An interview with Dean Whiteside on Marxian Musicology

Conducted by C. Derick Varn

Image: Large bust of Lenin next to
a smaller bust of Beethoven

After listening to Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata, Lenin added sadly: “I’m often unable to listen to music, it gets on my nerves. I’d like to stroke my fellow beings and whisper sweet nothings in their ears for producing such beautiful things in spite of the abominable hell they are living in. However, today one shouldn’t caress anybody — for people will only bite off your hand.” Georg Lukács, Lenin: A study in the unity of his thought (1920)

Originally posted on The (Dis)loyal Opposition to Modernity blog. Please follow and subscribe to it.

Dean Whiteside studies music theory as a conductor at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. He has an interest in reintegrating music theory with materialism.

C. Derick Varn: The debates on aesthetics and Marxism have often been framed in terms of visual arts and in terms of music. This, perhaps, is the legacy of Theodor Adorno. Do you see Adorno as a primary entry point to Marxist musicology?

Dean Whiteside: It is not enough to say that Adorno was partial to music. For Adorno, the mutual dependency between musical and critical thinking cuts both ways. For this reason, many of Adorno’s deepest thoughts work through the relation between music and conceptual thinking. Adorno claims that German music and philosophy constituted a single system since the time of Kant and Beethoven. Adorno has a critical take on this relationship. His method is deeply historical and sensitive to the ways in which music embodies the antagonisms of bourgeois capitalist society, especially its fissures and points of non-identity. Left at that, Adorno would be suggesting merely another way to think about the relationship between music and society. But his inquiry is deeper: he wants to interrogate the social truth content of music itself. Music does not lie outside of capital, nor does it provide a safe haven from instrumental reason, but it also isn’t reducible to them: it’s a mode of thinking about what is contradictory and unarticulated within the world. Through music we discover the possibility of thinking about thought insofar as thought finds itself sublated within musical form, often through the concepts and signs which have the most authority over us, especially basic ones like repetition and self-identity. Thought is saved from the fate of merely smashing its face repeatedly against a mirror: its redemption lies in the broken and bloody shards on the floor — music, if you will (certainly Neue Musik). Conceptual thinking then faces the burden of making sense of its own broken image. The anxiety which neue Musik causes us is that we don’t recognize ourselves in the fragments. Thought’s return to itself must overcome a moment of mis-recognition. Many listeners don’t get past the initial: “WTF, that’s not me!” Their reaction is wrong but understandable. Obversely, Adorno wants to problematize the moment of false recognition that bourgeois listeners experience while listening to Mozart or Beethoven. Adorno insists that Beethoven’s music is Hegelian philosophy in a truer form than Hegel’s philosophy itself could ever be. This is not an analogy. He maintains that although we can no longer write music like Beethoven, we should still think and act like Beethoven’s music. This amounts to an ideal of praxis which I think Adorno himself only occasionally lives up to. His failings are usually on the side of musical theory, namely a simplistic understanding of tonality and harmony. So to answer your question, yes and no.

Joseph Karl Stieler, portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven [1820]

Joseph Karl Stieler, Portrait of Beethoven (1820)

C.D.V.: An unusual focus has been placed on Adorno’s critique of Jazz, particularly denouncing it as Eurocentric or ascetic, but what do you think the real issues were at hand in his critique of popular music and do you think they are relevant now?

D.W.: I think Adorno’s argument has often been taken out of context and used for ideological ends. This text is often attacked as representative of intellectual elitism, Eurocentrism, and even white supremacy. Even if Adorno was not knowledgeable about the object of his criticism — it’s not clear what “jazz” or “pop” he was actually exposed to — it’s not our task to replicate his tastes or defend his ignorance, but to understand the logic of his critique. We should not take for granted the fracturedness of a society in which Boulez and Britney Spears co-exist, both produced within late capitalism and symptomatic of it in different ways. It is a condition of our historical moment that Boulez is incomprehensible to most people and Britney Spears accessible to many more. We should abjure the false choice between an elitist, top-down modernism or a populist, bottom-up mass art. According to this logic, you’re either an elitist or a man of the people. Our first critical move should not be to unreflectively choose one side or the other, but to step back and assess the political and socio-historical conditions which produce this false choice: their co-existence reflects our antagonistic historical condition. To claim that all “high art” is inherently superior is a reflex of elitism. There are bad 12-tone pieces just as there are thoughtful pop songs. It’s clear that Adorno limited his inquiry to formally complex or resistant artworks; we shouldn’t necessarily follow suit. A danger of the culture industry is that it reproduces the ruling ideology and seals off its products from critical engagement. One sees this in the injunction not to think implicit in the claim: “Hey, it’s just a song!”

