In Althusser's theory of reading and the reader, then (see here for more), the reader, when reading 'symptomatically' is committed to a kind of political practice that uncovers a discontinuity of forms, a terrain.
If this is the case, and Rooney seems to me to have it absolutely right, then the nature if that political moment, its focus, its Affect and effect, is somewhat open-ended. Is there a way of recuperating from this theory of reading a political practice that is useful here? Can there be something Marxist at the core of this practice or is Althusser's theory about abandoning Marx to a certain extent? Rooney is not clear on this point at all.
In Althusser's reading of Marx, of course, here is a radical shift from a reading as politics to a reading as political - a distinction that must be held clearly in view:
reading as politics is a practice that approaches texts, symbols, portents, signs, with a certain foreclosure in mind: i is a way of reading that is directed, channelled along a pathway and the text stands or falls according to the extent to which it can measure up to that modality of reading
political reading, on the other hand, seeks to hold a text in a certain state of incertitude, of ambiguity such that it can be turned, remade, at any point in order to materialise itself, in order to place itself into the world
The second mode is thus much more strategic, and I like to think of it (at its most radical) as a kind of Trotskyite (rather than Stalinist) approach. Reading could function here as a kind of perpetual revolution.
The reception of Althusser's theory of ideology, as Ellen Rooney has pointed out, has been somewhat fetishised around the science/ideology dichotomy. Her view, and one I share, is that there is in Althusser also a very well developed and useful theory of reading and the reader.
It goes something like this (and I am paraphrasing brutally here):
Reading is never innocent or 'of first sight'. It engages 'blindness' and 'insight' in a dance of commitments and disavowals and is always unstable
It is constituted in a certain crisis of form, marked by its tendency to construct terrains, cartographies
It should be 'symptomatic' - where it actively encourages the uncovering of the gaps between forms, readers and reading communities (this is a useful way to re-read Althusser's Reading Capital)
It occupies the gap between 'the Great Book that was, in its very being, the Wold, and the discourse of the knowledge of the world; between he essence of things and its reading, ... [we find that] a new conception of discourse at last becomes possible'
Hence, what is at stake in the relationship between science and ideology, as laid out in Althusser's reading of Capital, is reading itself, for each ideology has its science and reading is what makes that particularity legible.
My engagement of reading before, is thus based on this explicits Althusserian moment which has been suppressed in favour of a rather crude reduction of his theory of ideology to a theory of positioning. Positioning,is not really the point here - it is the refusal of stable position in READING ha is crucial.
In 1914, three years after composer Gustav Mahler’s death, Kafka began work on a short prose fragment, which he completed some time in 1917 and to which Kafka’s editor Max Brod later gave the title ‘Auf der Galerie’.
I want to begin by addressin the fragmen's writerly-performative quality. The structuring of the text around two incompatible narratives works as a critical play on the epistemological groundedness of authoriality and subject positioning.
This critical pleasuring in the ambiguation of the authorial/narrating voice also engages at least two incompatible ‘types’ of masculinity: the ‘active’ (but, perhaps, deluded) masculine hero and the passive (but, perhaps, less deluded, less aggrandised) weeping observer.
The two paragraphs effect this duality through both narrative and indexical means: for Roland Barthes, the structure of narrative is usefully articulated through what he terms nuclei or ‘kernels’, events in the narrative that are crucial for that narrative’s cohesion – events that cannot be dispensed with if the narrative (or diegesis) is transposed from one medium to another; the index is a medium-specific operator that fleshes out the bones of the chain of nuclei through an accumulative action, grounding the diegesis in the medium of its telling.
What is significant here is the way in which Kafka attempts to subvert this functional duality (a duality articualted by Lukács as the difference between ‘Beschreiben’ and ‘Erzählen’, finding a useful complement in Jakobson’s ‘metaphor/metonomy’ duality ) by fundamentally integrating the telling of the diegesis into its writing: Kafka heaps writerly (medium-specific) indices onto the telling such that it is inseparable from its writing, inseparable from its qualitative grounding as a specific mediality.
This classically ‘modernist’ gesture – the intense medialisation of an apparently universally translatable ‘message’ – is also readable as a set of quite specific meditations on cultural agency, gender and the location of what David Schwarz has termed the ‘listening subject’.
The first paragraph plays out a hyperbolically ‘Freudian’ narrative of masculine agency. The father proxy in the ring must at all costs be vanquished by the young visitor in order to save (win) the suffering sexualised (consumptive) equestrienne from her brutalisation at the hands of the monstrous father.
