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Music and the Crises of the Modern Subject

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Departing from the traditional German school of music theorists, Michael Klein injects a unique French critical theory perspective into the framework of music and meaning. Using primarily Lacanian notions of the symptom, that unnamable jouissance located in the unconscious, and the registers of subjectivity (the Imaginary, the Symbolic Order, and the Real), Klein explores how we understand music as both an artistic form created by "the subject" and an artistic expression of a culture that imposes its history on this modern subject. By creatively navigating from critical theory to music, film, fiction, and back to music, Klein distills the kinds of meaning that we have been missing when we perform, listen to, think about, and write about music without the insights of Lacan and others into formulations of modern subjectivity.

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6 Chapters

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1. Music and the Symptom

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The subject’s personality is structured like a symptom.

—Jacques Lacan, “Variations on the Standard Treatment”

Early in The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Žižek writes that according to Lacan it was Karl Marx who invented the symptom (1989: 3). Žižek’s claim is a willful one, given that Lacan never professed an allegiance to Marxist thought, and that references to Marx appear only sporadically in Lacan’s writings (see Valente 2003). But the point is that if Marx did invent the symptom, it was qualitatively different from the ancient Greek sēmeiōtikos (observation of signs), which formed part of the reading of symptoms in medical practice (see Sebeok 1994: 10–14). For Marx, in Žižek’s formulation, the symptom begins with the discovery of a hidden content beneath the form of socioeconomic relations: Marx invented the social symptom. And if knowledge of the content behind the form is a necessary prerequisite for such an invention, then we might claim that Edward T. Cone (1982) invented the musical symptom with his famous study of the promissory note in Schubert’s Moment musical no. 6. Although the word symptom never appears in this celebrated article, when Cone whispers the words syphilis, desolation, and dread at the end of his study, it becomes evident that his analysis of Schubert’s piece has uncovered a social pathology (240).

 

2. The Acoustic Mirror as Formative of Auditory Pleasure and Fantasy: Chopin’s Berceuse, Brahms’s Romanze, and Saariaho’s “Parfum de l’instant”

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The human child, at an age when he is for a short while, but for a while nevertheless, outdone by the chimpanzee in instrumental intelligence, can already recognize his own image as such in a mirror.

—Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage”

The title of this chapter alludes to Lacan’s lecture “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function.” As discussed in chapter 1, for Lacan it is at the mirror stage that the young child first recognizes herself in the mirror or the gaze of the mother. And Lacan doubtless would have enjoyed the double entendre in the English translation of his essay’s title, where the word I (Eye) and its reference both to the ego of the child and to the gaze of the mother/mirror signify the ego’s formation. Lacan associates the mirror stage (the Imaginary) with Freud’s term Imago, which refers to “an identification, in the full sense analysis gives to the term . . . that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image,” or what we would call in common terms a self-image (2006b: 94). Later French theorists, especially those concerned with cinema, proposed that if there is a mirror stage involving a visual formation of the ego, there may also be an acoustic stage, in which the young child is enveloped by the voice of the mother. This sonic analog to the mirror stage has accrued various terms: the maternal voice, the sonorous envelope, and so on. But the most common of these is the acoustic mirror, which comes from the title of an influential book by Kaja Silverman (1988). The acoustic mirror has implications for the psychology and phenomenology of listening, as well as the hermeneutics of music. To understand these implications, this chapter will consider the acoustic mirror and its connection to the three registers of the Lacanian subject. In addition, an understanding of the acoustic mirror will offer a way of rereading recent work on what Vladimir Jankélévitch considered to be music’s ineffable qualities. Finally, to aid in illustrating the phenomenological, philosophical, and hermeneutic effects of the acoustic mirror, the chapter will refer to three pieces: Chopin’s Berceuse, op. 57 (1844), Brahms’s Romanze, op. 118, no. 5 (1893), and Saariaho’s “Parfum de l’instant” from Quatre Instants (2002).

 

3. Debussy and the Three Machines of the Proustian Narrative

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What an abyss of uncertainty, whenever the mind feels overtaken by itself; when it, the seeker, is at the same time the dark region through which it must go seeking and where all its equipment will avail it nothing.

—Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way

Once we are socialized in the Symbolic, there is no exit. But if we cannot go back to an earlier stage of our subjectivity, can an earlier stage come to us? In seeking an answer, our first impulse may be a turn to Freud, for whom the interpretation of a dream is the way to the undiscovered kingdom of our past. “We are thus driven to admit that in the dream we knew and remembered something which was beyond the reach of our waking memory” (Freud 1965: 45). Our forgotten past also speaks to us through the Real in the form of symptoms, a topic that I take up in chapter 4. But Freud’s model for uncovering the past through dreams and symptoms was not the only one developed during the crises of early modernism. Proust, too, viewed the past as something lost that could be regained, although the mechanism for its retrieval was different from that of the Freudian method. Proust’s model of time redeemed is the topic of this chapter. The stage is the music of Debussy. And the relationship between Proust’s vision of the past, Debussy’s music, and Lacanian subjectivity will be manifest in Kristeva’s concept of the chora. Although it is clear that through the Freudian, Lacanian, or Proustian models, the past can speak to us, it is not clear that we can rediscover a past that goes back far enough to revisit a subjective stage prior to the Imaginary. The chora, then, will be of particular importance to the later portions of this chapter. Through Proust, Debussy, and Kristeva, we approach the question of whether the past has an agency capable of speaking to us beyond the divide of the mirror stage.

 

4. Chopin Dreams: The Mazurka in C♯ Minor as Sinthome

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Life, as they say, plays with cards up its sleeve;

but when one snatches at them, they’ve disappeared,

and one grips something else,—or else nothing at all.

—Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt

The mazurka is a curious multiplicity. We soon learn that it is not one dance but three: the mazur, which takes its name from the Polish region of Mazovia but may have its origin in Kujawy; the oberek, which possibly takes its name from the Polish word obracać (to spin) but comes from the Mazowsze region; and the kujawiak from the Kujawy region. In addition, Jim Samson includes the powisłak and the światowska among the dances subsumed into the mazurka (1985: 110). Concerning the three main dances, the oberek is the fastest, the mazur is slower but still lively, while the kujawiak is the slowest and most expressive melodically. Turning quickly to Chopin, we can distinguish these three dances in the Mazurkas op. 68, nos. 2 and 3, which were published posthumously and, as juvenilia, presumably adhere more closely to Polish folk models than do his later mazurkas (Example 4.1). The middle section of op. 68, no. 3, with its drone (a Polish bagpipe) and lively Lydian melody (a high-pitched shepherds’ pipe), is an oberek. The opening section of the same mazurka, with its slower tempo and characteristic dotted rhythm on the first beat, is a mazur. The beginning of the Mazurka op. 68, no. 2, with its much slower tempo and expressive melody, is a kujawiak. In addition, the melody features a piquant augmented second in the first measure due to the raised fourth degree in the minor mode: another characteristic of some Polish folk music. This mazurka also includes a recurring trill, highlighting a notated accent on beat three; and again, there is the familiar dotted rhythm on the first beat, which drives to an agogic accent on beat two.

 

5. Postmodern Quotation, the Signifying Chain, and the Erasure of History

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For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.

—Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

We can understand the increasing and open use of borrowing in contemporary music, starting in the 1960s and continuing to the present, as a symptom of postmodern culture. Here, I take the term symptom in its form prior to Lacan’s working out of the sinthome: some failure in the Symbolic; some truth about which speech must be delivered. Later in the chapter, I focus particularly on the signifying chain that the subject knits together in an attempt to deliver the very speech that leads to an understanding of the symptom. Extending a claim by Fredric Jameson, I argue that one of the symptoms of the postmodern condition is a refusal or inability to make that signifying chain. In other words, postmodernism is a form of schizophrenia, although I do not mean that term in the clinical sense but in the more cultural sense of a breakdown in how we view history. Because postmodernism fails to make a signifying chain, it has managed to erase history in favor of the commodification of culture, or, more properly, the culture of commodification.

 

6. Lutosławski, Molar and Molecular

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Every society, and every individual, are thus plied by both segmentarities simultaneously: one molar, and the other molecular.

—Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

Lacan’s model of the subject is not a pleasant one. The subject is alienated and fractured: the site of a symptomatic structure delivered by the Symbolic. Any fantasy of wholeness is nostalgia for a moment that never was. Any vision of a future wholeness is mere wishful thinking. From the nineteenth century through Freud and Lacan, the old ideology of the self falls away in a series of discoveries. The problems of the wound, or the automaton, or the uncanny become the return of the repressed in Freudian thought, only to become the very substance of the subject (an empty substance) in Lacanian thought. The monadic ego of the nineteenth century becomes the undiscovered country for Freud and the undiscoverable country for Lacan. The bourgeois control of the self and the surrounding culture is inverted in Lacan’s model: we are the products of the Symbolic, and our every thought is implicated in the symptoms and historical processes of which we may not even be aware. No. Lacan is not for the faint of heart.

 

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