It’s possible that Adorno underestimated the extent to which the re-circulation of our needs and desires by mass media in the service of capital would become an essential way of navigating our alienated way of life. We all crave some niche of popular culture, whether it’s Hollywood or MTV, and we shouldn’t (always) feel guilty about that. It’s not the case that all consumers of mass media are mindless drones; it’s also true that mainstream pop bands can write interesting stuff. So although Adorno sometimes over-emphasized the side of production and neglected the particularity of individual art objects, especially pop ones, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Adorno left us useful tools to help formulate a materialist critique of music.

C.D.V.: What do you see as the explicit foundations for such a materialist critique of music?

D.W.: I don’t think the conditions can be made explicit. This would amount to a set of axioms or prescriptions about how to to critique music, which I’d like to avoid. We need more than a historicist account which merely reports in a putatively objective way on the historical or socio-political contexts of a work’s production and reception. Some musicology locates relationships of patriarchy, ideology, or biopower within music itself. We should be grateful that these approaches have criticized and undermined the authority of the work concept, brought to light music’s dependence on history and culture, and made us aware that musical meaning is constituted inter-subjectively and not only within musical texts themselves. We should reject the crude rebuttal that these approaches have a “political agenda” or that we should return to an essentialist or ahistorical critique of music.

Бетхо́вен Почта СССР Beethoven postcard, USSR 1970

Beethoven postcard, USSR (1970)

That being said, I think the historicist approach is neither political enough nor properly historical. Too often it assumes that our own historical position is privileged and outside of history. Sometimes it abjures formal or syntactical analysis of musical texts completely, claiming that to refer to an autonomous text is formalistic and disassociated from history and culture. This is wrong. Texts speak mutely in a language whose intentions were always already negated by the culture which made them homeless. Insofar as music works to make its objectless intentions convincing, it becomes ambiguous at its moment of blinding clarity (Ask a music lover to articulate what she’s feeling at the end of Mahler 9 or Götterdämmerung; her tongue-tied, stammering inarticulateness is evidence, rather than disproof, of the certainty and integrity of her emotional response). Therefore, critique as a mere way of explaining social practices or drawing historical connections is not only insufficient but violent: it uses the positivity of historicity to bring music back into a world to which it never belonged. It reconciles music to its place in history. Music as a symptom of bourgeois capital is historical precisely in its not belonging to history. Often it inherits the future of a past which went unfulfilled (Brahms or Mahler); at other times, it looks toward a future in which that past will finally be buried and done with (Berlioz or Stockhausen). Only in rare cases, say Max Reger, is it interested in the present.

It seems like I’ve only offered ways not to critique. So here’s another one: critique which refers formally to a necessary link between theory and practice without offering any material to that dialectic (as it seems I’m doing now). So I have no easy formulations. I think critics (and performers) should start with the music which moves them and try to articulate their subjective responses. Critiquing music well means first caring about it: without this, one is merely regurgitating an academic discourse. There is Truth in music, and a formal understanding of music’s surface, of its thwarted intentions, is often the best way to grasp the truth of the world it failed to realize.

C.D.V.: Are you at all concerned over anti-aesthetic sentiments in the left (such as in Anti-Nietzsche by Malcolm Bull)? Do you think the radicalization of art has pushed us away at the radicalization of aesthetics?

D.W.: What does concern me is the tendency of today’s Left to use aesthetic spectacle as a substitute for truly political action. The overestimation of the role of art is symptomatic of a failed or even non-existent politics. Occupy Wall St, for example, used art to put forward its explicit political message, often through catchy slogans on banners and video projections. First, the politics which is espoused in these spectacles of cultural resistance is usually tepid and simplistic. Often it asks people to wake up and change their subjective attitude towards “the System,” or “the Man,” as if the political issue at stake were one of “attitude.” Second, the attempt of performance art to synthesize art and politics is itself flawed and symptomatic of our lacking a real politics. Today at 3:30 we enjoy our symptom for two hours, we take part in an onanistic community of solidarity, and then we go home. It’s a symptom of our historical condition that politics becomes spectacle so quickly in the absence of authentic political organization. Spectacle, attempting to be the re-presentation of politics, actually functions as its end station, taking a political moment which failed to actualize itself in the world and re-inscribing it within a self-enclosed realm with clearly delineated boundaries, a beginning and an end. Our political failures migrate to spectacle when their claims can no longer be pressed within the world. Spectacle is where politics goes to die, but it is celebrated within these pageants as vibrant and thriving.

We should note that the form of this art is always fun and comprehensible. Its form, as such, is incidental, and the content it represents is independent of it — independent of representation, which is to say that it’s not artistic form at all. What is the alternative? I’m not advocating formalist or autonomous art, per se, either: this seems moot as well, though perhaps in more redeemable ways.

