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THE SHOFAR (AND THE DROP)
(excerpt from Twin Figure of Mimesis)
To use a phrase from Frank Zappa, from the beginning of “Be-Bop Tango” on the album “Roxy and Elsewhere:” And this is a hard one to play.
I don’t quite know where I am going with the following. I haven’t managed to either wrap my head around the content, nor find a stylistic form to write about it. However, I keep finding the figure of thought too intriguing to give up and let it be. So I include my fragmentary attempts anyway, to suggest a possible thematic path, albeit a confused and incomplete one.
Ok, Point Zero:
The LORD said to Moses,
“I am going to come to you in a dense cloud. Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. By the third day, the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.
Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not go up the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.’
Only when the ram’s horn sounds a long blast may they go up on the mountain.”
When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai. To the Israelites the glory of the LORD looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain. Then Moses entered the cloud. And he stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us.”
Aaron answered them; “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing and bring them to me.”
So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. He built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD.”
Moses went down the mountain with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands. The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.
When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he took the calf they had made and burned it into the fire; the he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.
(Old Testament, Exodus 20-32)
In these few paragraphs of the Old Testament, the continuous presence of manifest gods, a radical alterity represented by mimicry and images, is exchanged by the authority of a big, absent Other. This moment might be understood as the point zero of a twofold transition of transcendence and metaphysics; from magic to religion and from polytheism to monotheism.
We are back at Kafka’s gate of the Law. In the world of magic, the gods are manifold and continuously present in their participation. In a post-magical world, it is the invisibility of god that produces the condition for passage. If we follow this line of thought, religion maybe could be understood as a phase between a universe ruled by magic and our modern secular world. The ritual staged by God at Mount Sinai, in which he cast Moses as his gatekeeper, is also a performative event in its literal sense: an act that irreversibly changes the world. It is the exit of God from the world of presence, a staged withdrawal into absence. God will no longer act as a visible power in the present, but as an internalised big Other; invisible, inaccessible, it acts through its absence.
It is difficult to say exactly what is so fascinating, and somehow so logical, about the fact that Moses makes the Israelites rid themselves of their icon by ingesting it. In the same way, the fact that the golden calf is produced by their private jewellery suggests an archaic double bind in the interaction between economy, magic, and passage.
In 1948, psychoanalyst Theodor Reik, born in Vienna 1888 and one of Sigmund Freud’s first and most promising students, wrote Listening with the Third Ear. Here, Reik eleborates, and partially questions, Freud’s concept of “evenly-suspended attention:” directionless listening disconnected from the theoretical or therapeutical objectives of the analysis: “It consists simply in not directing one’s notice to anything in particular and in maintaining the same “evenly-suspended attention” (as I have called it) in the face of all one hears … Or to put it purely in terms of technique: “He should simply listen, and not bother about whether he is keeping anything in mind.” According to Reik, the analyst should not only listen between the lines to what is said, but also towards her or his own unconscious as analyst. Reik borrows the notion listening with the third ear from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, in which the philosopher complains about the average reader’s lack of attention to the importance of rhythm, tempo, and tonality in language: “What a torture are books written in German to a reader who has a third ear,“
Two years before the publication of Listening with the Third Ear, Theodor Reik wrote The Shofar (1946), an essay about one of the oldest musical instruments known to man. The shofar is a musical horn, most often made of the horn of a ram or a kudu, used in various Jewish religious ceremonies. The sound of the shofar is loud, intense and penetrating. No melody can be played on the instrument and it cannot produce more than one sound. The shofar operates on the threshold between music and sonority, understood as the presence and absence of sound. In the Book of Genesis, the inventor of the instrument is said to be Jubal. A curious, albeit peripheral, detail is that some investigators have indicated this Jubal to be Abel, the unfortunate brother of Cain. This already invites some very intruiging speculations on the relation between the binary sonority of the shofar—sound/not-sound—and a number of double binds: power/impotence, action/passivity, appearance/disappearance, speaking/silence.