The equestrienne stands as the cipher of Verkehr between the two men, a ‘transaction’ that helps mark the patrilineal and Oedipal ground of masculinity and the woman’s place in that transaction as Waaren (literally ‘goods’ or ware). The visitor is thus able to activate his masculinity by penetrating the membrane of the circle along a teleological vector; the trauma of this violent action is marked by a sudden (putative) silencing of the music with a shout of ‘Stop!’.
This shout, ‘durch die Fanfaren des immer sich anpassenden Orchesters’ (‘over the fanfares of the incessant accompanying orchestra’), rises above the degraded Alltagsmusik of the circus in order to figure the visitor as the bearer of a reproachful, ‘higher’, cultural counter-capital. Moreover, not only does the visitor traverse the boundary of the ring, but he ‘plunges’ into it: ‘stürzte in die Manege’ (literally ‘would tumble, fall or plunge’, continuing the conditional mood). This precipitous drop into the ring adds to the sense of trauma at the visitor’s incursion, which, within the Freudian logic that this paragraph sets up, is a hyperbolic (pathological) overstatement of the act of penetration.
The epistemological trajectory of this paragraph is underscored by the deployment of a range of figurations of sonic materials which draw on contemporaneous imaginations of the music/noise dualism. In this first paragraph, sound(/music) engages a complex array of tropes. On the one hand, it helps characterise the paragraph as ‘monstrous’ through the Orchestra’s cacophonous Brausen: incessant, it churns out stock fanfares, and the other noises generated my inhuman mechanisms – ventilators, steam hammers – are indexical expansions of the core image of a merely utilitarian (commercial) music.
On the other hand, sound functions as the sonic channelling of two opposing engagements of power – (i) the patriarchal monstrous brutilisation of the equestrienne marked by the Brausen and (ii) the traumatic ‘Stop!’ of the visitor – both marked by a character-giving utilisation of sound, accompaniment versus voice. In this duality of inside/outside, the first engagement of power is environmental in character, part of a circular, circumscribed ‘inner’ territory of degradation that locates the father proxy at that centre, wielding a range of masculine cultural resources that are simultaneously canonic (masculine strength, the driver of the action) and dissident (cruel, brutal).
Sound marks this territory by ‘accompanying’ the action, figuring it as a degrading sadomasochistic spectacle that can be ordered for its audience by the addition of sonic markers, like a perverse Hollywood narrative, accompanied by a ‘hidden’ post-Wagnerian orchestra.
The second engagement of power is a highly charged singular act of ‘sounding out’, carried on the voice, a mark of exemplary masculine subjectivity, but also the duplicitous bearer of a masculinity in crisis: vocal production can be seen at the fin de siècle as a supplement to the canonical mediacy (mediality) of writing where, as Sarah Webster Goodwin amongst others has shown, ‘voicing out’ draws attention to the sonorous body and is therefore dangerous in that it is grounded in the delicate body-physical, that privileged (and demeaned) site of the feminine in the nineteenth-century misogynistic imagination.
In Kafka this stands for an atavistic but ironic ‘recuperation’ of a model of masculinity lost in the great administration of the law, lost to the figure of the impresario mediator – voice as a last hope in the face of the brutalising anonymity of public masculinity, commercial culture, mechanised production.
But all this is not so.
Or so the next paragraph would seem to suggest. The sudden eruption of the indicative mood is traumatic: as Boa puts it, ‘the thudding syllables come as hammer blows to destroy the speculative edifice of a possible story’ and it is no accident that Boa should reach for the metaphor of hammer blows, resonating the ironic hyperbolic ‘Zarathustran’ masculinity of the first paragraph and thereby underlining the epistemological incongruity of the second with it.
This paragraph, by positing a second epistemologically dissonant version of events alongside the first, forces the narratee to rethink the reliability of the first paragraph fundamentally. It is thereby tempting to think of the story as presenting two realities, one false and one true, the first paragraph clearly a fiction, the second marked as ‘real’ by the indicative mood.
Yet this reading assumes a simple mapping of verbal mood to narrator reliability which, I suggest, is difficult to sustain in the light of Kafka’s use of language here: whereas the ‘truth’ of the first is questioned by the conditional mood and by the overblown heroism of the young visitor with its hyperbolic Freudian sexual circus, the second is called into question by the dream-like tone of the language: it is unfolded, almost as if in slow motion, in a long chain of clauses all of which relate back to a single grammatical subject - the adoring grandfather figure [‘der Direktor… vorsorglich sie auf den Apfelschimmel hebt… sich nicht entschliessen kann, das Peitschenzeichen zu geben… neben dem Pferd mit offenem Munde einherläuft…’].
