In the tradition of rhetorical hyperbole, I want to make an assertion: in the West we are, I suggest, living after music.
That is to say, our engagement with
music, our consumptions of it and the ways in which we understand and
distribute it have 'come to constitute' (in the sense of adding up to
something bigger than the sum of its parts) a very radical shift in
musical ontology. At one time, (and especially since the
Enlightenment) there was a clear (material) relationship between both
individual and collective authorships and agency: authors (whether
numerous, collective, or working 'alone') could count on something
like a public marking, a naming of their work (or labour), and where
such namings tended to be more fluid (as in the case, for example, of
traditional musics) there was, nonetheless, always the possibility of
that naming, always, in tune writing, in collecting, in performing, a
kind of staged agency that made itself felt as, in some sense, having
Music since the Enlightenment, then,
might be said to have channelled something like a materialised
subjectivity, an unfolding of praxis in time, a performance of
passing, of changing or marking time. And that changing or marking is
where the sense of agency was always grounded, always held in place
according to an elaborated, but essentially Cartesian, fantasy. To
mark or change, so that fantasy goes, was always to guarantee some
kind of ill-fit of subject to object; from that mismatch comes the
very possibility of the subject, his agency, his way in and out of
the world. In short, that subject had always o constitute an excess
to a mere flow of semiosis.
And so the stories always seemed to
have gone; but when the key elements of that fantasy come under
critical scrutiny (from biology, deconstruction, radical
collectivisms, feminisms, cyber-romanticisms and other forms of
acted-out political hostility to the enthroning of the subject), then
the agency that always seemed to drive it, as that mismatch, that
sticking out of and marking of time, turns into a kind of playful
automatism. It would seem that there are no longer any singular
points of agency from which political and social action can flow. No
longer are we able, without irony or without seeming to cast
ourselves in the role of court jester, to hold onto that myth of
And in the ways we listen, that shift
is already very clearly articulated. Indeed, we are at a place now
where what Anahid Kassabian has termed 'ubiquitous
listening' has come to stand for this new symptom:
As we enter the second century of the disarticulation of performance and listening, new relations are developing that demand new models and approaches. It is easy to see that the industry is changing. It is perhaps harder to hear the changes in music, in listening and in subjectivity that all of this portends. Yet musics, technologies, science fiction, social relations and subjectivities have been fermenting these changes throughout the twentieth century. At least in the metropolis, listening to music is ubiquitous, and it forms the network backbone of a new, ubiquitous subjectivity.
Kassabian is making both a startling
and yet demonstrable assertion, that the modes of listening and
consumption that have dominated our imagination of music (or, rather,
our imagination of those modes of listening) are under radical
(perhaps even malign?) erosion, and that erosion is both a symptom
and trace of a way of being that is in some sense after the
subject. It is particularly in the changes that mark our consumption
of music that we are most clearly able to see these changes, and this
is a quality that has been ascribed to music before, most notably by
Attali. There is here, though, something particularly useful in
the claims Kassabian is making – her point is not that music as a
set of textual traces is necessarily to be privileged over material
practices but that the ways in which we encounter texts, especially
musical texts such as recordings, performances (even scores) helps us
understand some of the ways in which our culture marks and maintains
the line between text and context. In other words, although this is
not the substantial point of this article for Kassabian, there is in
the analysis of the distribution and consumption of musical texts the
potential for something much more far-reaching than that analysis
might at first seem to offer: it is not simply about mapping where
goods flow to or what hey say about class, race, gender and so on.
All that is fine, but it does not capture the nub of the issue at
I would say that, beyond the
demographic and harder sociological analyses of musical consumption,
it ought to be possible, as Kassabian also seems to be saying, to get
to something of the texture of how we imagine ourselves in the world:
if these forms of 'listening' (if that is the right term) mark
something profound or even momentous in our imagination of
subjectivity, then I think here are a few questions we would need to
ask before proceeding to a characterisation of the new situation.
The question as to the ethics of this situation is, of course, particularly fraught: what are we to make of a situation in which the agency of musical labour becomes ever more routinely curtailed or even obliterated altogether? What sense is there to make here of the ever more distended and complex copyright battles, of the intensification of litigation in he light of he putative decline of such agencies? How, in that light, are we to understand the overwhelming popular distrust of corporate structures alongside a booming music industry? What, in short, are the prospects for a level of radical engagement if agency is now always already distributed?
These politico-ethical questions (forgive this clumsy hyphenated hybrid), centre around the hegemonic justaposition of political conscious action and, to adapt and elaborate Kassabian's term, ubiquitous unconscious inaction. This has always been the hegemonic logic of political theory, is sees to me: to link citizenship, democracy, social and civic participation to some notion of individual and collective agency which, to shorthand it rather crudely, is always to be linked to a certain notion of action, and therefore to a certain model of the subject, a Cartesian subject (meant here of course in the broadest of terms). When agency fails, it is because citizens, agents, slump (or are made to slump) into a kind of generalised apathy, a ubiquitous sloping off into automatism, into unconscious half-dead state of blind and dull obedience.
This structure looks something like this where the symbol || represents a fundamental impossibility in the sequence.
← (exception) || (ubiquity) →
action = agency = citizenship || slave = automatism = inaction
Here, then, citizenship is that which
guards against slavery.Or, to put it in more abstract and
exception ≠ ubiquity
and, therefore, ubiquitous listening must inevitably constitute a kind of slavery.
But what if, contrary to this broadly Cartesian logic of exception and sovereignty we are all so familiar with in Carl Schmidt, we were able to rethink agency and ubiquity as part a continuous (or connected) sphere of action? What if, in short, ubiquity were a kind of distributed agency?
This prospect is one which I have only just started to think though, but it does seem to me that there are a number of ways in which the notion of musical agency might help here. We would inevitably begin with a thorough-going critique of the 'simple' notion of authorship: of course this has been done to death (so to speak) and I o not propose to waste time here revisiting that question so systematically rehearsed by he likes of Bathes, Foucault and Chartier. Suffice it to say, beyond that delicious moment in the 60s, that the patrilineality of the authorial economy is that which is also its undoing. I think the more interesting set of issue to rehearse here are those that centre around the pairing conscious/unconscious. If ubiquity can be said to work as a kind of unconscious (and I am not accepting that proposition as it stands, but just test-driving it here) then to bring ubiquity into the orbit of agency would be to question profoundly the status of the unconscious as in some sense anti-conscious. In other words, both the conscious and the unconscious as such could be seen to represent modalities of consciousness that are part of a continuum. One doesn't simply flip from one state to the other but is in constant engagement with both states (if, indeed here are only two).
In other words, thinking ubiquity and agency together means recasting the very terms on which we might be said to be subjects. The political unconscious, then is not an oxymoron, as Žižek and other Freudian leftists before him have shown quite elegantly, but an essential element of he ideological life of action. We similarly think this in terms of ubiquity as, in some sense, a crucial element of exception, as in some sense continuous with action, with citizenship with sovereignty.
In this sense, the ethics of ubiquitous listening begin to look very promising indeed: background and foreground listening can come to stand for moments in the polotical workshop of consciousness.