to this common rhyme. The
reference to Three Blind Mice has a quite extraordinary history, signifying an
endemic positivistic reductionism that occurs equally in theory and practice.
Goodmans reference is fleeting: it comes once, never to return. I e-mailed
Catherine Elgin, his longtime colleague, to ask why he might have used this
example. I have no idea, she wrote back. I doubt that there was any deep reason. It was a perfect response, since having no deep reason is quite consistent
with Goodmans philosophical outlook. Nevertheless, seeking a deep reason is
not the same as seeking a deep source, and the latter I shall do to shift the perspective on Goodmans view in order to separate it from its usual interpretation.
Perfect Compliance
Goodman wrote this passage, like his book, in 1968. The books subtitle, An
Approach to a Theory of Symbols, makes explicit his intent to offer a general
theory of symbols. As one of the most-quoted works (in the relevant fields)
of the last forty years, the book exerts an influence reaching far beyond the
Anglo-American philosophy of the arts. Goodmans demand for perfect compliance with a score has typically been interpreted as too extreme a demand on
musical practice, despite his explicit disclaimer that he is not offering a condition or instruction for how common practice or parlance ought necessarily to
proceed. The exigencies that dictate our technical discourse need [not] govern our everyday speech, he insists. I am no more recommending that in
ordinary discourse we refuse to say that a pianist who misses a note has performed a Chopin Polonaise than that we refuse to call a whale a fish, the earth
spherical, or a grayish-pink human white (LA, 187). Still, his point is that
ordinary usage gets us into logical trouble or even perhaps into other sorts of
trouble when it comes to offering a general theory of symbols.
But why do we bristle at this demand for perfect compliance? After all,
it matches the central ideal of a music practice regulated by the work concept:
for a performance to be true to a work, it should be true to its notes. Nevertheless, it is one thing to speak of ideals and another to speak of conditions of
individuation and identity. To speak of perfect compliance as an ideal is to

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leave a space for the imperfections of human practice, whereas to specify perfect compliance as an identity or individuation condition is to remove this
space. Given an identity condition, perfect means perfect; given an ideal, perfect means doing the very best one can. Doing the best one can, however, is
often for the philosopher not enough.
Goodman argues for the strict condition of perfect compliance to avoid
the logical problem of vagueness. He seeks a solution to what is called the
Sorites paradox, or the little-by-little argument. Consider a pile of sand. A
single grain of sand does not make a heap, and if one grain does not, then two
grains do not, nor do three, and so on, until, given a heap of sand, one cannot
logically admit that it is a heap unless one introduces a clear cutoff point, say,
at 1,000 grains, but why not then 999 or 998, until one is back to a single grain?
Similarly, given a performance of a work with a thousand notes, how many
mistakes may a performer make until we say that she has not performed the
work: one wrong note, or two, or three? And what would we say of a performance if it had so many mistakes that it turned out to comply with another
score? Tonight, Ladies and Gentlemen, you were meant to hear a sonata by
Beethoven; what in fact you heard was a sonata by Mozart. Unwilling to allow
a cutoff point somewhere between no mistakes and all mistakes, Goodman
opts for the most stringent condition, permitting no wrong notes at all.
Goodmans argument for perfect compliance is designed to prevent more
than having to stipulate arbitrary cutoff points. It is designed also to prevent
overlap between works, sharply individuating one from another; hence his
fine-grained specification of syntactic and semantic conditions made consistent with his strict nominalist and extensionalist commitments. It is unnecessary to outline those conditions and commitments here.2 Suffice it to imagine
a scenario in which a performance could be determined to belong to more than
one work: Tonight, Ladies and Gentlemen, you were listening to Beethovens
Fifth, and at a certain moment in the slow movement you were also listening to
the seventeenth-century melody La Folia. In this essay I select no example
carelessly. This example reflects a recent discussion on the similarity between
these two pieces in the bass line and the harmonic progression.3 However, as
this discussion makes explicit, if one starts to look for musical overlaps at this
basic level of analysis, one will soon generate a list as long as Leporellos. Borrowing music has always been of the essence of musical composition, in every
2. I discuss these conditions in The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
3. Cf. Barry Cooper, La Folia Revisited, letter, Musical Times, January 4, 1995, 4.

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sort of music, probably in every part of the world. It became an issue (though
even then it did not cease) only when originality and copyright became issues,
which is to say, when Werktreue became a bourgeois demand on the practice,
more or less around 1800. As for traditional marriage, so for musical works:
given Goodmans specifications, there should be no overlap or crisscrossing
between classes.4
Goodman knows that different works must share single notes, chords,
and even harmonic progressions. Accordingly, he specifies his conditions in so
through-composed a way that only regarded as wholes are the works finally to
be compared. In this matter, compare the use to which Three Blind Mice
was put in an article written in 1964 for the Journal of Aesthetics and Art
Criticism.5 Here the author, Carroll C. Pratt, discusses the gestalt principle
generally and God Save the Queen specifically. Recalling the last three notes
of the national anthem and the first three of the rhyme (Three Blind Mice),
Pratt insists that no one would ever actually confuse the two even if sung in the
same key. What Pratt admits into his account, Goodman admits, too, despite
his reduction of gestalten to extensional classes. Reduced or unreduced, the
overall formal or compound shape in which the three descending notes are sung
makes all the difference between the anthem and the rhyme. Even if Goodman was not devotedly reading the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism
in the 1960s, he was reading work in Gestalt psychology, as evidenced in the
opening pages of his book. Still, it is only the mildest conjecture that Pratt influenced Goodmans reference to Three Blind Mice.
The Age of Technological Transmission
What Goodman treats as a logical problem, I treat also as an anxiety in the age
of technological reproducibility, the electric age, or the age of global transmission. This is the main shift of perspective I encourage in this essay. Although
Goodman introduces the condition of perfect compliance for logical reasons,
his account perfectly suits that historical moment when McLuhan proclaimed
that the medium is the message or Adorno described the art of music as having been reduced to the means of its technological transmission. Apart from
4. Consider my all-time favorite example, a joke out of the Soviet Union that retains something
of that former Cold War wit. Tonight, Ladies and Gentlemen, you thought you were going to hear
Shostakovichs Fifth, but what you heard was a nonperformance of this work the moment the performers reversed the entire order of the notes and performed the work backward. What in fact you
heard was a performance of Beethovens Fifth.
5. Carroll C. Pratt, The Perception of Art, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 23 (1964):
5762.

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being an extensionalist, Goodman was also a subtle conventionalist. Despite his


account overdetermining the ideals traditionally associated with what I have
called the imaginary museum of musical works, it was responsive to the transformation of that museum into a virtual museum. For in that transformation,
vagueness became an entirely new sort of threat, when going all the way ran
too great a risk of going astray or when going astray risked going all the way.6
The Medium Is the Message
For McLuhan and Adorno, the is in the phrase The medium is the message is the product of a long social movement toward what Adorno calls identity thinking. The movement shows the reduction that takes place when the
difference between medium and message is or, more accurately, appears to be
erased. Certainly, the message or the meaning of the arts has always partly
been its technological means, but until recently it was never in appearance
entirely its means. Why add this qualifying reference to what appears to be the
case? Because, for Adorno, behind the hard appearance of the historical present lie the shards of the past difference between medium and message, waiting,
as it were, to be rememberedwanting not to be forgotten.
In a book of essays on music in the age of technological reproducibility,
which has recently appeared under the title Current of Music, Adorno shows
his preoccupation with, and skepticism toward, the many meanings of the term
current, even if he does not articulate these different meanings as explicitly as
I do here.7 To speak of a current is obviously to speak of electrical transmission, a conveyor, transmitter, or conduit. But it is also to speak of the flow of
time and blood. In addition, one may speak of something as being au courant,
timely, up-to-date, or as having contemporary relevance: in this way, Adorno
always addresses the Aktualitt of our current affairs. Finally, to speak of actuality as relevance could be to speak of the present worth or currency of something as a product in the global market. Or it could be to direct our attention to
what is currently held as opinion or belief: thus the many references in Adornos
writings to the current, tenor, or tone of our times.
Goodman specifies his condition of perfect compliance to preserve the
identity of works not only through their live performance but also through
their technological transmission, be it by telephone, as it was at first in the
6. Given this threat, one must also ask how far the terms museum, music, or works can hold on
to their meanings, especially if traditional meaning is what virtuality challenges most.
7. Theodor W. Adorno, Current of Music: Elements of a Radio Theory, ed. Robert HullotKentor (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2006).

