Volume 1 (2006)
ISSN 1751-7788

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Alongside articles, the journal also publishes a number of ‘fifth columns’ – short and provocative pieces that might either frame/reference a number of the articles in the volume or raise issues relating to the scope and terms of musicology as a discipline. These ‘fifth columns’ should not be seen as ‘editorials’.
  On the Radical in Musicology  

Ian Biddle




I might have begun this inaugural ‘fifth column’ with the objection that the title of this journal, ‘radical musicology’, is really little more than a hopeless oxymoron. Certainly, for many of us who work in this field, the idea that musicology, that cranky, idiosyncratic and sometimes self-absorbed discipline, might constitute in any way a ‘radical’ or even engaged practice seems some way off the mark. And yet, the discipline has, at various moments in its short history, nonetheless engaged in certain methodological and discursive intensifications that might be characterised as ‘radicalisations’. I’m thinking here not just of those moments where ‘musicology as a political act’,[1] to use Philip Bohlman’s phrase, has been explicitly proposed or engaged – although this journal is precisely about holding that possibility firmly in view – but also of those moments where musicology sought to question the viability and solidity of its epistemological ground, sought to ask questions of itself that were eventually transformative. The rise of music analysis, the advent of ‘vergleichende Musikwissenschaft’ and its later cognate, ethnomusicology, the advent of music psychology, the emergence of new critical biographies at the turn of the last century, the inception of critical music editing, the rise of ‘early music’ and somewhat later the rise of popular music studies, one might say, are all intensifications of the academic discourse on music that can make some claim to the radical.



And yet, musicology since Guido Adler has aimed squarely at wresting the study of music from the amateur, from that ‘lover’ of music, the hopeless enthusiast: in this sense, a least, the advent of musicology was not a moment of liberation or radicalisation but an intense institutionalisation, a drive for a secure disciplinary territorialisation, professionalisation, and a systematic problematisation of what it sought to represent as naïve amateur ‘enjoyment’. Musicology’s complex relationship with enjoyment, however, is not usefully characterised simply as a disavowal or an elaborated Puritanism in the face of popular enthusiasm: in its pleasuring in its own ever more secure disciplinarity, in its pleasuring, moreover, in the systematic disenfranchisement of all but the most erudite listener,[2] musicology facilitated the confrontation of one kind of enjoyment with a subaltern enjoyment, an enjoyment that only rarely dared speak its name. This ‘enjoyment of the other’ thereby has a double meaning here: the first is precisely that which musicology sought to refute, the enjoyment that it sought to discipline, to banish as amateur enthusiasm; the second is precisely that other pleasure of musicology, an enjoying (consuming) of the other as its constitutive difference, the secret pleasure of the discipline.



Heinrich Schenker, that most reluctant of radicals, points to this surreptitious pleasuring in his beguiling short essay ‘Das Hören in der Musik’ [‘Listening in music’] from 1894:



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, broad and beautiful, 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.[3]


The listener is certainly here, and pleasure runs amok, but it is a certain kind of pleasure, a disciplinary pleasure, so to speak: the Nietzschean overtones of this fragment lend it its intensity, as a rage against the particular, the local, the piecemeal. Yet pleasure it is nonetheless, as an enjoyment precisely of that position, of the ‘seeing’ from above (the synaesthesia gives the clue to the excess here), from the place where the lofty disciplinary privilege affords the total(ising) glimpse. He enjoys his difference from the mundane listener, enjoys the view his knowledge affords him precisely because it is rare, special, on a par, even, with the great masters: ‘Whoever has found this place – from such places the composer must surely unfold his work – he can say quietly he has “heard” the work. But such listeners are truly rare.’[4]


It is precisely in this double sense that musicology is a discipline, operating precariously at the boundary between permission and prohibition, enjoyment and Law. This boundary, which musicology has always struggled to stabilise, is precisely where it is at its most contested. Indeed, we are all now familiar with the debates about ‘hidden’ and ‘explicit’ pleasures, that characterised some of the most striking and paradigm-shifting moments in the discipline’s history in the 90s. Van den Toorn’s now infamous attack on the ‘populism’ of what we used to call the ‘New’ musicology in 1994 (exactly 100 years after Schenker’s strange and beautiful essay), gets right to the key operatives of the conservative position.  In a footnote on his chapter ‘In defense of music theory’ he takes on Lawrence Kramer for his neo-Puritanism:



Kramer assures us that, according to the new humanist or postmodernist creed, immediacy will not be “deconstructed” as something “spurious and pernicious.” “The last thing a postmodernist musicology wants to be,” he writes, “is a neo-Puritanism that offers to show its love for music by ceasing to enjoy it.” I remain skeptical nonetheless.[5]


So the conservative, rather than the fuddy-duddy who seeks to discipline enjoyment, is really a fun seeker. Or is he? In the main text, to which the above was a footnote, van den Toorn offers a slightly different perspective:


My worry is that, officially installed with its own “priesthood,” the new subjectivity will constitute a greater imposition on the individual aesthetic than anything that might have emerged from positivist or formalist thought. So, too, in the name of passion, or the scholarly pursuit of passion, music is likely to be reduced to something wholly sociological, passion itself to the humdrum or vulgar.[6]


The turnabout from one passage to the other (from an anxiety about the disciplining of pleasure to an anxiety about ‘passion’) is not merely an incompetent self-contradiction, but a strategic re-alignment of enjoyment and passion: enjoyment is open, harmless, an easy target of these damned zealots whereas passion is a dangerous kind of enjoyment, a political enjoyment, a pleasure too far. And yet what is really at work here, it seems to me, is the quiet and genteel disavowal of Kramer’s most radical insight – his recognition of enjoyment as always already political.