This relay of clauses fixed to a single subject is a masterful writerly play on the German structuring of the clause around verb positioning, the closure of each link in the chain marked by the finite verb, heaping narrative action upon action to draw out the narrative line, and the narratee with it, towards an expected closure; but that closure is attenuated; the equestrienne takes her bow and, in the strange dislocated coda marked out from the rest of the paragraph by a hyphen, a characteristically dissident use of punctuation, the visitor to the gallery weeps ‘without knowing it’.
The beautiful strangeness of this ending, its pointed and studied ambiguity, brings one to rethink the simplicity of the unreality/reality dualism, and to call that binarism into question, to leave the boundary between the two porous.
As in the first paragraph, the content of the second is underscored by references to sonic materials, and, like in the first paragraph, those materials help flesh out a pointed juxtaposition of active and passive masculinities by recognising two kinds of sound – voice and accompaniment: however, it is the ringmaster that has ownership of the voice here, crying ‘English words of warning’, ‘exhorting’ the groom to be careful, and, like the visitor with his ‘Stop!’ of the first paragraph, he implores the orchestra to be silent.
The silencing of the orchestra here underscores the epistemological dissonance between the two paragraphs: in the first, the voice is owned by the visitor and engaged as a reproach to the banality and cruelty of the circus; in the second, the voice is commanded by the ringmaster, and is engaged to structure the audience’s (narratee’s) attention drawing it to his ‘kleine Enkelin’, the skilful equestrienne, by the silencing of the orchestra.
In the strange coda, moreover, the visitor sinks ‘in the final march as if into a heavy dream’, activating that commonplace trope of music as a place where subjectivity is lost, a place of dangerous and debilitating pleasures. The music operates here like a ‘sonorous envelope’.
There is a tendency in the post-Enlightenment Western European imagination of music to perceive it as a way of ‘transforming’ or temporarily suspending everyday modes of being, of moving beyond the mundane into a higher (or at least different) state of consciousness.
In Kafka, this tendency takes on an ironic or critical edge: the great post-Schopenhauerian articulation of music as a kind of narcotic is here blocked by the crossing and cancelling out of exit trajectories. One way leads to the ludicrous over-articulation of masculinity in the plunging thrusting ‘Stop!’ of the first paragraph by the (assumed) silencing of the music; the second leads to a debilitated, foreclosed masculinity, in which the music envelops the visitor and returns him to a womb-like state in which ‘crying without knowing it’ marks his infantilisation, an abject returning to the semiotic.
In his repeated attempts to circumscribe and take ownership of this terrain, the Überhörer has not given up the ghost: in the last 30 years or so, tremendously acrimonious wars have been fought in the States over the terms and limits of the musicological terrain. In a rather hostile reader’s review of an early version of some of my work, for example, I was held to task for what he or she (the reader chose, understandably, not to reveal their name) took to be the overemphasis of the book on ‘theory’: ‘I would suggest that he streamline the theoretical sections of each chapter so that the author gets to the documents and the points more quickly’.
Of course, the point is an easy one to make and, to be fair to that reader, it was made about materials rather different to what I am writing oday. Nonetheless, the point could be said to be symptomatic of a commonly-held view from within musical scholarship that, in order to say anything interesting about music at all, one must ensure a certain downgrading of ‘theory’ and discipline it to the needs of the musical discourse.
The blasphemy I enact today is aimed precisely at this assumption for, in the end, the determination of the appropriate ‘balance’ of theory and musical discourse is simply a matter of how one draws the line between the two. I would go further even than this to say that one of the demands I want to make today is that we radically loosen the boundary between so-called ‘theory’ and musicology in order to open up the discourse to the kinds of dialoguing that, for some 15 years now, have been the bread and butter of other disciplines.
There have been, of course, a number of high-impact theory-cognisant publications in music, most notably, on the nineteenth century, by Rose Subotnik, Carolyn Abbate and Lawrence Kramer. And these have made an extraordinarily important contribution to the enriching and expansion of the field.