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late nineteenth century, then by radio, phonograph, television, and now computer. Whereas for Goodman, however, the precise determination of notational
conditions tells us about all the identity that counts in transmitting works,
for McLuhan and Adorno this is not the case. Concerned with more than
works and notationswhich means also with the experience that different
technologies now affordthey maintain that there is no guarantee that work
production will remain the same under the current conditions of transmission. New technologies have made possible so great a variety of mixing and
matching in music that the very structure of our sensorial experience has
changed.
Whether one considers the content or form of transmission, for Adorno,
it is both the works as objects that fail to preserve their identity over the airwaves and the subjective experience traditionally associated with such works
because, as McLuhan puts it, subjects and objects are extensions of each other.
Thus neither the objective possibility nor the subjective ability simply remains
in place to listen to symphonies as they were formerly heard in live performance. Adorno describes what happens when the concert-hall symphony is
transformed into what he calls the radio symphony, or when works once performed as wholes are chopped into pieces produced for domestic transmission between breakfast, lunch, and cocktails in the kitchen, dining room, and
lounge. The original symphonic character of the symphony does not remain as
it is (not even in the concert hall), despite auratic proclamations to the contrary.
Drawing on one of Adornos favorite examples, we are promised on the radio
that Arturo Toscanini will be with us tonight to perform Beethovens Fifth,
yet, in the untruth of appearance, what we are given is only a distorted echo of
what once was musically the case. Tonight, Ladies and Gentlemen, what you
have been hearing is only an echo of what you once listened to as Beethovens
Fifth.
For McLuhan, the new means of production and distribution have altered
the spatiotemporal shape of both our seeing and our hearing, with consequences
for our aesthetic and social experience. This is what he suggests by this most
famous line: The medium is the message. Changes in media have brought
about changes to meaning and experience because the former mediate the latter: media as mediating. McLuhan writes this line in his Understanding Media.
So titling his book, he points to changes in media and to understanding. What
we understand and how we understand have changed. On one occasion Adorno
pronounces that McLuhan has it right: the medium is the message, and he
does this at the moment of describing civilization at its deepest degradation. The degradation consists in a substitution of means and ends, Adorno

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explains, such that human characteristics are replaced by others, presumably by characteristics now inhuman or degraded.8
Immanuel Kant also had it rightit is only that the a priori categories
of space and time are subject to a posteriori conventions and developments.
The latter may be so radical that the most totalizing discourse of globalization
comes ironically to be sustained by a mode of music production that is now
totally broken upreduced to disconnected medleys or sound bites, as they
come to be called in the 1980s. The reduction of the totality to little bits assumes
that the bits become mutually exchangeable the more they lose their individual
meanings. In this way, the smallest item, like the smallest step, testifies to the
total loss of meaning in the whole.
Adorno quotes McLuhans most famous line in English. This line, too,
having become a sound bite, is untranslatable. Transmission is not automatically translation: only words or sentences still tethered to meaning and context are translatable. Voided of meaning or decontextualized without recontextualization, McLuhans line becomes an empty sign, physically a bit, a bite,
or a piece. Adorno quotes the line in his Marginalia on Theory and Praxis.
Quoting the line as a Post-it sign, which is what the term marginalia suggests, Adorno shows us that theory, no differently from practice, is subject to
the modes of its transmission. However, in showing this, he also asks us to
retrieve the appropriate passagethe opening passage, no lessin McLuhans
text. Hence
in a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things
as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that,
in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely
to say that the personal and social consequences of any mediumthat is, of
any extension of ourselvesresult from the new scale that is introduced
into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.9

The language of the sound bite is not Adornos. It finds its common currency
only in the 1980s when awarded its thirty-second time limit. However, the idea
of the sound bite goes back at least to 1935, when Muzak was first patented
8. IronischZivilisation in ihrer tiefsten Erniedrigungbehlt McLuhan recht: the medium
is the message. Die Substitution der Zwecke durch Mittel ersetzt die Eigenschaften in den Menschen
selbst (Theodor W. Adorno, Marginalien zu Theorie und Praxis, in Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft, vol. 10, pt. 2, of Gesammelte Schriften [Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977], 772; my
translation).
9. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge, MA: MIT
Press, 1994), 7. Hereafter cited as UM.

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in the United States. Thirty seconds, or a little bit longer: John Cage confessed
in 1948 to wanting to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to
the Muzak Co. It would last the length, he stipulated, of all other canned
music.10 Mirroring the confession, the early patenting of Muzak shared with
the patenting of scientific entities a reduction to what Goodman later calls a
sameness of spellinga reduction to a secure transmittable entity or logical sign sealed with a guarantee yet devoid of all trace of deep meaning.
However, for a long while (so the Oxford English Dictionary shows) Muzak,
Musak, Musac, or Muzack could decide as little on its spelling as on the identity of its product.
I am tempted to describe Muzak as the first virtual or vague music in
the age of global transmission. Muzak put music composed for the foreground
into the background. We shall have Musak wherever we go, the Listener
Magazine (cited in the OED) proclaimed in 1965be it in shops, restaurants,
or any other public places with elevators. Bland or easy to listen to, so the
original patent directed, Muzak had to be immediately recognizable or familiar. Nevertheless, it quickly ran into difficulties with a copyright law forbidding reproducing Mozart as Muzak. At most, one could produce Muzak that
was almost Mozart or, better, virtually Mozart. In 1957 it was reported that
50,000,000 Americans are listening in some way or another . . . to Muzak
daily (cited in the OED). Despite the law, some way or another perfectly
captured the subjective vagueness of the new listening experience, matching
the objective vagueness of both the new music and its name.
McLuhan attends to the large-scale global consequences of even the
smallest alterations that modern technologies have brought about to our spatiotemporal experience. In The Gutenberg Galaxy he writes of the extension that
global media has permitted, yet of how the extension has reduced all areas
within their reach to a global village.11 He shows the insecurities associated
with a new sort of technological extensionalism, which allows us to read Goodmans strict logical extensionalism as its anxious antidote. Whereas logic demarcates finely tuned classes, technology reduces whole networks or galaxies to
something local, as if all existed here and now within the confines of our living
rooms, yet to something that we fail utterly to comprehend. Suddenly all is too
close now for us actually to see it:
10. Cf. Richard Kostelanetz, John Cage: Writer; Selected Texts (New York: Limelight, 1993),
43. Here Cage was speaking of his projected piece 4' 33'' , though in 1948 he had not yet determined
its exact time.
11. Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (Toronto:
University of Toronto Press, 1962), 2021. Hereafter cited as GG.