The shofar has several ritual functions, both symbolic and practical. Music was already used in Hebrew culture in pre-religious sorcery. Bells and other instruments where used to drive the demons away from a holy place before using it. The tinkling bells on the vestments of the high priest, later inscribed in the aesthetics of a ritual, were thus originally meant to protect the priest from evil demons as he entered the holy place. Demons generally seem to feel a strong aversion toward sounds coming from blowing of horns as well as bells of any size. One of the functions of the shofar is to confuse the devil. This function is mirrored in the Chinese tradition of beating drums and rattling chains to drive away dragons. The Arab desert demons are called azif al-ginn—an expression also used for the instrument played to drive way the same demon; the noise made by the jinns is encountered by the human mimicry of the same sound. (Compare with Michael Taussig’s Mimesis & Alterity: “In some way or another, one can protect oneself from the evil spirits by portraying them.”)
The origin of the shofar thus is embedded in a maze of ritual symbolics oscillating between religion and magic. It is partly a human instrument to communicate with the gods, and partly a representation of the voices of the gods themselves. Interestingly, there seems to be a general confusion as to why the shofar actually is used in traditional Jewish ceremonies. It has been used as a warning of fire or other danger, as a call to wake up sinners and sleepers, and to remind of religious heritage. In modern times, the importance of the instrument is mainly assigned to Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, but the use of the horns’ signal on those holidays is basically representational. It serves as a reminder of the gift of the Torah, a celebration of God’s kingdom, and an awakening from spiritual slumber, etc. In my understanding, the most interesting perspective on the shofar is the one described in Exodus: “Only when the ram’s horn sounds a long blast may they go up on the mountain.” The shofar is sounded to signify that God, who has taken part in worldly events, now is returning to heaven. Its function is related to Hölderlin’s caesura—the moment where the gods return to heaven, and the humans return to earth. The sound of the instrument has a double function. It is a signal for both the presence and the absence of God. The shofar is somehow both the voice of God and the sound of his absence.
Theodor Reik undertakes a thorough analysis of the symbolic and emotional role of the sound of the shofar in the Jewish collective subconscious. In an associative tour de force, Reik listens to Judaism with the third ear. And in the material of the instrument—a ram’s horn—Reik hears the metonomy of a sound—the intense “bellowing of a bull at the slaughter.” In the first part of the essay he seems to come to the conclusion that the sound of the shofar is God’s voice. Later on, the analysis gets increasingly busy with the function of mimicry—communicating with the gods by imitating their shape and figure:
“In the great sacrificial feasts of the ancients, the believers wrapped themselves in the skin of the animal corresponding to their god… A later form of identification is the wearing of masks of animals. Because the gods of the Orient wore horns, therefore their followers also assumed these emblems. Sumerian and Babylonian priests wore two horns on their cap… The Shamans of Kanaschinzen in Siberia and the Musquakie Indians of North America wear horned caps. Among the Jews of the Middle Ages there was a custom in the ceremonial of the New Year’s feast which can only be regarded as a primitive identification of this kind… This identification by means of form was accompanied by identification by means of sound. The savages who imitate their totem animals in their mask dances, also make the noise of the animal… As civilisation advanced, the skin of an animal was replaced by a mask, and the roaring, which was originally to imitate the noise of the totem animal, was replaced by the use of an instrument.”
Mimicking the demons as the origin of religious liturgy; the use of mimesis as an interface with alterity—performative aesthetics in the concrete production of contact with/protection from an “other” rather than as the representational depiction of this “otherness…” This is all both interesting and relevant, and also intimately connected to the relation between mimesis and alterity as described by Michael Taussig. The most fascinating passages in Reik’s analysis of the Shofar are the parts where he connects it to Sigmund Freud’s theory of Totem and Taboo, particularly the tracing of of the totem sacrificial animal back to the father; a trajectory rediscovered and analysed by Lacan in his seminar on Anxiety (and its double bind with desire), where he makes an analysis of the shofar’s—or rather its sound’s—archaic function as objet petit (a), the inaccessible object of desire.