And yet, the (compounded) blasphemy that I want to commit here is to question whether, in the work of these scholars and others like them, the commitment to a certain (and for many, admittedly, already too lax) disciplinarity has not held them back from really testing what it is the discipline is all about, how it is constituted and what its limits might be, and the extent to which we should remain beholden to those limits. I don’t know the answer to this question, but isn’t it an interesting one?
And what if, contrary to the assertion made above, that questioning were to lead us into places we never imagined we could go? In another response to something I rote a lon time ago, another anonymous reader, less hostile, but equally perplexed by the work, suggested that the discipline just isn’t up to it: ‘Frankly’, he or she says, ‘I cannot see the point of publishing work that will be inscrutable to the majority of graduate students and professional scholars in its areas.’ If that reader is right, then we are indeed in a sorry state of affairs: is musicology so delicate that ‘difficult’ theoretically-charged writing has no place in our discipline?
Are we still so caught up in the kinds of disciplinarity that Adler so carefully laid out for us over 100 years ago as to foreclose the really tough ontological questions about our scholarships? I would like to suggest, rather, that the terms of this disciplinary fragility, the putative ‘limits’ to what its exponents are capable of, are by no means determinable in advance of their testing.
I teach and work in an music department in which all undergraduates are introduced to the core concepts of Althusser and Gramsci in their first year and in which Kramer, Adorno and Žižek are commonly set texts across the undergraduate curriculum; our graduate students deal as a matter of course with Lacan, Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, Bourdieu, Bhabha and poststructuralism, to name but a few, and are no less musicians and musicologists for it.
The assumption that the one excludes the other is the problem here, it seems to me, and it is an assumption I refuse to accept. In short, there is, then, something strikingly contemporary in the predicament of those nineteenth-century hegemonic thinkers on music who sought to police the boundaries of the terrain of musicology: perhaps, blasphemy of blasphemies, musicology really has only just begun to find ways of testing itself.
I've always been fascinated by the meaning of listening, or rather the ways in which we take listenin to stand in for other things. The hysteric, the neurotic, the psychotic - in a sense these might be understood different kinds of listeners, different kinds of fans, different kinds of social pathology. In short, these three listeners constitute different economies of desire.
One of the core tropes that attends my thinking over and over again is that of listening, in both its metaphorical and literal meanings: listening as eavesdropping, as close scrutiny, as allowing space for someone to speak, as lending a sympathetic ear, as hostile aural scrutiny, as covert listening.
What strikes me in the juxtaposition of men and listening is that, in confronting the genderedness of their intellectual tradition, many men are particularly poorly placed to listen since their interests, as far as they are concerned, are best served by making as much discursive noise a possible. It is something of a cliché to note that men are poor listeners, and even more of a cliché to note that men like to talk about themselves.
Yet, at the level of the operation and wielding of public discourse, this is a particularly apposite characterisation of those public nineteenth-century masculinities that might be said in some to have workshopped the modern personality, cliché or no cliché. In this sense, listening is for those men something of a critical problem since, in the closely policed gender matrix of the nineteenth century, listening is densely gendered: masculine authority is invariably aligned with active engagement of the public space, and not with the kinds of interiority and melancholy distraction associated with new fixated listening that was all the rage in concert halls by the mid nineteenth century.
And yet, men did listen, attending public concerts in their droves, publicly displaying their pleasure at the music, never seeking in any way to hide that moment of consumption. So how does this square with the demands of public masculinity? How are we to read this alongside the clear anxiety that the public display of consumption occasioned?
It is my assertion that the answer lies not in some inadequacy of the materials or in a simple ‘misreading’, but in the very limits of the discourse itself: the way we theorise the relationship between what might be termed a theology of music and its socio-cultural practice is what causes this problem.
There are specificities in each of these discursive instances that will, by their vary nature, find different political articulations: part of the function of masculine culture in the long Austro-German nineteenth century is to maintain a radical distinction between theologies of music and the instance of music’s consumption.
It is for precisely this reason that I keep tryin to write from the subject position of a listener, as one who attempts to scrutinise closely and critically the ways in which men utilise discourse, and to focus carefully on both the internal logic of public claims made by men and the ways in which the ‘masculine’ language of public discourse nonetheless undermines that logic despite (perhaps because of) itself.
Listening to the way learned men spoke and continue to speak about themselves, their views on music and gender and their anxieties about their own worth, I am struck by the continuity between their various discursive positions and the intensity of their invective against threats to their world order, and it is in the intensity of the language, the excess of some of the ways in which men project themselves into public discourse, that one can open up inconsistencies in that public language, inconsistencies which often point to inner anxieties and equivocations about the exercising of their hegemony.