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It is simpler to say that if a new technology extends one or more of our senses
outside us into the social world, then new ratios among all of our senses will
occur in that particular culture. It is comparable to what happens when a
new note is added to a melody. And when the sense ratios alter in any culture then what had appeared lucid before may suddenly be opaque, and what
had been vague or opaque will become translucent. (GG, 41; my emphasis)

The transformative or cognitive play between opacity and translucency evokes


the tension between closeness and distance. What is seen from afar could only
have been seen before ones eyes had one only noticed that when the single
note was added to the melody, the entire melody was changed. McLuhan drew
his thought from Bertrand Russells ABC of Relativity of 1925 (though he
might have drawn it from Ludwig Wittgenstein). Changing something as small
as a letter in a word or a word in a sentence might result in an entire alteration
of our attitude. Music becomes Muzak: only in our new blindness or deafness
do we not notice the change.
Virtual Identity
Like McLuhan, when Adorno attends to change, he does so mostly by describing loss. It all sounds pessimistic, although this is not Adornos point. He aims
to expose all manner of positivistic reductions. Thus, for example, what the
radio promises is that a live performance is perfectly transmitted over the
receiver without mediation, interruption, or interference. It is a false promise.
Consider a story he recounts in Current of Music about visiting friends in a
village near Frankfurt am Main and hearing the song of a nightingale in the
back garden (120). The song presumably was so striking that the radio station
transmitted it for all to hear. Standing in the garden some time later, Adorno
was offered a double experience: the simultaneous performance of the live
song and its live broadcast. However, the simultaneity was only approximate.
A little surprised, until he recalled the physical laws of sound transmission, he
heard the broadcast before the live event. He put much store in this hardly discernible temporal difference. Die wirkliche Nachtigall, he wrote, klang wie
ein Echo der bertragenen (The real nightingale sounded like an echo of the
recorded one). The immediacy of a live concert (or live performance) was different, he concluded, from the false immediacy of the so-called live broadcast.
What the latter produced was a feeling of estrangement, numbness, or muteness (as both Adorno and McLuhan use these terms), suggesting that the radio
experience was, after all, utterly different from what it promised to be.

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11

Adorno similarly describes the political radio addresses of his time with
their promise of fireside chats. This is an example of the false personalization of the political that is now so familiar to us, where this habituation is a
form of happiness or contentment that yields little by way of true satisfaction.
In this context of mass culture, McLuhan adapts The medium is the message
to The medium is the massage. Apparently, the alteration was prompted by
a typo in the printing of a book McLuhan wrote and designed with Quentin
Fiore, a single-letter mistake that suited their argument, as the present argument, perfectly.12
For both Adorno and McLuhan, we no longer recognize our own estrangement from the political discourse, or, when we do, our only option, which is
really no option at all, is to turn the radio off. Von Heute auf Morgenfrom
one day to the next. Arnold Schoenberg (the composer of this short modern
opera) thought that turning off the radio demonstrated the freedom we still
have not to accept the Neues vom Tagethe news or newness of the times.
He might also have named his work Von Heute auf Gestern. Adorno and
McLuhan also feel the loss but know that there is no going back.13
In this regard, Adorno is discontent with what McLuhan describes as
taking it on the chin, as McLuhan is himself discontent. In experimental
art, the latter explains,
men are given the exact specifi cations of coming violence to their own
psyches from their own counter-irritants or technology. For those parts of
ourselves that we thrust out in the form of new invention are attempts to
counter or neutralize collective pressures and irritations. But the counterirritant usually proves a greater plague than the initial irritant, like a drug
habit. And it is here that the artist can show us how to ride with the punch,
instead of taking it on the chin. It can only be repeated that human history is a record of taking it on the chin. (UM, 66; my emphasis)

Rid[ing] with the punch is subtly different from taking it on the chin. Only
the former suggests some form of survival or noncompromising resistance
to producing the counter-irritant to which McLuhan refers. In this context,
the language of counter-irritants derives from the language of chemistry and
12. Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects
(Corte Madera, CA: Gingko, 1996).
13. I thank Antonia Soulez here for reminding me of another of Schoenbergs most appropriate
lines, namely, Happy is the hand that does not keep its promise, from Die glckliche Hand, op. 18.

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physics as much as from that of psychology. It is also closely connected to the


language of transmission. Given the seventeenth-century development of
optics in Newtonian science, the term transmission was immediately associated with the distortion of an image, showing no straight lines from A to B.
By the late eighteenth century the so-called transmissionists or Lamarckians
were speaking of the direct inheritance of characteristics, although presumably even they acknowledged that at best direct inheritance leads to inexact
family resemblances. As we know from the once royal family of Spain, even
locality, which is to say, royal or absolute incest, exaggerates the features most
undesired when the family goes all the way.
Virtuality
Virtuality, I suggest, is the most exact concept we have developed for inexactness. The history of the concept is a history of loss, of the concepts gradual
untethering from what once mattered most: human value and virtue. The term
virtuality stemmed from ancient terms for virtue and virtuousness, although it
quickly connected itself to the Latin virtus, meaning pure power, potency, or
potentiality. Even early on there was a tension between virtue having to do
with form and power and virtue having to do with content and value. In modern times the term has moved through the grounded movements of biological
virtualismus, through the increasingly ungrounded movements of the artistic
virtuoso, and then to virtuality as pure possibility when the tethering to the
immediate presence and presentness of reality is finally cut. In contemporary
global discourse there are references to virtuality all over the place, where all
over the place is the relevant point: hence to virtual experience and reality, to
virtual velocity and representation, to virtual signs, churches, patients, sex,
banking, conferences, and pets. Often these references are tainted by the same
sort of anxieties shown in response to the early technology of the telephone
and camera. What is virtual lies in the ghostly space between life and death,
neither quite one nor quite the other. Or it no longer matters where you are or
go, because everywhere is all the same. What matters most deeply has been
thoroughly dematerialized and lives on, if it lives at all, only in virtual space.
In Adornos terms, the global means of transmission promises one
thing and delivers another. A telephone offers you a direct line to another
person, but, as we know from cell phones or from what the Germans call the
Handy, the direct line is granted only where and when it is least needed,
which is to say, only when it is ready to hand. Technology promises exactitude and delivery but delivers inexactitude or static reception. At the same

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time, the more invasive the technological mediation is, the more we forget that
it mediates. This is a form of our modern forgetfulness, of what others call
our amnesia.14
Nevertheless, for all this critical talk, virtuality as aligned to vagueness
should not be interpreted only negatively. Consider the specific idea of virtual
reality and of the reality it almost delivers. When one says that virtually all the
committee members have arrived, there is an admission of some sort of failure: something or someone is still missing. But there is also an overriding or
sufficient satisfaction that enough people have arrived or that a quorum has
been reached. Here the practical rather than ideal difference between all and
enough is effectively suspended. Even more positively, when one says that one
is virtually out of patience, one usually means that one still has a little patience
left. Dont references to virtual reality thus suggest that some difference
between all and enough still exists? Certainly, but from this, one cannot draw
an exact rule. When the difference between all and enough matters and when
it doesnt is a matter of practice, context, and convention.15
Let us return now to the ideal for perfect compliance: that we should try
to play all the notes correctly. Suppose I make six mistakes. Could I say that I
produced a virtual performance of the work, or that I virtually produced the
work? Both sound odd. Surely I could claim that tonight I played the piece well
enough for it to count because it communicated the message I wanted to convey. For Goodman, the following difference is crucial. For the purposes of
logic or identity, to say that one virtually produced a performance is to admit
that one did not actually produce a performance. For the purposes of evaluation or aesthetic judgment, however, to claim one virtually performed the work
might well be to say that one did enough to get the work across. Goodman
insists on keeping the two matters apart: matters of evaluation and matters of
identity should be neither conflated nor confused. Adorno and McLuhan agree
that the conflation should be avoided, but they are not convinced that separating matters or spheres is the correct way to do this.
14. Cf. Andreas Huyssen, Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia (New
York: Routledge, 1995), esp. the first and ninth essays.
15. Cf. Richard Norton, What Is Virtuality? Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 30
(1972): 499505; Espen Aarseth, Virtual Worlds, Real Knowledge: Towards a Hermeneutics of
Virtuality, European Review 9 (2001): 22732; Anne Friedberg, The Virtual Window: From
Alberti to Microsoft (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006); and John Beckmann, ed., The Virtual
Dimension: Architecture, Representation, and Crash Culture (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998).

