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Posted by on Sep 3, 2009

Nietzsche, Jason Schwartzman, Mozart and Discord: Teaching philsophy/art online

I have been thinking of the seeming limitations of online learning formats for teaching critical thinking, especially critical thinking as it applied to philsophy or the appreciation of art (as a vehicle for philosophy.) I remember back to undergraduate years taking an upper level course on Nietzsche (feeling both despair and overwhelmed simultaneously.) I took this class with a friend and we read The Birth of Tragedy, which argues the distinction and interplay between the Apollonian and Dionysian nature of art. In a nod to post-modernity here, I will let Wikipedia explain the difference:

Apollo (Apollonian or Apollinian): the dream state or the wish to create order, principium individuationis (principle of individuation), plastic (visual) arts, beauty, clarity, stint to formed boundaries, individuality, celebration of appearance/illusion, human beings as artists (or media of art’s manifestation), self-control, perfection, exhaustion of possibilities, creation, the rational/logical and reasonable.

Dionysus (Dionysian): chaos, intoxication, celebration of nature, instinctual, intuitive, pertaining to the sensation of pleasure or pain, individuality dissolved and hence destroyed, wholeness of existence, orgiastic passion, dissolution of all boundaries, excess, human being(s) as the work and glorification of art, destruction, the irrational and non-logical.

The relationship between the Apollonian and Dionysian juxtapositions is apparent, Nietzsche claimed in The Birth of Tragedy, in the interplay of Greek Tragedy: the tragic hero of the drama, the main protagonist, struggles to make order (in the Apollonian sense) of his unjust and chaotic (Dionysian) Fate, though he dies unfulfilled in the end. For the audience of such a drama, Nietzsche claimed, this tragedy allows us to sense an underlying essence, what he called the “Primordial Unity”, which revives our Dionysian nature – which is almost indescribably pleasurable. Though he later dropped this concept saying it was “…burdened with all the errors of youth” (Attempt at Self Criticism, §2), the overarching theme was a sort of metaphysical solace or connection to the heart of creation, so to speak.

I remember our professor struggling to explain this concept verbally or textually so he turned to music. This seems logical in retrospect, but I had turned off mentally at this point. Looking back in retrospect, as I embark on a journey on the buildings blocks of education itself and its transportation to the online world (for better or for worse), I think this use of music to explain philosophical distinction was entirely appropriate. Only in art can we see these types of things, this play between order and chaos, the logical and illogical, creation and destruction. Media such as music naturally lend themselves to this discussion and they are easily appropriated online for instruction.

So, I imagine teaching Nietzche, philosophy and art is made possible by this visual style of presentation; in my opinion, it is readily transferable to online learning systems. Critical reflection of this art and philosophy is another matter altogether, but online education is especially useful as a vehicle or building the basis of the education, namely the understanding of the different systems used to convey meaning, in this case the concepts of the Apollonian and the Dionysian.

I would argue that in music as in art, we can begin to capture the duality of Apollonian and Dionysian quite distinctly. Nietzche believed that only the early Greek tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles captured simultaneously these competing forces at work. Perhaps they captured it perfectly, but I would argue that the struggle between the two is present in all art. It is the inherent conflict and the driver of emotive resonance. It makes us feel something for the art.

So I leave you with a few tracks that might illustrate this point.

1. Apollonian
Mozart-Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in A Major KV 581-MP3
This trtack is pure balance, pure repetition and purely appealing in this construct. It is light as air and perfect symmetry. It balances and never overextends. And besides, it was the pivotal music used in the final episode of M.A.S.H., so how bad could it be.

2. Dionysian
All Equal Now-Belong-MP3
Sure. this track has structure, but I suppose chaos has structure on some level. It is most definitely discord, tearing at the fabric of our comfort, complacency, it is the all-encompassing spirit that is burning and altogether illogical.

3. Apollonian and Dionysian
Fleeting Joys-I Want More Life-MP3
This one harkens a bit to All Equal Now, but notice the careful battle between the chaos and the structure. There is a current underneath all of it, even in the midst of that crescendo in the middle, of repetition and logic, order and reason. It is not always pleasant, but it embodies a tragedy.

I suppose this all an unnecessarily lengthy explanation of the capability of an online medium to serve as a vehicle for understanding complex philosophical and artistic concepts. It can be an appropriate vehicle for this type of exploration (and hopefully critical thinking) if constructed properly.

I feel bad for punishing you all with those tracks (aside from the Mozart, which is so perfectly balanced it feels entirely fragile.) So, I will give one more, decidedly more upbeat number.

Coconut Records-West Coast-MP3
(yes, that is Jason Schwartzman’s band)

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4 Comments

  1. Excellent analysis! Enjoyed and will pass on.

    • Glad to hear it. Jason Schwartzman might have been a bit of a stretch, but that was the extent of my philosophical ability. Where are you tuning in from? Always curious! Take care!

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