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Ah, the jewel beetle, our old friend!

An Australian Jewel Beetle trying to copulate with the bottom of a beer bottle, called a Stubbie by Australians.

Beetle on bottle

In case you don’t know, in Australia there is a species of beetle whose males enjoy fscking beer bottles. Turns out the brown glass reflects light in the same way the female beetle does. The bottle is like 3 times the size of the female, but it turns out males think big=hawt, so they go crazy over the bottles, so much so that they actually die in horrendous ways trying to fsck the glassy thing. This is SCIENCE!!!

It is very easy to compare jewel beetles to Real Dolls™, but i think an even better comparison is with music, in that we feel music as if it carried true feelings and not messages about feeling. And this mistake is bigger than it seems.

Music is highly culturally elaborate. So when we hear music we are doing complex processing. We are not hearing as if for the first time, as if we were babies. We interpret music inside our cultural context, and the standards we judge it by are complex systems.

Thus music is not pure.

But the sensation of hearing music is not the sensation of interpreting anything. It is not like a systemic analysis. Music feels like feeling!

When we consume other art media, we usually can perceive better that it is trying to convey a feeling, that it strives to make us feel in some way. And if it is good, we have “suspension of disbelief” and we feel what we are being asked to feel. But music usually feels much more direct. It does not feel like the sounds are trying to convey something, it feels like the sounds have something, that there is not a lot of difference between what we hear and what we feel.

Music feels as pure.

In that, the experience of music seems to be more truthful than the other arts.

According to contemporary language theory, this could only be true if we are biologically programmed to feel some sounds as emotion. (The other options all imply that there can be meaning without something that means, signified without significant, and that rapidly takes us to Platonism, which conflicts very much with all the evidence from psychology and so on and so forth.) In other words, music can only convey emotions directly if we have a musical instinct. That seems to be the case, as for example a rythmic beat will get us twidling or stomping in sync, without even realizing we are doing it. This might be related to all sorts of biological constraints.

Which brings us back to the jewel beetle: This insect is programmed to like the beer bottle. This programming works, most of the time, it takes the male beetle to the female. But it also traps him when there are bottles around. He dies trying to copulate with a glass object. So, in some sense, the jewel beetle programming makes it less free.

If we are programmed to feel music as emotion, it would also enable us and trap us at the same time. It allows us to have the greatness of music, but maybe it makes us feel emotions that are not real — although probably not less real than the world, but too much real, just as the beer bottle is, for the jewel beetle, too much woman. Maybe when we like music, we are all getting enraptured by Jessica Rabbit and forgetting to, you know, perpetuate the species. Maybe the enthusiasm i feel as i hear some good jazz is much more than reality actually allows.

The extreme consequence of this hypothesis being that we are actually trapped into culture, fooled by our own love of the sounds we make, creating ever more elaborate structures of meaning that do not make us any more happy. And that, in turn, would reverse the common sense that we are better than animals — it is more like we are animals trapped in a bad joke.

(Jewel beetles mount the beer bottle until the ants eat them alive, we burn fossil fuels until climate change eats us alive.)

Having the argument extrapolated so far, i end up (as we always do) coming back to Rousseau versus Hobbes, that is, whether culture makes us better or worse (and i don’t think i have anything to add to this).

I see the jewel beetle as a sort of parable.

For example, one of the things that made Rousseau certain that the Noble Savage was more good than Civilised Man was that he took the French Language as less musical than “primitive” languages. Being a successful musician, he knew music to be more truthful than philosophy. (Though strangely he is now remembered just as philosopher.)

For Rousseau there were two sides of language:

  • Dead Language: Semantics, Grammar, Structure, Rules, everything that is strict and predictable in Language, which he pinned as Written Language.
  • Living Language: Meaning, Purpose, Emotion, Improvisation, that which is creative and metaphoric in Language, which he pinned as Spoken Language.

Maybe he got it reversed? The living part of Language is actually the part we are unable to resist, that hits our guts and dodges our heads. We can’t take a step back and question this Living Language. We are programmed to take it for real.

Umberto Eco’s definition of Language is “that which allows you to lie”. Not that you have to lie, but that if you can only convey one idea, then your Language is not really working. You don’t have a Language, you only have data.

But data sometimes feels like truth.

In other words, we are always aware that Language can be a lie, and then when we get a kind of Language exempt from lies it seems like a better Language, like the best part of Language, like a Language we can trust. This is the usual interpretation. But another one would be that Language without lies would only be Language that doesn’t allow us to think — and in that way enslaves us.

We never even consider that we could maybe question this Living Language. In that, it feels better than the rules and constraints of normal, semantic Language. It feels like the rules and the system of Language are just a burden, that they drag down creativity. And it also feels like we can overcome the burden of rules and truly express ourselves, that we sometimes raise Language into Music.

If Music works for us as the beer bottle works for the jewel beetle, then this is exactly the trap. That we feel we can trust what we are hearing. That it feels real, when in fact it is just a different illusion, an illusion we are unable to deal with.

There is a third possibility, that is the Flusserian perspective, that says we can escape Language either downwards, towards this Music we are programmed to hear, or upwards, towards a heavenly Music that we could metaphorically call prayer. You come from the Silence of instinct, then into the words of Language, and then back into the Silence of transcendence.


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