C.D.V.: Has Guy Debord affected any of your approaches to musicology?

D.W.: Not explicitly, no.

Dean Whiteside preparing to conduct during practice, Vienna (2012)

Dean Whiteside (standing) preparing to conduct during a practice session in Vienna in 2012

C.D.V.: What kind of politics can we extract from popular music at the moment?

D.W.: I’m interested in the form of this question. It suggests that the critic’s job is to look at a musical work, tease out its underlying social content, and transpose that content into a set of political prescriptions. Who is performing that task, and for whom? Sometimes the task is quick easy when a piece has an obviously unsavory or reactionary political content. Locating its political content serves as a way of avoiding thinking any further about it: we call something “kitschy” or “regressive” or even “disgusting,” which can also carry a political judgment, and are absolved from having to interact with it anymore. These concepts function like “homeless person” — they ask us to pass over the object in question once we have identified it as such. It’s fair to say that sometimes this is called for, like a piece named “Pussy be Yankin.” The politics one can extract is clear enough from the title.

The same process is much more difficult for thoughtful pieces of music, which I don’t think should be categorized according to “pop” or “classical.” Utopian music advocates a clear-headed egalitarian politics and is wrong precisely for its clarity and certainty. Adorno writes that “Authentic expression probably only exists as the expression of negativity, of suffering.” Art renounces substantive and affirmative being and takes refuge in shadowy form, and for this reason its most powerful claims are mute and covert, rather than political or didactic. Art is able, remarkably, to survive within our historical condition — we shouldn’t underestimate this feat — and continue to have an impotent sort of power over us. Webern, not a pop composer by any measure, does not offer a politics. The music embodies domination and totalization as well as reflectiveness and profundity. Webern’s mute, lonely speech, elusive and alienated from purposeful articulation, persists spectrally. This is reflective of our political condition but indicative of an absence, rather than presence, of real politics. Art which affirms a politics or Weltethos — usually one entails the other — should set off alarm bells.

Thinking about art always comes after the fact, after art has already represented the world. Critique should first make sense of art’s own representation, rather than impose its own. Art and philosophy are both types of thinking, which is to say forms of representation, but they are distinct, although not wholly irreconcilable. The best critique about music is musical, much like the best music is rigorously conceptual.

Theodor Adorno playing the piano

Theodor Adorno playing the piano

C.D.V.: What do make of many non-Frankfurt school influenced Marxists who would say this is letting idealism in through an aesthetic back door?

D.W.: Good, I’ll refer to the argument between Adorno and Lukács as a way of addressing this issue. Lukács was opposed to avant-garde literature insofar as it depicted the ruptures and discontinuities which define the consciousness of bourgeois subjects. He felt that this distorted image of individual experience was conflated with reality itself, thus amounting to idealism. This argument is grounded in Lukács’ Hegelian reading of Marx. He argues that Marx put Hegelian philosophy into practice by showing how the relationship between universal and particular finds expression in the commodity form, which he claims represents the most extreme form of abstraction within capitalist production. Unlike the vulgar economists who remain enclosed by their abstract, fetishized world, a Marxist critique — and here is where art comes in as well — looks at the total process of social reproduction. So art for Lukács must dig deep and express the social content of the world as it actually is; it’s insufficient to merely depict the network of abstract relations which constitute the surface of society. Merely describing the state of mind of bourgeois subjects (stream of consciousness, for example), amounts to a fragmentary and chaotic, therefore undialectical perspective on social reality.

For Adorno, Lukács misunderstands the way in which social reality is represented. Reality is not directly accessible to our consciousness. The content of artworks is not real in the same way reality is (in fact, it’s realer). Adorno writes: “If this distinction is lost, then all attempts to provide a real foundation for aesthetics must be doomed to failure.” Adorno grants that art exists in the world, that is has a function in that world, and that the two realms have strong mediating links; however, “as art it remains the antithesis of that which is the case.” Regarding idealism, he claims: “It is no idealistic crime for art to provide essences, ‘images’; the fact that many artists have inclined towards an idealist philosophy says nothing about the content of their works.”

One can explain the tendency towards idealism in Adorno by what he understands as the non-identity between consciousness and social reality. Reality is not empirical: it’s inseparable from the concepts we use to describe it, and these concepts are socially mediated. Adorno’s dialectical method means to interrogate the social content inherent in these concepts, not to observe the world as it actually exists — that’s impossible. Materialism can only be reached by boring through idealism, by subjecting our own concepts to critique so that we might finally understand and return to them. Put more politically: the transformation of material reality will only occur through a breakthrough in self-consciousness.