In so ‘listening’, one is often forced to take up a precarious subject position that is difficult to maintain without intense and continuous vigilance: to try to listen closely to these men and their various rages against the feminine, is to be in constant danger of collapsing into complicity with them, of succumbing yet again to a kind of careless communitarian misogyny by default.
Yet there is also a danger, as great in my view as the one I have just outlined, that one try to overcompensate for that first danger and thereby remain silent about the institutional misogyny of one’s intellectual and disciplinary forbears, remain quietly acquiescent to their assumptions and allow their testament to woman’s putative inferiority to be spoken unchallenged, its effects reaching quietly and insidiously into the present. Its names are many, but objectivity may well be one of them.
I return again to the beginning, to that strange fragment I encountered about 15 years ago penned by that strange and troubled man Adolf Loos in 1913.
I am speaking of the short fragment 'Beethoven's ears' Its theme, the decline of listening into a kind of undead consuming, figured through the transformation of the concert-going public’s ears into ‘Beethoven’s ears’, works as an avant-garde reproach tinged nonetheless with nostalgia: ‘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’.
The disease of the ears here could be understood as invoking not simply the classically modernist exasperation at the deadly atavism of audiences, that same issue dealt with ad nauseam by Arnold Schoenberg, Adorno and many others, but, and this is crucial here it seems to me, an attempt to transform that atavism into something akin to a sickness: in short, this is an attempt to somatise the generalising claims of conservative audiences and to make them, through reference to the body, highly particular, to render them local, and to undermine any claims they might make to speak for more than their own rather limited class interest.
This is a strategy that has an almost limitless application, but the body is specifically employed here (synecdochically presented here by the ear, the ossicles, the diseased inner canals) to afront the generality of middle-brow bourgeois taste with a discursive shock: the cultural effectiveness of middle-brow bourgeois culture is curtailed by its limitation to the tiny realm of flesh-for-flesh; as Scarry puts it, ‘those without power’ will have a ‘body made emphatic by being continually altered through various forms of creation, instruction and wounding’ (my emphasis), and this body marks a territory that contracts one’s sphere of existence, ‘down to the small circle of one’s immediate presence’.
Scarry’s extraordinary observation has run quietly but deliberately throughput much of what I think about ans much of what I write, and her observations on the power relations at work in the West’s disciplining of the body have proven extraordinarily useful. In short, this has been the way of hegemonic man: to shore up his precariously constituted power by carefully maintaining his monopoly on the public discourse, by limiting the feminine and other counter-hegemonic voices to the realm of the local, the body, and by seeking out and vilifying those mechanisms that seemed to undermine the effective operation of the contemporary gender machine.
For Loos, the body, flesh, especially that most delicate of orifices, the ear, operates as a metaphor for a masculinity curtailed. Whereas the complaint of a Wackenroder or a Hoffmann might have been that listening intervenes too overtly in the flow of discourse, for Loos, the loss of what we might term ‘virile hearing’, its ossification, marks rather a certain ambivalence to the relationship between bodies, virile venturism and the modern.
Although, one might argue, Loos’s particularly Viennese modality of modernism is one marked with a contempt for the crassly virile, it is nonetheless a virility that for him holds on to the possibility of some kind of radical masculine ideal of the effective, active: this is the duplicity of the Loosian moment which, on the one hand, is radical in its critique of the simple Hausherr and his attendant bourgeois Gemütlichkeit and yet which, on the other, nonetheless makes recourse to the kinds of conventional rhetorical strategies we encounter all over Wstern European witing on music – Loos explicitly reengages (whilst also problematising) the trope of somatisation in order to attenuate the masculinity that attends the male urban concert-goer.
That creature’s masculinity is a sickly and deviant one, touched by an unhealthy and deadly fixation on the mouldering ears of a dead hero, not his.
There is a striking echo of this sentiment sounded by the reluctant radical Heinrich Schenker in 1894 in his beguiling short essay ‘Das Hören in der Musik’ [‘Listening in music’]:
The greatest triumph, the proudest delight, in listening to a work of art is in raising up the ear to the same level [‘Macht’] as the eye. One need think only of a landscape, a broad and beautiful one, framed by mountains and hills, full of fields and meadows and woods and streams, full of all this, which nature creates in all its beauty and variety. And then one might climb to a place, where one can take in the whole landscape in a single look… In the same way, there is, somewhere above the artwork, a place from which one can see and hear from the spirit of the artwork all its pathways and goals, its dawdling and raging, all its variety and limitation, all its dimensions and relations.
