On materiality and medium: philosophy with a broken hammer?

I’m teaching a music appreciation class this term, and we have been talking about the ways various aesthetic features emerge from material/technical conditions. Punk records sound messy and out of control because nobody could really play their instruments (or at least nobody acted like they could); British punk was influenced by reggae because the punk kids grew up in and/or hung out in West Indian neighborhoods, where the clubs (or rather, where Don Letts) played reggae records between bands. So, I’ve been thinking about style as an emergent property that gets codified retroactively by critics and fans.

Which brings me to one of your questions, Ice, which I want to flip around. You ask: “I think it is an interesting question to pursue, however, to ask that, since the style constrains the substance in this way, and constrains its ‘impact,’ then who is served by this style, and what would happen if this style were changed? Impact on whom, and for what purposes?” But what if we think instead of substance–in the sense of materiality, medium, concrete practice–constraining style? What if we think of style as a matter not just of impact, but of “launch”? In other words, what if style isn’t a top-down routine, but an emergent one?

Is “style” shorthand for the implicit knowledges gained through the rehearsal of a specific set of material practices? For example, my ‘style’ of oboe playing develops over years, as I study particular pieces of music. Working primarily on Baroque work will produce habits/skills at ornamentation that won’t necessarily develop from a primary focus on Romantic work; however, focusing mainly on Romantic work will definitely improve my high range in ways that Baroque study won’t. I will grow accustomed to a specific instrument (in my case, Loree oboe serial number JO93), reed-making technique, ensemble work, etc.

How do the material practices of philosophy generate particular types of implicit knowledge? And how do these implicit knowledges get naturalized as “philosophy”? Do ongoing discussions of philosophical pluralism, diversity, and so on, do they give adequate attention to the role of implicit knowledge in philosophical practice and in philosophical content? And what is the effect of treating what’s actually implicit knowledge as (merely) “style”? (Cause, as the NYT always so effectively demonstrates, the easiest way to trivialize something is to call it “style.”)

It seems to me that we philosophers, and especially we philosophers who like to trouble philosophy’s content and demographic boundaries, rarely consider the material practice of philosophy as such. We all write papers. We all read books. Some of us do logic, some of us study European languages, some of us do both. We talk. We read papers out loud. We travel. We teach (often by reading, talking about what we read, and writing). What if, instead of focusing on which books we read and how we write, we thought about the material practices of reading and writing? How do these material practices normalize “philosophy”?

One example that easily comes to mind is the way some continental philosophers emphasize working in French and German (or maybe Greek or Latin, and possibly Italian if you want to be very exotic). The material practice of working in English, French, and German, of reading, writing, and speaking across these three languages, that’s what makes a project “continental philosophy.” The ritual of citing French and German words or phrases in your conference papers and articles is another example of this. How do these rituals, these material practices, create a sensus communis? A sensus communis that is then used to judge the philosophical nature of a project?

The example isn’t as important as what it (I think) illustrates: this sensus communis is implicit philosophical knowledge rooted in material practice.I know this issue of material practice is important for both of us because we use “non-standard” methods in our work. And I wonder if it’s the irreducibility of these methods to properly “philosophical” implicit knowledges that causes “philosophy” and philosophers so much anxiety? Like, “I can’t recognize the implicit knowledge you’re calling on in your work, so it must not be philosophy. It’s not philosophy because it doesn’t feel like philosophy to me.”

So, there’s the question. It’s one of the main things I want to talk about in this project. It’s also why I want to try, as much as I/we can, to experiment with new/non-standard material practices and make our audience ‘do’ philosophy in ways that may at first seem inconvenient or awkward. Can we break the philosophical hammer? What if we use a nail gun? Or glue? Or staples?

How, at the level of philosophical practice, would we break the hammer?