Present in the background: Ambient Music and Object-Oriented Ontology

Music itself seems to pose an interesting question for OOO, but I want to focus purely on Ambient music, particularly the kind that wishes to exist purely as a background space. In his exciting, vibrant and somewhat pompous book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology, Timothy Morton briefly provides a (strange) phenomenological account of listening to music; I don’t wish to comment on this account before fully digesting his work, but in this account he briefly gestures towards ambient music. He presents the music of My Bloody Valentine ‘as more truly ecological than representational “nature” music, and more uncompromising than quiet ambient music.’ . It is this short comment on the nature of listening to, and what constitutes ambient music, that I want comment upon.

Morton’s account of music seemingly presents it as something that ‘tunes to’him, and quite aggressively vibrates through his ‘stomach, intestines and the pockets of gristle on his face.’ Now this seems a fair account for active music: that which is meant to be grasped actively, experienced in its full emotional intensity, and his held as present-at-hand. Yet Ambient music, or at least the way I shall address it (recognisisng ambient music holds many purposes and intentions); Ambient music should always maintain itself in the background, never fully heard or reflected on, rather simply subtly generating moods and atmospheres through the passive, non-present experience of the listener. This might seem to hold some issues for Object-Oriented Ontology’s (OOO) account of objects. (or not, I don’t really have any idea.)

For OOO, at least as established and promoted by Graham Harman and Morton, objects always retreat into the “dark, subterranean depths” of their object-hood, in which no set of relations or understanding can fully exhaust or explain the object. Similarly, using Heidegger’s tool analysis, most objects only appear in the direct awareness of the mind when they break, or are no longer functioning correctly. To elucidate both of these points, I shall use the classic, generic hammer example. First, my experience of a hammer as a tool for hitting nails or destroying things does not exhaust the hammer completely: its complete essence, what makes it that particular hammer, is seemingly not accessible to us. Secondly, the hammer only becomes a distinct form and being in our mind when it ceases to work (no longer ready-at-hand) and is now broken; we contemplate it, until it is fixed and returns to the shadows of simply being an assumed tool. (probably some poor expressions, misunderstandings of my behalf ad ¬†insufficient outline of the theory here, but I’ll stick with it.)

OOO seems to have a tricky time accounting for an ontology of Ambient music on this basis (or any object who’s purpose is to be present, but always in the background and never grasped). When ambient music ‘fails’, perhaps by being focused upon and being loud and distracting, is it simply just broken-ambient music? I’d think not; it simply ceases being any form of ambient music at all, rather becomes active listening music just like Morton’s My Bloody Valentine. Thus ambient music’s being and essence lies exactly in its inability to be expressed as ambient music when being actively perceived or held in the foreground. When it lurches forward into presence in the mind of the listener, it ceases being ambient music at all.

Perhaps I am completely misunderstanding OOO and its account of objects, particularly Harman’s use of Heidegger’s tool analysis, but as an interesting intellectual excercise and thought, it seems that objects which are defined, at least on a tool-level, by their role as being hidden yet active in the background of objects. Perhaps it is in no way distinct from the hammer; but the tool-ness of a hammer is not that it holds the function of a hammer at all, rather that it doing so specifically in the background of the mind? Hmmm….

[Obviously not all ambient, or perhaps even very little, wishes to simply be ignored on an active level and exist as a pure passive, atmospheric device; the point of this post was to simply raise a question about objects which are determined in their essences of existing always in the background, and never bought to presence in the mind. ]

All quotes from Hyperobjects found of page 30, and ‘dark subterranean’ is a phrase almost constantly used by Harman

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