Schenker’s figuration of the most ideal modes of listening as a studiedly quasi-Nietzschean pleasuring in the lofty isolation of what we might term the Überhörer, to bastardise Nietzsche’s other formation, is fuelled by a rage against the particular, the local, the piecemeal. In this rage against the metonym and the synecdoche, Schenker, like Loos, both engages the discourse of somatisation and refutes it: the Überhörer must enact a modality of being that is both a heightened physicality (listening that ‘sees’) and yet call for its annulment (this heightening, of course, is an unattainable ideal in the mundane body, so this Schenkerian ‘body’ must be somehow beyond the limitations of mundane fleshiness).
Whereas for Loos the listening audience is attached to a dead man’s ears, the mundane listener in Schenker is doomed to stay in the valley, weighed down by particularity, imprisoned in a body that will never fly.
Nietzsche’s take on the burden of listening is one which has clearly impacted on both of these figurative plays around the topoi and tropes of listening. In Also Sprach Zarathustra (first published in 1892), Nietzsche has the prophet Zarathustra recount a disturbing episode where he meets a group of ‘inverse cripples’ on a bridge over a fast-flowing river; the most terrifying of these creatures is the genius with a giant ear:
And when I came out of my solitude and crossed this bridge for the first time, I could not believe my eyes and looked and looked again, and said eventually: ‘That is an ear! An ear as large as a man!’ I looked closer and truly, under the ear something moved, something pitifully small, meagre [‘ärmlich’] and gangly [‘schmächtig’]. And truly, the monstrous ear sat on a small thin stem – but the stem was a man! With a magnifying glass to one’s eye, one could make out an envious little face and also, that a puffed up little soul was dangling from the stem. The people informed me, however, that the large ear was not just a man, but a great man, a genius. But I never believe the people when they speak of great men – I held on to my belief that here was an inverse cripple, who has too little of everything and too much of one thing.
The inverse cripple, then, and specifically the giant-eared genius, would seem on first reading to represent quite simply the burden of specialisation, a burden Karl Marx had made much of in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844).
It is, however, the strange and hateful envy displayed by the giant-eared genius here that opens up another reading, one more attune, perhaps, to the medico-political context in which this text was written: that ‘envious little face’, peeping out from underneath the giant ear works under the logic of what we might call, paraphrasing Slavoj Žižek, an obscene politics, in which, as we have seen, body and epistemology overlap, where the physical predicament is always already political, ideologically encoded onto the bearer of the animated cadaver, always inscribed (and continually re-inscribing) onto the fleshly limits of the self.
The estrangement or specialisation that would have been recognisable to Marx in this figure is an intensification or somatisation of the material domain where the body is made to stand in for the political territory, and that ‘envy’ draws our attention to their being something out of balance that is legible, availbe to scrutiny both for its victim (hence the envy) and its critics.
The obscenity of this micro-political encounter is grounded precisely in its consensual disdain for the imbalance, a primary mechanism, as we have seen, for the operation of hegemony: Zarathustra dismisses it an yet its victim is also fully cognisant of his own uncanny out-of-placeness.
Between Nietzsche, Schenker and Loos, then, there is a covert agreement on the nature of bourgeois listening: as a debased and amateurish practice that marks the man who engages it as fey, effete, distracted, impotent, listening is to be disciplined by a rhetorical return to the figure of an ideal, perhaps even Arcadian, body – the airy and light Überhörer, the clean body with new ears a long way from those fetid undead ears of Beethoven, a lofty refutation of the lob-sided ear-burdened genius from the mountain tops.
Attending all three of the negative figures of listening (the undead Beethoven-ears, the dilettante valley-dwelling listener, the over-specialised ear-burdened ‘genius’), there is a devastating haunting: the uncanny spectre that stalks the tradition is an ideal so abstract and yet simultaneously so fleshly as to confound the logic of the soma/psyche division. It is the very impossibility of man himself that haunts these figurations: he is open to contagion, fleshy, limited to the sphere of his body, yet yearning for a way of being in which that body might forever expand, spread itself over its terrain.