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Limitlessness within Limits


Goodman is entirely attentive to a new type of music that has become limitless
with respect to its material, as well as to the extent of its distribution. Quoting
the Princeton composer Roger Sessions, Goodman confirms that the composer . . . [now] has the whole world of sound at his disposal (LA, 190). The
term disposal with its connotation of waste should not be disregarded, for,
when all is at ones disposal, either nothing is wasted or all has become waste.
What Adorno describes as total administration, Sessions describes as
total organization:
The subject of total organization leads naturally to the consideration of
electronic media. Since the potentialities of electronic media in the realm
of sound are, at least to all intents and purposes, infinite, it is possible to
measure all musical elements in terms of exact quantity, . . . since such
measurement is the very nature of the instruments and the method by which
they are used. A dynamic nuance thus not only can, but must, become a
fixed quantity, as can and must, also, any tone in the whole range of pitch or
color gradations. Every moment of music not only can but must be the
result of the minutest calculation, and the composer for the first time has
the whole world of sound at his disposal.16

The transformation of dynamic nuances to fixed quantities is exactly what


many avant-garde composers rely on but what others most want to prevent.
Aesthetic moments reduced to minute calculations: isnt this, many ask, the
music of the horrid modern laboratory? Sessions concludes only that in the
future of music it is not to be doubted that electronic media will play a
vital and possibly even decisive role. This conclusion does not amount
merely to a celebration. It is not sufficient, he explains, to have the whole
world at ones disposalthe very infinitude of possibilities cancels out possibilities . . . until limitations are discovered. No doubt the limitations are
there, and if not there they are certainly in human beings. Sessions expresses
doubt that when everything is possible, everything that is human or wanted
is thereby delivered. He is not against the expansion of musical material but
fears for limitlessness without limits or quantity without nuances. Limitlessness should be assumed or appreciated only under the condition of limits, just
16. Roger Sessions, Problems and Issues Facing the Composer Today, in Problems of Modern
Music: The Princeton Seminar in Advanced Musical Studies, ed. Paul Henry Lang (New York:
Norton, 1962), 31.

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as global or universal claims or values have meaning only when mediated by


regional or local contexts. Valuesincluding those that have a chance of
winning global recognitiondont come from thin air, Jrgen Habermas
has written more recently: They win their binding force only within normative orders and practices of particular forms of cultural life.17 What is insisted
on in this argument is that virtuality without virtue is empty, although virtue
without potentiality is blind.
Exact Music and Laboratory Science
Goodman prefaces his theoretical pronouncements about perfect compliance
by reference to Sessions. This should not be ignored, just as one should note
the thought he devotes to Cage and to other composers and artists most attentive to the new media in the experimental years of the 1960s. What Goodman sees in these revolutionary years is the tendency for music production
to approximate the chemically pure condition of a scientific laboratory.
The approximation is the important point. The music approximates purity in
practice, but, for Goodman, it achieves it only in theory. Purity belongs only
to theory, scientific or philosophical, and not to the real world, and therefore
not even to those musical works that are composed allied to the demand that
utmost fidelity to their scores should be the condition of their performance.
Even in performances mechanically designed perfectly to repeat each other,
significant differences will always appear in the real world, differences that
determine their varying quality or aesthetic merit. Goodman argues that what
is always exactly the same between the performances is only what the experiment, designed by a theorist or contemporary composer, determines to be relevant to its identity but not to its aesthetic quality: momentary or minute differences of nuance can make a great aesthetic difference. Goodman borrows this
thought from the Nobel laureate physicist Sir George Thomson, whose words
he uses to preface his chapter Score, Sketch, and Script.
Thus, contrary to how it might seem, Goodman is not obviously celebrating perfect compliance as a theoretical condition of identity. In fact, he
is showing its limit and necessity regarding only what is logically required
(according to a particular notational scheme). He admits the inexactitude of the
real world into his account the instant that, for example, he sets aside matters
of evaluation as lying outside the scope of the theory of identity. On this basis,
17. Jrgen Habermas, Interpreting the Fall of a Monument, in Globalizing Critical Theory,
ed. Max Pensky (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), 25.

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one may interestingly conclude, it is only in the space of real-world inexactitude and not in theory that aesthetic quality has a chance of surviving.18
While a score may leave unspecified many features of a performance,
and allow for considerable variation in others within prescribed limits, full
compliance with the specifications given is categorically required (LA, 187).
So Goodman writes to allow what is for him no paradox at all: even the most
brilliant performance of the work with a single noncompliant note is not, strictly
speaking, a performance, whereas, strictly speaking, a perfect performance
may be entirely dull. Nonperformances might thus be better from an aesthetic
point of view than performances. In the terms of Sessions or Habermas, aesthetic limitlessness is only possible given the constraints of logical limits.
(Some critics have distinguished between instantiation and performance, confining the former to the domain of logic and the latter to the domain of common practice, but this, though useful, circumvents what I believe is really at
stake in Goodmans account.)
Goodman sets aside more than evaluation. When addressing issues of
identity, he sets aside all nonconstitutive or nonnotational features of works
and all reference to intentions. His commitment to nominalism and extensionalism is theoretically motivated, yet vicariously, I am suggesting, it protects the aesthetic vagueness or inexactitude of common practice. However,
it would be mistaken to conclude that Goodmans protection of the practice
amounts to a conservative endorsement of what the practice essentially is or
always has been. On the contrary, his thoroughgoing conventionalism allows
him to show what the practice might yet become, and, in this respect, he
strides confidently into the current of his times.
Goodman implies that recent developments in the arts allow the production increasingly to approximate not only the scientific theory but also the social
condition of the laboratory experiment: The overwhelming monopoly long
held by standard musical notation has inevitably inspired rebellion and alternative proposals. Composers complain variously that scores in this notation prescribe too few features or too many or the wrong ones, or prescribe the right
ones too precisely or not precisely enough. Revolution here as elsewhere may
aim at more or at less or at different control of the means of production (LA,
18687). Goodman pays attention to perfect compliance partly because it is
18. Cf. a later claim made by Niklas Luhmann in his comments on globalization, when he demonstrates the limit of his own systems theory. In the global transmission of the arts or of anything
else, he argues, the systematization implied should not be understood as capturing all meaning and
significance (Globalization or World Society? How to Conceive of Modern Society, International
Review of Sociology 7 [1997]: 6779).

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unclear whether the revolutions in music are bringing the production closer to
or farther away from this demand. In the 1960s rebellious notational scorings
or alternative proposals threaten two contrary extremes: first, to overthrow
the entire production of work production altogether in favor of something much
more current, fluid, or open; second, to keep the work production in place and
even to close it down with an exactitude of technological instantiation. Goodman remarks that he has no stake in whether work production remains as is or
whether it disappears. If work production continues, perfect compliance stays in
place as a demand; if not, then not. His theoretical claims do nothing to dictate
the changes in a practice, although they do leave (vicariously, given his insistence on separating theory and practice) a space for these changes to occur.
Adorno is a much harsher critic of the 1960s than Goodman. Willing to
comment directly on and to theorize the practice itself, Adorno cannot help but
find the same threatening contradiction of extremes in the 1960s that he witnesses in the 1920s, in Weimar, when the openness and everything is possible attitude of those democratic times was accompanied (or compensated for)
by the emergence of exact obsessions. Consider the explicit rise in this period
of the Werktreue ideal among musicians and conductors asking for just the sort
of exactness of imagination quickly taken to the extreme by Nazism. Here,
according to ones truth to spirit, ones attention to minute detail through the
active and constructive imagination was secured by blind obedience to the letter.19 In Adornos dialectical thought, the more open the medium, the more
closed-off or reduced the message threatens to become: the latter emerging as
an antidote to the former.
Goodmans separation of conditions of identity and evaluation is typical
of what Anglo-American philosophers of art did in the 1960s and what they
sometimes still do today. In Goodmans view, the separation is more subtle
than simply discarding the inexactness of the world. Adorno and McLuhan
also do not want to discard that inexactness but fear that it cannot be preserved
by an abstract separation of the spheres: between, say, theory and practice,
logic and value, values and conventions, meanings and mediums. To separate
spheres too strictly tends to encourage the inexact world only to approximate
further the exactness that now hovers abstractly or ideally above it. Technological advance encourages the approximation to the extreme, and with every
step forward there is a significant if not a complete loss of content.
19. Cf. Theodor W. Adorno, Jene zwanziger Jahre, in Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft, 499506.
For more on what Adorno means by exact imagination (exakte Phantasie), see Shierry Weber Nicholsen, Exact Imagination: Late Work on Adornos Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997).