Again, I am still fumbling around in the pathways of this thematic maze, and most certainly misunderstanding half of its content. Yet, I find the perspective opened up by this reading very intriguing. The concrete presence of a multitude of gods, spirits, and demons interacting with humans on a daily basis is ritually transposed to a symbolic system of aesthetics in which the absence of the big Other is the basic condition of transcendence.
“Only when the ram’s horn sounds a long blast may they go up on the mountain.” The horn is the signal of God’s withdrawal from, and of the people’s ascent to, Mount Sinai. Who is it that sounds the horn? Is it the voice of God himself, or is it Moses? The most daring part of Reik’s interpretation is the parallel between God and the sacrificial animal: “If the god who was originally worshipped by the Jews was a bull or a ram, then we can understand why his voice sounded from the horn of a ram. The position of the ram as a totem animal follows from its especial holiness as an expiatory sacrifice for guilt (…) The tone of the shofar calls to mind the bellowing of a bull at the slaughter. The peculiarly fearsome, groaning, blaring and long-sustained tone derives its serious significance from the fact that, in the unconscious mental life of the listeners, it represents the anxiety and last death-struggle of the father-god—if the metaphor be not too forced, one may say, his swan song.’
The signal of the shofar here is a signifier of both the murder of the father (of God) and of his celebration. The sound is not a representation or appearance of God, and its significance should maybe rather be understood in terms of the absence of an answer. The passage is made possible by God’s absence, by the fact that he is no longer there.
I maybe should add that I write this from an agnostic position; for me, the trope of transcendence is not connected to the possible existence of this or that God, but rather to the conditions of human imaginaries. “In order for us to think about somebody, he must be removed from our presence;” says Hannah Arendt, “so long as we are with him we do not think either of him or about him (…) Making present what is actually absent, is the mind’s unique gift… Only because of the mind’s capacity for making present what is absent can we say “no more” and constitute a past for ourselves, or say “not yet” and get ready for a future.” If we follow this figure of thought, a possible parallel interpretation would be that the shofar is not the voice/sound of God, but a call for God. The biblical quote “to hear/see God is to die” should then be understood both literally and metaphorically. If our call for God—or whatever radical alterity—would result in an answer perceivable by our human sensory system, it would constitute the end of the human capacity to produce and exchange imaginaries. It would mean that there is no other, no alterity, nothing beyond this known reality as it appears to us here and now.
The ability to think and reflect is dependent on the ability to imagine the world as different to how it appears in the present. The separation of the world from itself by the means of abstraction and symbolic systems is the basic condition for all speculation. The hope connected to the signal of the shofar—or any aesthetic activity aiming for transcendence—lies in the absence of an answer. If God would answer in a way that we could recognise from our local, human horizon, then s/he would no longer be part of the divine, but part of what already is existing in the present. And then nothing would ever be any other way than it is at the present. Hope therefore lies in the absence of reply; we keep calling, and pray to God that we don’t get an answer. Because then we would really, to speak with and against Fukuyama, have reached the end not only of history, but of all possible imagery and therefore hope.
In “Listening,” Jean-Luc Nancy describes the act of listening as a “stretching of the ear,” an act of attention—not the attention towards a known object or phenomenon, but the engagement of being in a-tension. To enter into relation with a “thing that gathers” thus means accepting an encounter that actualises a certain amount of anxiety. Mimesis in the sense of the improper double, not the stabilisation of identity but the de-stabilisation of an uncanny alterity; the similarity opening up to connection but resisting sameness. This would also be the point where Lacan positions the shofar as an apparatus triggering the co-dependency between desire and anxiety. To listen to the world rather than describing it is in line with what Derrida aims at when he discusses the two different modes of engagement with a text: hymenal—as in the continuous act of interpretive negotiation—as opposed to the penetrational act of appropriation. To find strategies and tools to “be in attention” from both the outside and the inside; the folded membrane that simultaneously separates and connects, a third neither/nor-element dissolving the either/or of dialectics and synthesis.
