by John Ellis
“Computers are bad phenomenologists.” Sarah Bakewell
Formalism was always doomed. Intriguing as a theory, its very existence disproves itself. As Wayne Booth commented in his introduction to Mikhail Bakhtin’s masterful Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, “Everyone who has pronounced thus boldly for a purified form has been confronted with the scandalous fact that all actual works of art are loaded with ideology.” I would add that the formulation and articulation of the theory itself exposes itself to the irrefutable truth that humans, and their creations, are always directed towards something. Oddly, this has been recently demonstrated by the new AI generated Nirvana song.
The song, titled “Drowned in the Sun,” is the brainchild of the organization Over the Bridge. Determined to help shed light on mental illness, especially within the music industry, Over the Bridge has produced Lost Tapes of the 27 Club. If the album title’s reference is lost on you, a staggering number of musicians have died at the age of 27, including Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison.
Lost Tapes of the 27 Club is a collection of songs written and produced by Magenta, a Google AI program. Fed files of each artist, Magenta composed songs that are purportedly in the specific stylings of the artists. Other than the vocals, which were provided by the lead singer of a Nirvana tribute band, the entirety of “Drowned in the Sun” is a creation of Magenta. I haven’t listened to any of the other songs included on the album, but the announcement of a “new Nirvana song” piqued my interest and I listened to “Drowned in the Sun.”
Unsure of what to expect, the experience left me flat, to the point that it’s valid to ask if I even experienced anything. The song is noticeable for its void. Sure, the AI program does a good job of mimicking Cobain’s stream of conscious lyrics while utilizing many of the late singer’s linguistic habits. And it’s true that the music’s composition is deep in the vein of Nirvana. But the song contains nothing (almost nothing – see footnote 3). Listening to it brought to my mind Heidegger’s “nothing nothings.”
Without getting into the thick Heideggerian weeds, “Drowned in the Sun” prompted my mind to delve into the German phenomenologist’s opaqueness because the song provides an inverse to his ontology.
The song is empty (mostly, to the point of verging on an artistic vacuum) because it is created by nothing, which technically doesn’t exist. The song lacks intentionality and qualia, both inseparable aspects of Being. No matter how developed and refined, AI cannot approximate, much less mimic, what being human means. And this circles back to the fatal flaw of formalism.
Formalism fails because humans cannot divorce ourselves from content – nothing nothings. As a child, I used to try to stop thinking. An impossible task – nothing nothings. Repeating myself, intentionality and qualia are inseparable from Being for humans. Trying not to think reveals that I am always directed towards something and that the phenomenon towards which my mind is directed has (necessarily) a subjective experience (qualia). I can’t turn that off while lying in my bed at night as a child, much less when creating art. Neither can you. Neither could Kurt Cobain, even in stream of consciousness lyrics (attempting Dada monologues demonstrates this). Magenta, on the other hand, and no matter how technologically sophisticated and stunning the AI program may be, cannot (necessarily) have intentionality and qualia. Its “art” is contentless, as “Drowned in the Sun” demonstrates.
Not only does the “new Nirvana song” demonstrate the fatal flaw of Formalism, but it also refutes any philosophy of mind that reduces humans to chemistry and biology (materialism). Listening to “Drowned in the Sun” caused me to marvel anew at what it means to be made in God’s image. But not because of the song’s content, but because of its lack of content.
 Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails (New York: Other Press, 2016), 325.
 Wayne C. Booth, “Introduction” Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), xvi.
 The presence of the human element in the vocals adds something, underscoring my argument.