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When Adorno remarks that Beethovens Fifth is no longer heard as a


symphony but only as a medley of its most famous quotations, he tells us that
tonight, Ladies and Gentlemen, you might have heard Beethovens Fifth, but
it could have been any other piece. If new technology changes experience,
it does so by making intersubstitutability the essence of transmission, precisely
what Goodmans exact notational specifications are introduced to prevent.
Remember Goodmans own words: The innocent-seeming principle that
performances differing by just one note are instances of the same work risks
the consequence . . . that all performances whatsoever are of the same work.
What, we may ask now, is the same work of which all performances are
performances? The answer presumably is Three Blind Micethe end point
of all music gone astray. But if all performances are of the same work, then
all performances are instantiations of no work at allunless of course we
count Three Blind Mice as a work.
Whereas Goodman wants to preserve identity to keep the differences
between works in place, Adorno wants to preserve meaning. With an increase
in identity thinking or with an increase in identification between subjects and
objects, such that the difference between the two spheres is erased, comes a
significant loss of meaning. Though the argument here presupposes two notions
of identity, it is a significant aspect of Adornos argument that an overly rigid
determination of identity conditions emanating out of an analytic approach to
philosophy has contributed to a significant loss of meaning in all spheres of
human endeavor, philosophy included. That Goodman seeks to preserve the
different identities of works against reducing all to a single work by strictly
specifying identity conditions, Adorno dialectically counters by arguing that
the difference between works depends less on their identities than on their
meanings being preserved. To be sure, no one would ever think when listening to Beethovens Fifth that one were listening to Three Blind Mice.
Adornos concern is not with this sort of mistake. He notes, instead, that given
how we listen to Beethoven under conditions that have turned music into
Muzak, we might as well be listening to Three Blind Mice. Insofar as the
present essay tracks the reference to this nursery rhyme as emblematic of a
widespread positivistic reductionism, it does this to show what has happened
not to Three Blind Mice but to Beethovens Fifth.
For Adorno and McLuhan, global culture promises that everything is
available to us wherever we happen to be. Yet what is brought to us wherever
we are is not necessarily delivered in the form of gifts from three wise men.
In fact, there is no bringing at all. All there is left is the transmission by three
absent mice of mutually exchangeable or indifferent products. In 1957 Chuck

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Berry sent the point home when he mailed that famous letter to the DJ
instructing him to roll over Beethoven and [to] tell Tchaikovsky the news.
Beethoven was not so much rolled over as his works become popular medleys
of their most famous melodies: Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Ravelwhats
the difference? Everyone could now rock to the tune. Even for Adorno, the
moment marked a long-promised fall of the wall between the commercially
high and the commercially low, leaving a space for something new to take its
place. The question, however, remained: whether anything was left in this
space other than endless repetitions of Three Blind Mice.
Autographic to Allographic
Goodman might have written that wherever, whenever, and under whatever
conditions a performance is produced, it is a performance of a work only insofar as it perfectly complies with the relevant score. He could have written this
to bring home the fact that the circumstances of where, when, and how are
irrelevant to the identity and individuation of the works. Consider the case
when thirty performances of Beethovens Fifth are given throughout the world
or, in global terms, thirty thousand transmissions, drawn from numerous live
and recorded versions, spreading to the farthest reaches of the globe. What
guarantees that all performances, versions, and hearings will be of the same
work if each only more or less complies with the score?
Exact notational systems preserve the identity of works and individuation of performances where the works, in Goodmans terms, are allographic.
Such works are typically two-stage worksparadigmatically, musical works
requiring for their realization performances or readings. He distinguishes these
works from the one-stage works, which he also calls autographic. These are
paradigmatically plastic artworks, whose identity and individuation are guaranteed by the existence of an original and reference thereby to a particular history of production. Goodman is quick to point out that the distinction between
the singular and multiple arts is not exactly coincident with that between autographic and allographic arts. This is crucial to the present argument. To turn
his theory of symbols into a general theory of symbols or, better perhaps, to
show how attentive he is to emerging conventions of the modern age, he suggests that all arts might become in the future allographic or emancipated by
notation and not, as he puts it, by proclamation (cf. LA, 12122).
Here is a place in Goodmans account when he appeals to common practice neither to bemoan nor to celebrate arts entrance into the laboratory, only
to indicate what might follow from the radical developments of radical notation of his time: that they might bring an end to work production altogether.

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It is a tense moment in his account. If all art becomes allographic, what will
disappear are artworks whose identity is preserved by autographic reference to
the history of their production. However, if notation so develops that exact
specification is relinquished (as arguably in Cages notations), then, even if
notational, the new arts will not produce works. What will be the result? Either
that the arts will return to elements of autography for their identity to be established or that they will appeal to something else as yet perhaps unknown. I
assume that Goodman is willing to concede that concepts might become outdated as traditional modes of production might become outdated. Maybe, in
the future, the arts will be neither autographic nor allographic.
Goodman articulates the difference between the two while discussing
the identity problems of fakes and forgeries. Referring to Rembrandts 1651
image The Blind Tobit, he addresses the question of indiscernibility. If two
paintings look exactly the same to the eye, even though one is a forgery, does
the lack of apparent difference constitute an aesthetic equality? Goodman
thinks not, though he is more concerned to show that, without an educated eye,
one fails to see the minute differences that inevitably there must bejust as
without an educated ear it is well-nigh impossible to discern the difference
between words differentiated by a single letter: in English, between merry and
marry, or in German, Bruder and Brder. Goodman argues that whereas the
phenomenon of forgery or fakery arises in autographic arts, it does not in allographic arts, which means for the present argument that if all arts became
allographic, one anxiety of the modern age associated with the excessive production of forgeries and fakes would be put to rest.
Slippage
Goodman is concerned with logical or notational slippage but not with the sort
of literal, historical, and metaphorical slippage that might affect the interpretation of a work, whether Beethovens Fifth or any other. So, whatever he means
by little-by-little steps, and he means something entirely to do with counting,
it is not the sort of slippage that might incur a change, say, of genre. Given
this thought, let us now ask how it is possible for a work that starts out as a
purely musical or instrumental work of classical musicBeethovens Fifthto
become a tiny piece belonging to an entirely other genre: a nursery rhyme
called Three Blind Mice.
The obvious answer is by ignoring the question of genre altogether,
which is what Goodman does. All that matters is whether workhood is preserved if, indeed, works are what in fact are being performed. Nothing about
workhood is challenged by altering genre, as we know from the transition in

