Monday, January 28, 2008

The Blue Meanies Take Paris

James H. Johnson argues that the revolutionary politics of the Terror fostered a musical style that was conservative and reactionary. Here he talks about polyphony:

[T]he cultural climate of Jacobinism worked against polyphony, for polyphony implied a divided social body. Dramatically, it signified protagonists at cross purposes; experientially, it made transparency between stage and spectator difficult; and musically, it promoted dangerously personal experience. In short, polyphony was the musical equivalent of dissent.

(Listening in Paris, pp. 152-154)

Perhaps the relation between personal experience and music seems obvious, but I will probe it just a bit. How would polyphony in particular promote a personal experience of music? Is it actually animus towards the personal that drives the suppression of polyphony? The political forces that would stomp out plurality would also stomp out personal liberty and in extreme though not genuinely rare cases they would stomp out music as well. Should we let the people who would stomp out music tell us what music means, or even provide the vaguest outline of what constitutes a musical experience?

The suppression of music ranks among the most vicious forms of the challenge to pluralism for which there is no easy rejoinder, no unambiguous defense. The champion of liberty must concede that one is free to hate music, to express one's hatred of music and to persuade others to hate music even while denying that one is a person, or, more commonly, that a human being must be thought of as an entity endowed with personal liberty. I sense there is more at stake in the suppression of music than any particular variety of political liberty, though I am not quite imagining a musical experience absent a political liberty.

Do I have to be precisely at liberty to even think that there must be something more than liberty? That is, is it liberty that affords me something more than itself?

Liberty without music is worthless to me. I can even say that music is liberating. Music gives liberty as much as it is born in liberty and for this reason liberty appears to me to be polymorphous. There are as many forms of liberty as there are forms. (I might be sliding away from a view that liberties exist as such.) In addition there are transformative liberties, metamorphoses, monstruations and kaleidiations of liberty.

Is personal experience the domain of the transformative par excellence? (I don't know that this is true, but I will not fear to think it.)

In all likelihood personal experience doesn't need to be promoted. Johsnon has shown that the dominant aesthetic during the reign of the Jacobins heard music as something that promoted feelings, or, perhaps, elicited feelings. I imagine a danger arising from a diffuse feeling that the feeling touches the personal, but maybe that would have been beside the point. The transition from the elicited to the illicit may have to do with an atmospheric hostility towards feelings; on the other hand the stomping out of feelings may be an unintended casualty of an aggression against free representations of liberty–I'd even say relatively free representations of liberty, because unlike Nancy I don't know what absolute freedom would mean in this context. I don't know that feelings elicited by music, created or sounded by music, are themselves absolute feelings or have any contact with an absolute freedom or a domain of the absolutely personal. At the same time, I don't deny the existence of the feeling or the personal or the free. Perhaps the Jacobins correctly surmised the polymorphousness of liberty, and, given a certain dogma about representation, the injuction (the enjoinment, which would be at the same time a disjunction) against polyphony took shape as if by necessity. And the most dangerous liberty of all would be the transformative.

Questions for a later date: is the formless transformative? Is the transformative necessarily formless or of the formless?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 9:45 AM.


Anonymous Mikhail Emelianov said...

thanks for your posts on this book, i just picked it up from the library and started reading it, it's a pretty interesting overall question concerning the opera etiquette - i wonder if there's a similar study of German culture, i only know little bits about, say, Wagner designing his opera houses without isles so people couldn't leave and be attentive for 4 hours...

February 05, 2008 8:37 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

I don't know if there are similar studies of German culture or any culture. The lc subject headings are very broad.

I'd be curious to see your thoughts on the book or your general thoughts about the social construction of listening or of music.

February 07, 2008 8:32 AM  
Anonymous Mikhail Emelianov said...

i really enjoy this book, i think once i'm done i'd love to go back through your posts and see if our readings match - i'm into the Terror chapter now and my general impression of the book is that it is a great cultural analysis without too many conclusions and plenty of open-ended observations. i'm thinking of posting something about this soon, but i have to say it's rare that i would be reading something that is not related to my research with such interest - thanks for pointing this one out!

February 20, 2008 6:51 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

I figured you'd enjoy this book, Mikhail. It was on sale from UC Press, and since I have an interest in the subject of listening I took a chance on it.

I started to do a citation search for Johnston's articles. (I'm having technical difficulties so I won't get back to that for a while.) I have the sense that his basic thesis about the genesis of listening is debatable and other competent scholars in the field of music history might be able to explain the same data Johnson presents in a different way. But I am in no position to press the point at the moment. I'm glad you are enjoying the book. It really is a pleasure to come across a good readable history.

February 24, 2008 9:27 AM  

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