So you want to be a philosopher? (Frank Zappa’s version)

An excerpt from Frank Zappa’s autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book (Picardor, 1990), made the rounds on my Twitter timeline (in translation). It’s a section headed ‘Let’s All Be Composers!’:

Let’s All Be Composers!

A composer is a guy who goes around forcing his will on unsuspecting air molecules, often with the assistance of unsuspecting musicians.

Want to be a composer? You don’t even have to be able to write it down. The stuff that gets written down is only a recipe, remember?—like the stuff in Ronnie Williams’s MACHA book. If you can think design, you can execute design—it’s only a bunch of air molecules, who’s gonna check up on you?

JUST FOLLOW THESE SIMPLE INSTRUCTIONS:
[1]
Declare your intention to create a “composition.’
[2] Start a piece at some time.
[3] Cause something to happen over a period of time (it doesn’t matter what happens in your ‘time hole’—we have critics to tell us whether it’s any good or not, so we won’t worry about that part).
[4] End the piece at some time (or keep it going, telling the audience it is a ‘work in progress’).
[5] Get a part-time job so you can continue to do stuff like this.

(The Real Frank Zappa Book, p. 162)

Pleasantly outrageous words, these. I wonder if what Zappa says about composers here can be said mutatis mutandis about philosophers. A philosopher too is a guy (yes, it’s still unfortunately predominantly a guy, although it clearly does not have to be) who goes around forcing his will on unsuspecting molecules, often with the assistance of unsuspecting musicians—except that what a philosopher makes with these molecules is not a sonic event (music) but a discursive event, that is, a speech or a text, and the ‘musicians’ whose assistance a philosopher avails himself or herself of are those people whose job it is to do things by manipulating discursive-event constituting molecules, that is, people who live by talking and writing, that is, pretty much ‘ordinary people’.

As to the instructions for how to be a composer, if those are what it takes to be a composer, I don’t see much reason for denying that something comparable can be given as what it takes to be a philosopher. Thus, to be a philosopher, one has only to:

  1. Declare one’s intention to create a ‘work of philosophy’.
  2. Start a piece at some time—produce a first sentence.
  3. Cause something to happen over a period of time—here, philosophy, I guess, has to be a bit more restrictive than music; any sonic event can count for music, whereas a philosopher should either actually or at least try to cause something to make sense, as that is what it is for a discursive event to happen. (Note, however, that strings of nonsense, if appropriately framed, can count for philosophy just as stretches of silence, if appropriately framed, can count for music.)
  4. End the piece at some time, (or keep it going, telling the audience it is a ‘work in progress’).
  5. Get a part-time job so you can continue to do stuff like this.

Does one have to satisfy some conditions to be in a position to perform the speech act described in Step 1, namely that of declaring oneself to be an author of a philosophical work? No degree in philosophy should be necessary (just as no degree is necessary in order for one to be able to declare one’s intention to create a musical composition), but as a matter of fact, for better or worse, one’s qualifications do affect one’s chance of securing the necessary uptake, that is, one’s chance of having the declared intention acknowledged.

The last two steps are very important. Ending a work of philosophy is, I feel, just as difficult as beginning it (I wonder to what extent this can be said about a work of music). This evidently has much to do with the question of the end of a philosophical work—what philosophy is for, and whether it can ever attain that end. Given the rate at which academic papers (presumably satisfactorily ‘finished’ works) are produced and published, however, I would have to say that this difficulty is not currently very widely felt.

The idea behind the punchline that is Step 5 is that one shouldn’t really expect to be able to earn one’s living just by doing stuff like this. And that, I think, is as true of philosophy as of music. And in this regard philosophers are much more fortunate than composers. Not that it is easy to continue philosophising and earn one’s living by doing so; just that it is still easier than earning one’s living by continuing to compose music. No justice, and not much sense—or is it only fair and there is only too much sense?

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