Richard Rorty and Brian Eno
by Gregory Taylor

In addition to his activities as a composer, producer, and performer, Brian Eno reads. Anyone who is at all familiar with either his interviews and/or writing will occasionally catch a name dropped here and there: Stafford Beer, Morse Peckham, and - a bit more recently - the American philosopher Richard Rorty. I think that much of Brian's recent thinking and writing on the relationship between kinds of decision-making and the language with which we make judgements of value in a world where all kinds of views are represented owes a lot to the Rorty that Brian's read. In fact, I don't think Eno's antiessentialism would be as articulate without Richard Rorty's writings. The following is a very brief description of Rorty's philosophical writings. Although Eno most often refers to the book "Contingency, Irony and Solidarity," I'll try here to provide a little background to the whole of Rorty's writings; I think that to do otherwise would be a little like describing Eno's output *only* in terms of "Music for Airports/Thursday Afternoon/Neroli."

Richard Rorty's career bears some superficial resemblances to Eno's, in that he begins his career in a position in which he's essentially located somewhere in the "mainstream" (as Eno's first exposure occurs in the context of British "pop" music with Roxy Music), at some point heads off in what seems to be a radically different sort of territory (which leaves some of his philosophical colleagues longing out loud for his "early stuff"), and in the process finds himself drawn into quite another set of alignments. And - this is more of a stretch - *both* Rorty and Eno are in some respects interested in looking at the work of "non-practitioners" - the notion that one occasionally finds novel solutions to a given dilemma by consulting people who are "nonmusicians" or "nonphilosophers."

When asked about his work, many philosophers (those in the Anglo-American tradition, anyway) will generally say something supportive about his earlier work as one of the major American analytic philosophers. They're referring to his work in the philosophy of mind, language, and truth, and will usually mention his 1979 book "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature."

But of late, his interest for folks like Eno and people interested in cultural studies and literary theory begins when he pretty much completely repudiated his earlier analytic work for a kind of pragmatism which is a lot more in sync with the philosophical positions of continental European philosophers and theorists such as Heidegger, Derrida, Lyotard, Habermas, and Foucault.

By now, your little PostModern Theory detectors should be clicking away (should that surprise *any* serious Eno fan?); but I think it's helpful to pause for a moment and provide a brief outline of Rorty's earlier work: it's easier to see where he wound up if you know where he started.

"Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" was an important work for analytic philosophers in its radical critique of the traditional ideal of knowledge as a faithful representation of reality. In this traditional view, the mind is a kind of mirror which reflects the real, and Philosophy has the job of testing and repairing this mirror so that our propositions will do a better job of "reflecting" reality. Rorty is critical in his book of this idea that Philosophy can somehow "fix" the conditions of knowledge in a way which is unaffected by social practices, or the games and vagaries of language itself. In short, he argues that this notion that Philosophy's ability to fix these things in a way that's ahistorical or independent of any and all "frames of reason" (to quote from the Eno/Cale song) is a hollow pretension.

Proceeding from this, he comes up with three basic ideas which are pretty far outside of the traditions of the analytical tradition from which he comes, but a lot more like the kind of Phenomenology that one finds in European philosophers.

1. Irrationalism - You begin by recognizing that there is a kind of contingent character of the context of any kind of inquiry. A consequence of this contingency is that you're not so much "discovering" truth in inquiry, but "making" it, using the tools given you by your frame of reference.

2. This kind of antiessentialism is applied to the language that we use for things that philosophers try to describe in *noncontingent* terms - that is, notions like "truth" and "language" and "morality".

3. Instead of philosophical theorizing (which cannot escape the trap of contingency), we ought to substitute a more modest kind of "practical reason." In this sense, he can be thought of a kind of Pragmatist along the lines of the American philosopher John Dewey.

So, I think we can now begin to see where Brian Eno might start quoting him a bit: Since we create both language and truth about the world, we ought to be interested in the reconstruction of language to make it more useful and rewarding and to make the world more "satisfying" to our desires.

Since Rorty views creation and construction as more important goals or more comparatively useful ends than discovery and objective description, you can imagine how his thinking takes a kind of radically relativistic and aesthetic turn. It should also come as no surprise that Rorty would claim that Philosophy (as practiced) may not be as useful for answering the questions of ordinary people as writers or poets or artists, who make it their business to wrestle with questions of contingency and the construction of meaning from objects at hand.

This brings us to the book that Eno says all those nice things about, "Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity". Whenever you hear the Eno talking about things like "final vocabularies" and what he calls "ISMism", he's pretty much repeating Rorty. "Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity" works on coming up with a kind of "private" ethic of personal self-enrichment and self-creation combined with the "public" political morality of traditional Philosophical Liberalism. The advantage of Liberalism is that it brings with it a kind of procedural sense of justic which is of practical use; one desires to avoid giving pain to others so that each person may be free to pursue a private vision of perfection.

In "Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity," language is still a primary material, but it's no longer the incarnation or instantiation of reason; it's a primarily aesthetic tool for self-fashioning instead. By retelling our stories using different sorts of contexts and vocabulaties (without the resort of a "final" or objective one) we reconstitute ourselves and our society.

(Since I worked so hard to get this far, I'll take the writer's prerogative to editorialize just a little bit. It seems to me that there's a little problem with Rorty's view here (or something I don't fully understand) in the way he seems to depend on a pretty serious split between the public and the private that separates the language of concensus from the language of creation. It would seem to me that such a split would affect our use of a stable and shared language which is "public" for our common practical purposes and our political concerns for notions like "justice." That may not bother the rest of you, of course.In the end, if may turn out that I'm more interested in Pluralism than Relativism as a position. I hope that this doesn't mean that I have to turn in my Oblique Strategies.).

I'm still

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