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Beethovens Ninth, which, beginning as a purely instrumental work, ends as


a choral work. The 1960s is sometimes described as the age of hybridity, but,
again, so what when it comes to assessing Goodmans view? His demand for
perfect compliance does not exclude hybridity of genre, just as it does nothing to prevent the 1960s collapse of the high-low distinction in the arts.
Recall the use of Three Blind Mice in the last movement of Haydns
Eighty-third Symphony in G minorone of Haydns Paris Symphonies of
178586, the one specifically named La poule. I can easily imagine cases where
one might mistake Beethoven for Haydn, but how, in Goodmans terms, could
one get from one to the other? Moving from the C minor of the Fifth to the
G minor of the Eighty-third happens to be a common step in music, but what
would this change of key achieve? Certainly not a slippage of identity but at
most, potentially, an entire change of mood, from, say, the endless longing of
the Fifth to the culinary brutality of the Eighty-third. All this is irrelevant
to Goodmans account. I mention this example, however, because Goodman
mentions a Haydn symphony in his book, but being the 104th, it comes not
from Paris but from London, a fact that takes us to my next irrelevant example.
This is a piece composed in 1900 by the British composer Josef Holbrook
(Josef also being Haydns name) titled Variations on Three Blind Mice, op. 37.
A not very inspired piece, it was apparently meant to break down the distinction between high and low music altogether. Roll over Beethoven to something akin to any song, any rhyme, any tune. The point, once more, is: so what?
Goodmans theory, like his logic and ontology, is egalitarian through and
through the moment he sets all aesthetic consideration and social evaluation
aside. Beethoven or a nursery rhyme: ontologically they are on a parwhich is
why, I assume, he would actually count Three Blind Mice as a work.
But here now is the rub: whereas Beethovens Fifth is correlated with the
conventional demand that the performances comply equally with the notation
across the board, a nursery tune is not and never was. When Goodman writes
that by a series of one-note errors one might move from Beethovens Fifth to
Three Blind Mice, what is implied, if not by his logic then by his examples,
is that one might go (1) from one work to another work, or (2) from a musical
work to a word-music work, or (3) from one work to no work at all. Perhaps
this is all quite deliberate on Goodmans part if what he intends to show is how
much workhood or genre has never in fact been his issue, whereas identity
always has. As he insists, he was not quibbling about the proper use of such
words as notation, score, and work. That, he added, matters little more
than the proper use of a fork (LA, 189) (or, given the words of Three Blind
Mice, the proper use of a carving knife). Still, even if identity is his issue, the

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question remains whether conventions associated with identity are exhaustible


by logic alone.
Travel to Transmission
The distinction between autographic and allographic works crystallized around
1800. Before that, in musical practice at least, even music was an autographic
art. Goodman makes the point, though with less historical specificity, when he
remarks that once upon a time all arts were probably autographic. The fact that
Western notation achieved an authority as arguably no other in the world suggests that for many kinds of arts in many cultures exact notation has never
been the way to preserve the identity of music in its performance.
In fact, even in Western classical music after 1800 or in music specifically regulated by the ideal of Werktreue, inexact scoring for musical works
was still sufficient in a practice where performances were authorized by live
or traveling performers who professed the highest fidelity to the work: treue
almost bis zum Tod. As long as musicians traveled with the work, the works
identity in its performance was preserved by proclamation: by a consensus
produced in a live and public performance setting in which performers and
audience alike could place their trust in the immediate evidence that tonight,
Ladies and Gentlemen, Beethovens Fifth Symphony is being performed.
All this changed, however, when face-to-face contact was superseded or emancipated by the interface of a technology that effectively cut off works, if not at
first from their live performance, then at least from the presence of live audiences. When musical works were turned from objects of travel to objects of
transmission, a new kind of trust had to be placed in that which actually could
be transmitted over the air: namely, the sound or audible event of the work
alone. With this change, claims to fidelity and the need for exact notation
became most explicit, just, as I am arguing, when the traditional authority of
works in live performance was most threatened.
From the imaginary museum to the virtual museum: I once described
how the work concept found its regulative authority in musical practice when
composer-performers stopped traveling with their music around the courts
of Europe and when performers alone assumed this task, provided they carried the composers scores with them. Given a new separation of composer
and performer, ever-more-reliable notations or, as Goodman puts it, distinctions between constitutive and contingent properties were required (LA,
121). Here I am adding to this account by suggesting that the exactness requirement became even more urgent when works themselves were separated entirely
from human accompaniment altogether, in the age often referred to as the age

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of high fidelity. Whereas, once, perfect compliance was an authoritative condition of performance, it later became an exact condition of transmission.
The Best-Laid Plans of Mice and Men
Since its introduction by Thomas Ravenscroft in 1609, Three Blind Mice
has had a rich history significantly bearing on the present issue of authority.
It all began when three mice had their tails cut offsee how they run
after they chased after a farmers wife who happened to have a carving knife
in her hand. According to one urban legend, the lyrics refer to three Protestant bishops blinded by decapitation as punishment for trying to bring down
the Catholic queen, Mary I of England, also known as Bloody Mary. Mary,
Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow with all those graves of dead
Protestants strewn around you? That she was also referred to as a farmers
wife picks up apparently on the large farming estates owned by her husband,
Philip II of Spain. Whatever the historical reference, the point is straightforward: dont challenge women who can render you more impotent than you
already are, though gender or castration is less the point here than authority. For
as I am now arguing, authority has much to do with how subjects and objects
are identified.
McLuhan tells a marvelous story about authority. In 1910 the wireless
telegraph became a necessary installation on ships traveling the high seas.
Apparently, an American doctor, one Hawley H. Crippen, murdered his wife
when they were living in London, left her body in the cellar, and returned with
his lover-secretary to America. What apparently aroused suspicion on the ship
was their traveling in disguise not as father and daughter but as father and son
(a small difference of gender!). Scotland Yard was wirelessed in secret from the
ship so that Crippen could be arrested before the ship arrived at port. Shortly
thereafter the British Parliament passed an act requiring all passenger ships
to carry wireless (UM, 246).
McLuhan concludes that the Crippen case illustrates what happens to
the best-laid plans of mice and men in any organization when the instant speed
of information movement begins. There is a collapse of delegated authority
and a dissolution of the pyramid. He quickly connects the Crippen case to that
of Albert Speer, who reminded all present at the trial in Nuremberg of the
absolute authority the media had been made to serve from the highest to lowest
levels of the German Nazi pyramidbefore the great dissolution. McLuhan
introduces this case to illustrate the increasing artificiality of the pyramid the
more it demonstrates the sort of naturalized or organic interdependence evidenced when prodigious social events organized by new media are put on a par

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with prodigious biological event[s], say, when electromagnetism was discovered (UM, 247, quoting Pierre Teilhard de Chardin). I shall return to the theme
of pyramids at the end of this essay.
Music Analysis
Putting everything on a par, consider one of the most infamous claims of music
theory, following the Schenkerian model, that great works of eighteenth- and
nineteenth-century Western tonal or diatonic music share the Urlinie of the
tonal scheme: the three declining steps of Three Blind Mice. Soon after
Schenkerian music theory reached America, the elite German claim was
reduced to a more popular or democratic claim, such that it could hold true as
much for the British national anthem, God Save the Queen, or for the Beatles
song All You Need Is Love as for any great work by Beethoven. Heinrich
Schenker maintained an evaluative stance in his theory. He wanted to explain
why the masterpieces of music are masterpieces by distinguishing between
deep value and surface structure. He did not refer in his theory to Three Blind
Mice, but American theorists always have. Indeed, the Americanization of
Schenkerian analysis seems to have been inspired by some rather lowbrow
music textbooks introduced into the American classroom in the first half of the
twentieth century that had taken Three Blind Mice as the example for teaching basic harmony.20
The highly respected theorist Carl Schachter remarked most famously in
1989 that nowadays anyone familiar with music theory knows that Schenker
did more than analyse the first movement of the Eroica as Three Blind Mice
with a college education.21 With somewhat ambiguous parsing, this loaded
sentence suggests that both Schenkerian theory and the Eroica were being
read wrongly (or blindly) even by those with a college education. I recently
asked several Schenker experts whether they knew who first described the
highbrow German method by reference to Three Blind Mice, but no one
seems to know. On the way, however, I was offered many references to its use.
Thanks to considerable help from Joseph Dubiel and Ian Bent, I was also able
to survey the original Schenker manuscripts and some of his correspondence
to check that the reference had not somehow entered German music theory
20. Cf. John Erskine, ed., A Musical Companion: A Guide to the Understanding and Enjoyment of Music (New York: Knopf, 1935), 21. See also Mark DeBellis, Schenkerian Analysis and
the Intelligent Listener, Monist 86 (2003): 579607; Donna Weibliche, H. Poirot, and H. Schenker
(in jest), A Shaggy Bitch Story, letters, Musical Times, January 4, 1995, 4; William Rothstein,
The Americanization of Heinrich Schenker, In Theory Only 9 (1986): 517; and Alan W. Pollack, Notes on the All You Need Is Love (AYNIL), 1996, www.recmusicbeatles.com/public/
files/awp/aynil.html.
21. Carl Schachter, Analysis by Key: Another Look at Modulation, Music Analysis 3 (1987): 289.