This third blasphemy is linked in no small part to the intense humility that comes with encountering something reified, somthing so oversued that its prodigious utility drips with heavy import and yet at the same time it has become thinned to the point of disappearing from view: I am speaking here of the so-called bourgeois self, a strange phenomenon. 'He' is the victim of his own false consciousness, a consciousness he seeks to clothe in the systematic mystifications implicit to the category of the aesthetic, as if there were some non-material alternative to the objective processes of production.
Yet it is in the notion of the 'absolute truth' of closure - of the ontic nature of music, for example - that the bourgeois citizen of the organic Prussian state expresses a Sehnsucht for consumption, a mystified and spiritualised consumption, magically transformed into the gratifying, alienated pleasures of the alienated ego.
Yet how could it be that the austere complexities of German Idealism in particular, with its self-denying, disciplined penchant for the systematic exposition of its materials, might articulate an uncritical acquiescence to consuming, Handlung? The answer lies in the metaphysical nature of the arguments which reduce socially-mediated constructs such as closure, autonomy, the ideal, to articles of faith.
Since Idealism is motivated by an anxiety - an anxiety which has an ethical starting point, one which yearns to be able to undermine the relentless savagery of commoditised culture - it uncritically accepts the illusion of 'otherness' as an escape from that savagery. Despite the nobility of the attempt to find that critical 'other' against which to measure the brutalising operation of rationalisation, the construction the aesthetic - a systematised disciplining of consumption, a mystified, distanced consumption that dislocates the self from bodily gratification - serves merely to create the illusion of an activity that is removed from the forces and relations of production.
The danger in such an illusion is that it makes gestures towards a critique of the commodity, and yet, in so doing, it provides it with a radicalised metaphysical function, 'raising it up' from the relations of production to the level of an unquestionable absolute.
It would seem, then, that Michael Rosen's critique of Hegel as some kind of necromancer, casting his spell over much subsequent thought holds some water. Yet the acquiescence to the capitalist project, grounded first and foremost in the notion of 'dialectic as mystification', still does not grasp the essential complexity of the relationship between the Idealistic text and its historical predicament.
Perhaps the most profound manner in which the critical Idealism of Hegel and Schelling transcends its historical predicament is in the implicit argument it constructs against ontological complacency. Whilst, on the one hand, the dialectical and organicist reasoning of Idealism is deeply embedded within its own historical configuration and, to a cetain extent, a prisoner of that configuration, there is, on the other hand, much that can be saved from that tradition which has a striking contemporaneity even today - in particular, the unwillingness it has to accept 'simple' truths simply because they seem real.
This avoidance of the empirical solution denies the object of scrutiny a simple ontological existence and leads to a mode of reasoning that is concerned first of all to dissipate the conspicuity of Cartesian and early proto empirical forms of reason, those modlaities of thought that emerged inthe firs years of what Lacan has termed the 'ego's era'.
The consequence of this historically grounded concern is radical. In dissipating the conspicuous ontology of the Cartesian paradigm, German Idealism is radical in the sense that its arguments spring from the materials under scrutiny, from their historical predicament and yet it maintains a critical distance from that predicament. In other words, Idealism encounters the new 'absolute' of the commodity, articulating its ontological boundaries, and yet stands back from 'completed' or circumscribed forms.
If we accept, then, that a commodity is some reified entity supercharged with aura, and yet reduced to its most simple economic function, as carrying such a function within itself, as if that function were simply moulded into its own interior storehouse, then this avoidance of completed or circumscribed forms can be read in two contradictory ways: either Idealism mystifies the economic function of the commodity, so making it seem to spring from some natural metaphysical source, or it attempts to undermine the metaphysical basis of commoditised - closed - forms through a radicalising turn of philosophy.
In the notion of musical autonomy, for example (the notion that music, might in some snese be above the humdrum of the material), these two agendas jostle for supremacy. On the one hand, the notion of autonomy gives the score, the neat musical commodity of literate post-Cartesian culture, a central position and facilitates the commoditisation of the dissemination of music in printed form. On the other hand, an 'autonomous' music sustains for itself a kind of cool, clear distance from the society from which it sprang, casting a critical eye over the social intitutions from which it emerges, throwing the flaws of such institutions into clear relief. In both cases, the notion of a complete finished work is radically problematised.
The confrontation of these two agendas springs, it would seem from the great dichotomy of liberal capitalism, an economic model characterised both by a sense of political life as properly an expression of the majority of the enfranchised populace and by the necessity for sustainable economic difference. In short, the great dichotomy of liberalism has always been expressed in its janus-faced attitude to the individual. As a constructed, culturally mediated unit, the lowest unit of the liberal society, the individual has always been upheld as an autonomous 'free' protagonist, an agent of wealth generation and yet, he is nonetheless consistently in retreat from the processes of rationalisation that provide the economic framework for that 'freedom', he is the victim of such processes.
