[…] today, the middle classes are deeply moved by the works of the crazy, sick musician. Have they become aristocratic, are they like the nobles of 1814, struck with awe at the will of the genius? No […] they have something wrong with their ears now, they all have Beethoven’s ears. […] All their anatomical details, all their ossicles, labyrinths, drums, and trumpets, have taken on the diseased forms of Beethoven’s ears.
Adolf Loos, ‘Beethoven’s ears’ (1913)
If gender were a sound, what would it sound like? Adolf Loos’s characteristically strange and beautiful ruminations in 1913 on the meanings of Beethoven for early twentieth-century audiences – of a Beethoven that had, until recently, served as exemplar of male creative genius – raise this question (extremely obliquely) by reference to the body (or, rather, anatomy): the dislocated inventory of body parts and instruments (‘drums’ and ‘trumpets’ in the German also resonate with the medical terms for parts of the ear and, of course, for Beethoven’s ear prosthesis ), their disease, their lumpen-mass, points to a rather troubled and contested connectivity between the body and listening, between sound and the flesh that vibrates with it in order to ‘receive’ it.
And that dislocated flesh is the primary site after Loos’s fin de siècle for the thinking of gender. In this short text fragment, gender has become for Loos synonymous with biology, anatomy, medicalised matter available to the scrutiny of science. In this weird and disturbing juxtaposition of listening and anatomy we encounter an eloquent articulation of what many at that fin de siècle perceived as a radical degradation of listening. Indeed, with the intensification of the scientific scrutiny of the body and the medicalisation of discourses on gender and sexuality, listening degrades for the bourgeois male aesthete into a mere mechanistic vibrating of body parts; this is its implication in the degradation of gender into a genitally ordered binarism.
If gender were to make a sound at that fin de siècle, it would be as something vibrating into the body from without, as something somatising, as something seeming to come from within when clearly inflicted, imposed, enforced by the discipline of public culture and institutional science from without. For Loos, as for many growing up in the last years of the German nineteenth century, to obliquely raise the question as to how gender might sound is to raise a whole set of other pressing questions: How can matter breathe life? How is meaning ‘impregnated’ into flesh? How do men come to be as subjects within the body?
In the disease of the decaying ear parts, in the traumatic dissection of the body into lumps of matter, Loos articulates the troubling nature of bodies that listen under the industrial logic of production, of bodies soon, and certainly by the time this prose fragment was first published (1919), to be torn to pieces by the first of two devastating world wars: listening too has fallen under the sway of industry; it too has succumbed to the debilitating dehumanisation of labour.
In Loos’s bitter complaint there is an implicit reproach: listening, of all activities, should have remained aloof from such processes, since to listen at the beginning of the long nineteenth century (in what might be termed the Austro-German romantic economy) was to embrace an exemplary interiority, to deepen one’s humanity, to experience a fulsome abundance in the self. But this reproach is not confined to the end of that long century: indeed, listening seems to come under extraordinary pressure throughout the long nineteenth century to carry the burden of what Germans referred to as Bildung, the development or formation of the exemplary bourgeois self. And in this, listening is seen again and again to fail to live up to these expectations.