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before it arrived in the United States. Of course it hadnt: even to this day
Three Blind Mice is not a known reference in German literature, as is evidenced in the translation of Goodmans book, where the reference to this tune
still requires a translators explanatory footnote.
The significance of Schenkerian analysis is that it showed how one could
go all the way from Beethovens Fifth (or any other tonal work) to Three
Blind Mice. The hint is given in the opening measure of the symphony, which
apparently is the only measure the public still cares about. However, Schenkerian analysis depended not, as it does in Goodmans account, on showing
how to preserve the works identity through its performance but on determining in the work a deep and universal tonal essence. That all performances share
something means only that all great tonal music played is equally analyzable
in terms of a specific Urlinie that happens to correspond to the first three notes
of Three Blind Mice. This sort of transformational reduction to depth or
essence is quite different in spirit from the reduction we see in positivism, as is
demonstrated inadvertently in this dismissive quip from the British music theorist Derrick Puffett: As everyone knows, Schenker reduced everything to
Three Blind Mice.22 To claim that everyone knows that Schenker reduced
everything is to exaggerate as Adorno would have exaggerated, to show the
difference between the high-minded Schenkerian analyses of music to essence
and the lower-minded reductions characteristic of the global age. However,
having noted the difference, one might then determine, as Adorno did, that
core (German) essentialism and positivistic (American) reductionism are but
two sides of the same administered coin.
Goodman has no sympathy with either side of this coin: logical specification is his way out of commitments both to essential depths and to total equalization across the board. Even if logic makes his account egalitarian through
and through, it does so only at the level of logic. Adorno maintains, contrarily,
that retreating into logic is part of the very problem, leaving theory to go its
own exact way without considering where the practice might go in its wake.
Philosophical Analysis
If music analysis has tended toward reductionism, philosophical analysis has,
too. In this regard, consider the work done on so-called ideographic symbol
systems in the 1950s, specifically in a 1957 article by the Cambridge philosopher Margaret Masterman for a book on midcentury British philosophy. Here
we find this key passage:
22. Derrick Puffett, Schenkers Eroica, Musical Times, September 1996, 21.

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Music and Listening


Once you are dealing with indeterminate concepts, you lose the temptation
to say, Three Blind Mice in correct English, really means There are three
blind mice. There may be three blind mice, or there may not be three blind
mice: there may be many esoteric ways of interpreting Three Blind Mice
and there may be also many straight wayswho cares? For this form of
analysis, in halting the progress from indeterminacy to specificness by isolating the still highly indeterminate cluster as it stands, prevents all the thorny
logical questions which have to do with the existence of actual entities . . .
from ever being able to arise. We can, of course, raise up logical difficulties
for ourselves by insisting on the continuation of the rhyme. But we neednt.
If we choose to sing Three Blind Mice three times, and then stop, and
say that we have no particular urge to continue, then we have not done
something incomplete. We have stopped at the end of the most fundamental ideographic unit, the cluster; [and] we have undoubtedly communicated
something.23

There are remarkable overlaps between Mastermans and Goodmans concerns, between indeterminacy and specificness, logic and actual entities,
communicating in inexact ways. Mastermans passage perfectly captured the
tension of what was at stake in Goodmans Languages of Art, a stake that
separated many American logicians and conventionalists from the ordinarylanguageor maybe we should now call them the vague-languageCambridge
philosophers.
Mastermans article is now pretty much forgotten; once, however, it was
fairly well known or at least well known enough to provoke two quite remarkable responses. The first came a decade after its publication from Herbert Marcuse, in his One-Dimensional Man, in a chapter on the triumph of positive or
positivistic thinking:
Neglect has led contemporary positivism to move in a synthetically impoverished world of academic concreteness, and to create more illusory problems
than it has destroyed. Rarely has a philosophy exhibited a more tortuous
esprit de srieux than that displayed in such analyses as the interpretation of
Three Blind Mice in a study of Metaphysical and Ideographic Language,
with its discussion of an artificially constructed Triple principle-BlindnessMousery asymmetric sequence constructed according to the pure principles
of ideography.24
23. Margaret Masterman, Metaphysical and Ideographic Language, in British Philosophy in the
Mid-Century: A Cambridge Symposium, ed. C. A. Mace (London: Allen and Unwin, 1957), 324.
24. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial
Society (Boston: Beacon, 1991), 18687.

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Marcuse published his book in 1964. He might have called it The Reduced Man
or even One Blind Mouse. Equally, these titles would have demonstrated the
principle of intersubstitutability or blind exchangeability. Reducing three
mice to one would have demonstrated the loss (as Marcuse saw it) of all deep
meanings in art and religion, leaving only empty, formal, or logical slogans in
their place.
The second response came almost two decades later, in 1976, from Gilbert Ryle, at the end of his life, in a brilliant article on improvisation written in
late style. In what he named an ex-editorial afterword, he slammed the current condition of philosophical writing with its tendency to reduce meaningful
symbols to empty signs via the principle or monster, as he named it, of Initialisation. Criticizing even the philosophy journal that fed him, he wrote:
Minds second century is going to see her many virtues wax and multiply,
and her few defects wane and decrease. But alas! One defect, though it is not
Minds alone, went unthrottled by myself when it was in its infancy; and that
infant Frankenstein is, by now, an adolescent Frankenstein. It is the monster
of Initialisation.
It is becoming modish for article-writers to amputate from the main
words of a recurring phrase their initial letters, and then, stringing these initials together, to use the resultant cryptogram as a printed proxy for that integral phrase. After their first appearances the phrases Three Blind Mice
and See How They Run would be abbreviated into TBM and SHTR.
Even an otherwise excellent writer (call him V for short) masks behind
his (I coin it) stenograms TMA and FF the familiar Third Man Argument and Friends of the Forms. I wager that the breath-or-ink-consuming
phrase Kants Transcendental Deduction of the Categories has already
been squashed up somewhere into KTDC, to the inconvenience of lots of
readers (who apparently do not matter), but to the minute muscular relief of
one author (who apparently matters everything).25

Beethovens Fifth to TBM: a global epidemic of empty reference, such that even
cryptograms fail to hold on to their cryptic character.
No Regrets
Recall Goodmans thought that in the future all arts might become allographic
through the emancipation of notation. Adorno and McLuhan also ponder this
possibility, though in terms that show the transformation of the production and
reception of works into the reproduction or re-reception of works produced
25. Gilbert Ryle, Improvisation, Mind 85 (1976): 78.

