Ordinary language is all right.
One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.
Reading Peter Singer's Hegel: A Very Short Introduction, I came across a beautiful presentation of an idea commonly at work in my writing. So I thought I'd share it and re-state it for music and aesthetic taste. I'm not working too hard to paraphrase Singer, by the way.
In talking about Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Singer compares Hegel's conception of freedom to the "negative freedom" espoused by various liberal thinkers, among them Isaiah Berlin. "Negative freedom" is that where a person is free if they are not made to do things they do not want to do. Hegel was critical of this notion of freedom; he called it formal, or abstract, freedom. He contended that individual choice is the outcome of arbitrary circumstances, and thus is not genuinely free.
If you've been paying attention since, well, Hegel, this won't seem that new to you. A point like this has probably been related, in some way, to various statements to the effect that tastes, or individuals, or moral standards, or whatever, are socially constructed or constituted. People say those things in more radical forms, sometimes, but at the very least statements like these just say that social, historical, and material context matters. The reason I liked the presentation in Singer is because of the role of freedom, though.
Singer makes an analogy to contemporary economics. Liberal economists judge how well an economic system works by the extent to which it allows people to satisfy their preferences. These individual preferences are prior to the economic assessment - supposedly because to attempt to select among individuals' preferences and give more weight to some rather than others would be to impose the economists' own values on others by denying their right to choose what they want.
Radical economists, on the other hand, criticize this approach because it fails to take into account how preferences come about. Singer gives an example of an economy in which people aren't concerned with natural human odors like those from sweat. Someone develops a deodorant, which is not too successful in this economy. However, the inventor markets the product by making people feel anxious about their body odor, and the deodorant is successful. People develop a preference for it, and can satisfy that preference because the product is within their means. Liberal economists would see no difference between the pre-deodorant and post-deodorant economies, from the point of view of economic efficiency (or whatever it is they would call their assessment). Radical economists would say that this is absurd, and prefer to judge systems not by their ability to satisfy any preferences, but those which contribute to genuine human welfare or satisfy genuine human needs.
I'm sure some people I know are now grumbling, mentally, about the appearance of the word "genuine" above. Maybe I don't want to jump that far yet - it's just what Singer said. But he notes that Hegel's criticism is basically that "the negative conception of freedom [...] gives its blessing to whatever circumstances happen to be influencing the way people choose." Abstract freedom is "effectively the freedom to be pushed to and fro by the social and historical forces of our times."
Now to the connection with music. I think the role of freedom above is interesting partly just due to some analogical similarities with the debate on objectivity of aesthetic judgments versus subjectivity of aesthetic judgments. For instance, lots of people who favor punk or indie or a number of other kinds of non-mainstream music often talk about how the mainstream doesn't even present people with the choice to listen to other kinds of music. People who listen to the mainstream are sheep, who sometimes are even said to be not making their choices about music freely. This is supposed to compromise their choices, and make the choices of those who prefer whatever non-mainstream music better choices.
There's another way to carry Hegel's critique of negative freedom over into the aesthetic. I don't have a handy characteristic view to hand, but it seems to me that a lot of conceptions of what it is for e.g. a piece of music to be objectively good are rational conceptions that carefully cordon off any influence of the emotions or historical and social context, or at least involve those influences in ways that tend to reinforce, rather than contravene, the rational conception. (By 'rational' I probably mean something like 'satisfying a set list of criteria' or 'meeting a definition in any one of a number of ways, including through supposedly irrational signs like making the listener happy or sad', though I doubt I really know what I mean.)
This makes it sound like whoever's defending these kinds of judgments would go along partly with Hegel, in agreeing about the importance of context. They would see it as a pernicious influence, though, something to be avoided in any way possible. Thus talk about timeless records, that kind of stuff. Luckily for me, though, Hegel had some things to say about this kind of thing, too. If context matters then it's wrong to ignore or avoid it, even if you're trying to be rational (rationality normally involving, on usual interpretations of it, some more away from the particular and historical, to the universal and absolute).
I'm too tired to expand on it now, but "Hegel finds the unity of individual satisfaction and freedom in conformity to the social ethos of an organic community." That could use some explanation just on its own, but at the moment I'm not sure what Hegel's positive views on freedom would like like, transported over to aesthetics. (Of course I own a volume of his aesthetics, but at the moment I would rather think about my own half-assed appropriation of his political philosophy from Singer's short little summary of it.)
The Singer book, by the way, is part of a series of "Very Short Introduction" books, which I enthusiastically recommend. They really are short, which is good for swivelheads. They look and feel nice. They're written by respectable authors. Despite consistently giving broad looks at their subjects (including e.g. "History" which is pretty broad, I think), they're insightful, precise, and detailed - at least far enough that they should give the reader a good idea of where to go for and what would be involved in further reading about the subject. I've read a handful already and have a few more to read, on both things I've already known about (some quite a lot about), and things I know little to nothing about. Even in the former case, the way the books treated their material in such a small space was very interesting to me. I think they're a good way to peek warily into new subjects, and to make my knowledge slightly less limited and fraudulent in general.
More listening, this time in a mix. Beans, Smog (Red Apple Falls now rather than The Doctor Came at Dawn), The Mekons (Journey to the End of the Night instead of Fear and Whiskey), the American Analog Set's From Your Living Room to Yours, and the New Klezmer Trio's Masks and Faces.
More listening: Smog a couple more times, then Beanie Sigel's The Truth a bunch, then a bit of Wu-Tang.
More listening-logging: the Mekons' Fear and Whiskey a couple times, and now Beanie Sigel's The Truth.
Speaking of which, "Mac Man" (stuffed with old video game references in the lyrics, and a Pacman-eating-dots sound running through complementing the beat, with occasional dead-Pacman noises) is excellent. It put an enormous smile on my face, even.
In an effort to get a more accurate picture of what I listen to I'm going to start posting everything I listen to each day, for two or three weeks.
So far today, it's been: Smog a few times, then Tortoise on the way to campus, then PIL for a while on campus and then on my way home and on some errands, and then the Wu-Tang's W, and now Jay-Z Vol. 2.
(It's an 'effort' because I don't always post about what I listen to, and I tend to forget. I'm continuing it for a while so that I catch everything - I tend to listen in streaks. For example, I might not listen to much jazz for a while, then listen to mostly jazz for two weeks straight.)
Having heard Soul Power again today, I must reiterate that just the sound of Flavor Flav's voice, hearing it "again" (it sounds strange to say that, given that it can't have been that long since I first heard Public Enemy for the first time; but despite being strange the sense of nostalgia is there), feels so great and right that his senility is hardly an issue. It's not that he rhymes only "two" and "Wu", but how he sounds when he does it.
The drums have a very other-room sound to them, despite being quite clear.
After checking out some of the CDs I used to make the second side of his tape, Murph has become addicted to Mystikal's "Pussy Crook," wherein our hero tells of his exploits with the fairer sex, his notoriety with law enforcement officials thanks to those exploits, and the enormous sexual organ he thankfully has to satisfy all his ill-gotten girls. There are also the requisite thematic references to large trucks.
Andy explained what he meant by comparing Arab Strap to Steely Dan. Of course, I was hoping for surprising sonic points of comparison, but oh well. At least he's forthcoming.