The anxiety of the German Frühromantik is thus founded on this dichotomous state of affairs: the positioning of the individual as both the heroic protagonist and as victim gives rise to a structiral anxiety or splittin of aesthetic doiscourse; this anxiety that lies at the heart of German Idealism. In short, the profoundly dialectical problem of autonomous music is a problem that reflects the two liberal individuals: critical autonomy as an encoded parallel of the heroic protagonist and uncritical (commoditised) autonomy as a similar parallel of the brutalised victim.
It seems, then, that critiques of the Western European art music canon based purely on notions of its autonomy as a simple 'turning inwards' from or wilful rejection of the public domain are uncritical in their undialectical apprehension of the problem. It is certainly possible to draw simple causal connections between an impotent German bourgeoisie, frustrated by political isolation, and the 'inwardising' genres of the early nineteenth century.
Yet such simple causal connections reduce the complexity of post-Cartesian culture to a mechanistic set of ideological agents. These 'vulgar' Marxist arguments fail to grasp the matter at hand as a sophisticated array of socially-mediated codes. To decode this culture, therefore, requires a willingness to confront, on all levels, the mutual ambivalence of autonomy and function in the musically aesthetic object of scrutiny.
The fact that such terms as autonomy, ontology and the ideal are not clearly-articulated or fixed points in this epistemological configuration bears witness to Idealism's awareness of its precarious position between covert mystification and radical critique of the newly commoditised culture.
This precariousness is eloquently expressed in the fluent interaction between the categories of the ontological and the ideal. The former seems to articulate a drive inwards, a retreat from external conspicuity into a secretive world of intimated treasures whereas the latter offers a schematic account of general forms, removed from the profanity of particularity.
The interplay of these two categories in musical autonomy is complex. On the one hand, they share a synonymous function in the articulation of separation from the external, closing the sphere of the work from the mundanities of objective reality.
Yet, on the other hand, their antagonism is based precisely around this relationship to the external. Since, for ontological modes of speculation, the inner space is the storehouse of truth, of the essential reality of the object of scrutiny, there are some useful resonances of the commoditised object that carries its economic function within its own internal storehouse of truth as a kind of ontological materiality. This commodity parity in ontological thought is thus to be contrasted with the schemata of the ideal.
In this mode of speculation, the sphere of activity is articulated not according to its unique interiority but according to its generality, the ability it demonstrates to show all levels of the world in a single closed and pure structure. Its 'ideality' is thus consequent upon its ability to spread itself outwards across all levels of discourse as a universal demonstrative model whilst maintaining its status as 'model'.
Autonomy is thus confronted with the dichotomous coexistence of a mutual compatibility and a mutual antagonism within its operation. In this sense, it is perhaps wisest to ascribe to autonomy the status of a sphere of activity, a socially-mediated practice. As an activity, autonomy is thus encountered not as a unified ideological phenomenon but as a dynamic and complex response to a nascent culture in the process of cohering around the economic model of the commodity. Autonomy, therefore, is not commodity by another name, but its counterpart, its incubator.
They (and there is always more than one, of course) bring with them not so much a wide-eyed, forward-looking and open-mouthed breathless expectation at the infinite and shiny possibilities of the future (I like hyphens), but the almost crushing weight of a future of bad possibilities: what if I or we were to stray by the tiniest fraction of a tiny microchoice and wander down the worst of all pathways?
The future here and now is just the potentiality of that awfulness, its ever nearing probability, an infinite grayness, as Kafka once called it.
It is the present, not some abstracted or eternally deferred notion of presence but the political nowness of now, that productive mythological ground of action that makes all radical (and some conservative) politics possible, that is our concern: we have been told so many times by the dearest of opponents that the present is just a kind of instance, a simpering micro-dally in the play of omnidirectional meanings.
But this is where we start - in refuting that brutalising abstraction, in refusing the denigration of the now. The now is always, of course a construction, but it is a construction that can be put to work. In this red-hot present, let's begin again and again.
Nothing is safe in this present, nothing still, nothing closed. That potentiality at least can do good work; that potentiality at least is something to conjure with. A politics of the now, a politics of being in and engaging with the world as it finds us. Blah-feme begins with this first blasphemy.