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Music and Listening

under the sole condition of copy production. What Adorno describes as a loss
of cultic or aesthetic value marks the moment when the commodified concept
of aura is introduced. When works are still produced and received as works, or
when aesthetic experience is still possible, reflective or sentimental appeals to
aura are not necessary. One calls for something, Adorno argues, and even more
for a concept or idea of something, be it of history, tradition, beauty, authenticity, or happiness, only when it is too late, when those things are no longer either
experienced or lived. The production of auratic works without aura is no different from the production of cryptograms without cryptic meaning.
Let us add to this list now the call for perfect compliance, associated
as it is with the older condition of Werktreue. Like the other calls, the call for
compliance marks a loss of experience or autography, even if, for Goodman, it
marks a new exactness in theory. If Goodman introduces the condition of perfect compliance just when it seems most threatened, so Toscanini, in Adornos
terms, becomes most adored on the radio just when he becomes most absent.
Mediated by new media, auratic presence transforms what once was regarded
as cultic experience into the empty presence of virtual experience.
Habermass argument for binding force (introduced above) was an argument for tethering in a virtual world in which tethering now seems to be entirely
absent. In the discourse of globalization, concepts are introduced, such as McLuhans global village, to show the necessity of making local, personal, and
secure what feels most cold, distant, or mechanical. Cold is one of McLuhans terms, as it is also one of Adornos. Sympathetic to the need for tethering,
Adorno worries, however, about its blind appeal: we tend to make explicit appeal
to things when they are no longer possible to have. What we want, we turn into
empty, intellectual, or compensatory concepts suiting our now overly reflective
practices that go hand in hand with a global society that promises exactly what
it cannot provide. In these terms, perfect compliance is a compensatory concept par excellence, showing, on the one side, a fidelity to art we still crave but,
on the other, what we ourselves have become: namely, perfectly compliant. It
is even an untimely concept, as so many of Adornos concepts are, which when
they arrive in theory reveal something now moribund in the practice.
Reductions Everywhere Are Not All the Same
Much of my argument has suggested that positivistic reductions, occurring in
music, philosophy, or society, all result in the same thing: blandness, blindness, impotence, castrationdifferences turned into identities. Yet these reductions, though noticed or described by Goodman, Adorno, and McLuhan, are

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not the intended outcomes of their own theories. They all seek to avoid, though
by different means, what they see and hear all around them.
When I began work on the present argument, I wanted to show how
once one starts looking for references to Three Blind Mice, one finds them
everywhereeverywhere being the global point. I was tempted to generate my
own Leporello list of references, including the many laboratory experiments
performed on mice and men, the highly successful record label in Japan, the
1938 film about three sisters from Kansas blindly seeking rich husbands in
California, a more recent film about three Vietnamese boys innocently caught
up in a war not of their own making, and Ken Aulettas oft-quoted book about
the castration anxieties of the three television networks, NBC, ABC, and CBS,
which have apparently lost their way in the global market.
In reference to every item, I intended to say that going all the way, without losing ones way, was what Goodmans perfect compliance condition was
meant to guarantee. Then it occurred to me that sometimes going all the way
or losing ones way is exactly what one ought to do. What example shows this
better than the Art Blakey quintets 1962 rendition of Three Blind Mice?
To say that the quintet goes all the way from work to rhyme is to demonstrate
no anxiety about hybridity, medium, transmission, authority, or identity. Things
dont necessarily go wrong when one loses ones way. Indeed, doesnt this
example evidence a place midway between rigid authority and giving up on
authority altogether? Between the mouse that circles the spinning wheel with
absolute authority and the mouse that spins with no authority at all, isnt there a
space on the global wheel for the mouse of improvisation, be it in philosophy,
as Ryle argued, or in music and society, as so many have argued in more recent
years? Doesnt improvisation fit the global discourse along the current of its
E-words, that is, a discourse that seeks advantage more than decline in the
temporariness and fluidity of the virtual media?
This all sounds very compelling, though I do not think that we should be
deceived by the potentially blind optimism of the third mouse. To make this
point, I offer two more examples: one entertaining, the other not. They are
chosen in part to express my gratitude to those who first gave me the opportunity to write this essay in preparation for a conference in the newly built (virtual) library of Alexandria. The two examples are connected by the theme of
infantilism and primitive mimetic impulses: the lure of the umbilical cord, the
lure of traditional authority, the lure of the pyramid. Wherever we go, we seek
everywhere and anywhere an extension of ourselves even as we claim to seek
something different.

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The first example is a 1939 film made in America titled We Want Our
Mummyour mummy being precisely whom we most want whenever we are
troubled. The sixteen-minute film was made by the Three Stooges, who introduced for this film the signature tune they would use for every film and television appearance thereafter: Three Blind Mice. I am sure Goodman watched
The Three Stooges at least once. The films title is not very subtly ambiguous, and its narrative explains why. Three not very wise men are sent by the
Museum of Ancient History in New York on a mission to retrieve a kidnapped
professor and, more important, the mummy of King Rutentuten the Third of
Egypt. Hailing a taxi from the Bronx Taxi Cab Company, the Stooges order
the driver to take them to Egypt. Arriving at the city limits of Cairo, the taxi
doors no longer openthe loss of civilizationforcing the Stooges to catapult
themselves through the roof. The only thing still functioning is the radio. You
have been listening to Ali Ben Woodwin and the Swinging Bedouins. The
radio then seamlessly segues into a sales pitch having something to do with
camels and elephantsto which one Stooge responds, Everywhere we go,
commercial announcements! This moment is already brilliant enough for any
argument on global sameness, but it only gets better. The moment is followed
by escapades in a cave and a crypt, after which the taxi takes the Stooges home
with the mummy and professor, saved from the New York criminals who, by
crude technological tricks and colonialist displacements, have made everyone
believe that the Egyptian caves are cursed. At every instant of fright in the
foreign place, the Stooges call for their mummy. What else could they do in
this age of global transmission than seek their umbilical cordall you need
is love. In this slapstick film, to seek a mummy is also a project of archaeology, which, apart from its obvious colonialist thematic, is about bringing
meaning back to New Yorks museums, whose artifacts would otherwise be
mute or useless, as the museum curator explicitly maintains at the films start.
The film ends with the Three Stooges appropriately remarking on the worlds
smallnessa perfect forerunner of what then occurs in 1964, when, at the New
York Worlds Fair, Walt Disney introduces the theme of Its a small world
and its first world citizen. That citizen is also a mousecalled Mickey.26
Small world or global village, my second example is offered through
McLuhan. Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library, he writes,
26. For more on Mickey Mouse from a critical point of view, see Miriam Hansen, Of Mice and
Ducks: Benjamin and Adorno on Disney, South Atlantic Quarterly 92 (1993): 2761; and Barbara
White, As If They Didnt Hear the Music; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Mickey
Mouse, Opera Quarterly 22 (2006): 6589.

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the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as in an


infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us,
Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once
move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal
drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. . . . Terror is
the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything
all the time. (GG, 32)

To give up on the authority of the text or the work might be interpreted as


endorsing the return of the improvisatory condition of oral society. However,
if this is the argument, it is a potentially regressive one, especially if it fails
to recognize the terror that once also afflicted oral culture. In my argument,
overall, we have learned that we can no more trust the ear than the eye (given
the earlier arguments about the changes in experience), just as we can no better seek guarantees in literacy as opposed to orality. Workhood or improvisation is also a false choice. To be sure, Goodman finds in theory a security in
perfect compliance, but as I have argued, he is entirely aware, as Adorno and
McLuhan are aware, that in the actual world the relations between orality and
literacy, or between workhood and improvisation, are quite as inexact as those
between eye and ear.
I finally want to say that in this inexact spacenot covered by logic
resides an uncertainty that we sometimes hear in jazz, sometimes in Beethovens Fifth, and sometimes even in Three Blind Mice when small children
move with little-by-little steps in their dance. To be sure, in this inexact space,
the curses of global culture become immediately most evident, but so, too, do
the promises that cannot, contra Adorno, all be false. Thus one commentator
reacted to my argument by reminding me that not even castration always leads
to dire consequences, that it might even help pave the way to liberation. Even,
however, if one were to respond to this by saying that the end might still not
justify the means, I assume the point only was that listening to songs sung at
an unnaturally high pitch might open our minds and by extension our worlds
to thoughts that are not yet perfectly compliant.

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