Seen from this point of view, the blast of the shofar is literally a “thing that gathers,” simultaneously being signifier and the zero of signifiers. Both in its mythical origin and its contemporary ceremonial use, the sound is presented to produce an attention, but an attention devoted to an alterity that just left;vi the sound not only designating but being the very threshold between an absence and a presence
Again, here there is an obvious similarity with Hölderlin’s concept of the caesura, the hiatus or gap produced by “a break in the flow of sound.” In terms of aesthetics and transcendence, from the perspective of a contemporary economy based on the continuous flow of accelerated appearances, this idea of transcendence as a passage rendered possible by the disruption of appearance presents an intriguing and concrete tool.
The caesura is the moment of absence, or the absence of moment. This figure of non-realised potential connotes a number of references, like the archaic magic given to the suspension produced in a solar eclipse and Walter Benjamin’s metaphor of history as a sudden unexpected flash. Yet another, slightly more radical, version is the extensive use of delay in contemporary electro, and maybe even more the accumulated euphoria built by the drop, where the repetitive beat of a drum pattern or a pumping bassline suddenly is discontinued and disappears. A suspension of time-space, the disruption of progress; for a brief moment, no reproduction of presence. The gods return to heaven, the humans return back to earth—a passage opens, like a flash, and for a second or two the future lies completely open.
For me the concept of negativity is connected to the figure of Negative/Negation/Negotiation. Maybe, more specific than pure negativity, my interest lies in time-spaces of absence; or, more precisely, aesthetic strategies allowing for absence to temporarily appear in presence. According to this, the shofar doesn’t so much produce attention to its sound, but rather directs our attention towards the absence made present in the silence between the sounds.
I’d like to end with an excerpt from a text by Matthew Phillips called “2015: The Neofuturist Aesthetic,” published for the webzine Tinymixtapes in December 2015. From my perspective, it has a lot of commonalities to the issues and tropes I’m concerned with, and also possibly some sort of trajectory for a practice that could expand beyond a purely auditory territory.
The most dominant element in Futurism’s aesthetic program is its apotheosis of speed. Speed represented the acceleration of human potential and the violent desire for progress. Neofuturism attacks these myths of temporal development and introduces structures that deepen the complexity of their temporal arrangements. By representing acceleration and then arresting it, by inserting ruptures and breaks into seemingly ideal continuities, the neofuturist aesthetic disrupts the aesthetic paradigms of its predecessors and posits a new organizing temporal motif for its program: the event.
Music moves. It must. Electronic music often moves along a fixed path set by the sequencer, the autocratic clock that organizes all of its notes. This phenomenon is perhaps most important in club music, where synchronized rhythms define the motions of bodies in space. But even the earliest examples of dance music include brief disruptions in that flow, just enough to play with the audience’s expectations or to set up an inevitable return of the beat. The bass drop in EDM is but one example of this mode; subtler methods feature brief cutouts and skips that create anticipation in their sudden arrest of the track’s motion—but the motion forward typically continues shortly afterwards. By contrast, the neofuturist works exhibit a sense of motion and arrest that is often built directly into the rhythmic structure of the track. Moments of arrest receive a sonic weight that is equal to that of the motion forward. In this way, stillness checks the acceleration of speed, complicating the symbol of forward progress with images of crisis.
The neofuturist aesthetic’s motif of the event relies on interruption. Silence slices the wall of sound into fragments, revealing each moment of sounding as a choice, each of which can operate independently in the runtime of the track, shifting the weight of signifying from the forward progress of the song to the individual moment that is occurring. Motion still continues, inexorably forward, as all time is bound, but any particular event in the continuum now receives its own specific mass.
This instability, this absence of solidity, suggests a new reading of the future, in which the progressive incursion of technology offers neither predictable consequences nor even the opportunity to decipher successive, novel events.
What the neofuturist aesthetic offers is not a mere escape, but a counterfuture. Reclaiming the future and refiguring its shape is a pivotal stage in wresting liberation from those who would institute their vision of the future by force. Will we find our way back to the garden? Or do we march inexorably toward the birth of synthetic gods, intelligences that will rule like Gnostic archons over a blighted, post-industrial wasteworld? Time will tell.