Rodchenko, Maiakovskii, Shostakovich (1926)

Rodchenko, Maiakovskii, Meierkhol’d, Shostakovich (1926)

Social reality for Adorno is always already mediated within art. So consider Lukács’ claim that a stream of consciousness novel is undialectical insofar as regresses to the individual’s immediate experience; No, Adorno says, through this, an image of the object is absorbed into the subject, which amounts to a synthesis between subject and object. This type of literature — and Adorno was a supporter of avant-garde literature, especially Beckett — keeps the object from merely persisting out in the world in a state of reification. From this arises an important contradiction between the actual, unreconciled object in the world, and the object which has been mediated by a subject. A negative form of knowledge is born from this contradiction which makes critique possible. So aesthetic distance from the world is essential for Adorno’s form of critique; mere “portrayal” of social reality, as he thinks Lukács means it, is undialectical.

C.D.V.: Why do you think there are so many heirs to Lukács’ argument?

D.W.: I don’t want it to seem that I’m dismissing Lukács by giving Adorno the last word, although we do have to admit that he was limited as an art theorist. The return to a Lukácsian model advocated by Jameson, for example, tries to address art’s changing relationship to capital. If Lukács’ theory, according to his critics, offers a closed and integrated totality, a layover of German Idealism, within which artworks are bound to un-dialectically representing the world, the alternative, call it the avant-garde, focuses instead on the ruptures within experience, mirroring, so to say, the cracks and breakdowns which are internal and essential to the reproduction of capital. Jameson claims that within late capitalism these avant-garde techniques of rupture and estrangement have become appropriated by the culture industry, even becoming the mode through which we’re reconciled as fragmented subjects to capitalism. I’m thinking of the ways in which music videos and TV shows, for example, often utilize sophisticated techniques derived from formally radical artworks. What follows from this is the thought that we need to return to a form of totality in the precise Lukácsian sense, to return to a realism which articulates and makes transparent moments of class struggle. I think we would need to more closely interrogate the concept of “totality” at work in Jameson. I don’t think it withholds critical scrutiny. That being said, I’m not sure that there are as many heirs to Lukács’ argument as you indicate, Jameson being the most notable that I’m aware of.

C.D.V.: Is there any music criticism that seems to you in line with your view of materialist musical critique?

D.W.: Sure. There is plenty of very intelligent musical criticism out there, much of which unfortunately seems destined for the academy. I like Jonathan Neufeld’s work because it tries to engage with concrete musical practices, although in political terms I think he situates his theory too much in relation to democracy and not enough in relation to capital. As a practicing musician, rather than a theorist, it’s important to me that criticism contribute to musical praxis. I think interesting and provocative performances can also do this, provoking dialogue about musical works in order to keep them from becoming ossified. This depends on listeners who are able to critically engage with what they’re hearing. So I like thinkers who write musically, which includes such divergent types as Peter Kivy, Susan McClary, Michael Rose, and Charles Rosen. I like Badiou’s writing about music, especially Wagner; one really senses that he loves it; Žižek, less so. Music is hard to talk about because it’s essentially abstract, and arguments about its meaning have kept music criticism in a self-critical state, with disagreements still occurring over basic ontological definitions which have long been assumed in other fields of art. This might explain the relative paucity of Marxist musical criticism. Music’s abstractness, however, is not necessarily a bad thing. Music’s difficulty, its opaqueness and resistance to thinking, are qualities which Adorno prized. These traits should be viewed as holding dialectical potential for critique.

Theodor Adorno sitting in an audience

Theodor Adorno sitting in an audience

C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?

D.W.: I suspect that the philosopher’s anxiety over ending well is surpassed only by the musician’s. Modern composers face the problem of how to end a piece without providing closure or affirming the identitarian nature of being. The quiet, open-ended coda has become almost a cliche of modern music. Conversely, philosophy’s inhibitions over ending affirmatively rarely hinder it from doing just that. I hope I haven’t suggested any party line about the right or wrong way to think about music. What I’m encouraging is an approach which does not consider its subject of critique as standing outside of the form in which it is being theoretically considered. This means that thinking about music is not merely a conceptual but also a mimetic process. In performing this, thinking must confront what is non-identical and other to thought. In this sense, authentic philosophy relies on art. Music’s survival as a social practice is in turn bound up in talking about it. It’s a shame that musicians and critics are so often indifferent to how their colleagues feel about music. Let’s be more interested in this personal level: often this is the best way to start a conversation.

3 thoughts on “An interview with Dean Whiteside on Marxian Musicology

  1. Brilliant interview – this is one of the clearest, most insightful reflections on Adorno’s musicological thinking that I’ve ever read. Thanks for reposting this.

  2. Pingback: Malcolm Christ, or the Anti-Nietzsche | The Charnel-House

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