For Jacques Lacan, and Slavoj Žižek after him, enjoyment is not simply a matter of absolute free play or of an abandonment or ‘letting go’ of oneself to pleasure. Paradoxically, the injunction to ‘Enjoy’, for Lacan the superego ‘in its most fundamental dimension’,[7] is in play with what ought to be its opposite, prohibitive Law, which is grounded on, or operates in, an intense dependency on its underside, the ‘undergrowth of enjoyment’:



Therein consists the opposition between Law and superego: Law is the agency of prohibition which regulates the distribution of enjoyment on the basis of a common, shared renunciation (the “symbolic castration”), whereas superego marks a point at which permitted enjoyment, freedom-to-enjoy, is reversed into obligation to enjoy – which, one must add, is the most effective way to block access to enjoyment.[8]


The apparent internal contradiction in van den Toorn between enjoyment and passion is explained here as a symptom of the impossible ontology of enjoyment itself: it never quite ‘fits’ or assimilates to musicological discourse, but sticks out as a surplus, bringing pressure to bear on it, disturbing its structural quietude. As a ‘political factor’, to use Žižek’s formulation, enjoyment is never merely ‘innocent’, never free from ideology. Whether one adopt a disciplinary approach to it, or try to give in to it, enjoyment always eludes a reduction to mere carnality or mere abstinence.


And, just as enjoyment is always susceptible to the discipline of the political, so the discipline of musicology is always susceptible to ‘enjoying itself’:



Superego emerges where the Law – the public Law, the Law articulated in the public discourse – fails; at this point of failure, the public Law is compelled to search for support in an illegal enjoyment.[9]


Nowhere in Adler’s now well-known schematisation of Musikwissenschaft of 1885 is there an explicit moratorium on enjoyment and nowhere is there a deliberate disciplining of the lover of music (there is no presence by negation: no ‘not enjoyment’, no ‘not pleasure’) and yet, nowhere is the listener, or the audience, addressed either.[10] The absent listener marks out the disciplinary limits thus: in order to undertake these activities, the scholar must himself (the gendering here is deliberate), of course, listen, but the process, which, in this schema would be deemed most likely to be ‘tainted’ or infected by enjoyment, is precisely that which is absent, or at last present only by very coded implication.


Adler’s schema distinguishes between the various ‘specialisms’ of the field through the mapping of (mostly) methodological and (some) reportorial characteristics, and thereby emphasises the scholarly process of apprehension (‘Verstehen’) over co-apprehension (‘Mitverstehen’). Below (fig. 1) is the schema for the first of the two branches of musicology, ‘historische Wissenschaft’:[11]




Fig.1: Adler’s schematisation of the first branch of musicology, historical musicology (1885)


In the absence of co-apprehension, of scholarly technologies for the understanding of how we come to enjoy, to consume or take up music, we also note a clear tendency to rely primarily on epistemological categories, on modalities of knowledge. At this moment of explicit institutionalisation, musicology focuses its attentions on precisely those systematic methodological approaches that hide or translate enjoyment into discipline. Certainly, Adler’s scheme does not explicitly discipline enjoyment, but, rather, operates a genteel silence about it: only when this public law of category and methodology breaks down (as it clearly did for van den Toorn) does the figure of enjoyment emerge as illegal, to use Žižek’s term, as contrary to the explicit logic, and yet as supporting it. The radical insight that Lacan helps us make here is that disciplinarity is its own kind of enjoyment.


Radicals on the loose?


The position of the radical within this structure of disciplinarity is not something that can be prejudged or theorised ahead of its incursion into the field: the radical indulges in its own kind of enjoyment and is, by its very nature (at least since the Reformation), traumatic. In modern political theory, the term radical has paradoxically come to be connected resolutely to the notion of radical change, to those individuals and those elements of the body politic committed to root-and-branch reform and paradigmatic, even revolutionary, transformations of the social, cultural and political fields. I say ‘paradoxically’ since the term ‘radical’, from the Latin radix [‘root’], was linked in its pre-modern usage to that which was viewed as essential to a thing – to what, in short, was fundamental, essential, of the root; its usage in this manner was especially common in connection with the notion of the radical humour – that which was essential, in medieval and renaissance humoural theory, to life.[12] This appeal to rootedness gives way in later usage to precisely the connection between fundamentals and transformation that characterises the modern political usage: fundamentals are now at risk of, or become susceptible to, thorough-going transformation; they have become amenable to the influence of outside forces, to the hand of human agency, (understood in its ever more extensive, generalising and collectivised sense).[13] In short, one might be so bold as to suggest that the transformation from the tightly-rooted to the uprootable traces nothing less than the rise of the modern polis, the emergence of the modern conception of ‘citizenship’, popular agency, and the formation of an understanding of ‘modern democracy’ (in all its highly-contested and problematising forms) in line with contemporary uses.



Understood in this way (as a key component, that is, of a longue durée of popular agency), the ‘radical’ has become a quality constitutive of most forms of global state-sponsored and community-based political discourse and action: indeed, one might argue, most forms of political democracy involve at some level, in some way, an exercising precisely of some kind of ‘popular’ political agency; the susceptibility of the institutions of democratic states to willed change is thus key to this modern conception of the radical – a radical citizen is one who holds the malleability of those institutions to be demonstrable through her or his intervention. What characterises this modern imagination of the radical, moreover, is a commitment to a transformative politics of intervention that we might characterise as, in some sense, a romantic formation;[14] to be radical, it seems, is to believe that one’s actions can and will have effect, that change is in one’s hands and that one’s subjective energies can, under the right conditions, constitute a cause.



And yet, in an age that has so fundamentally deterritorialised the radical and the various forms of political radicalism (especially those forms of radicalism nurtured in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) as to have rendered them rather innocuous (comical, even), to declare oneself a radical now is to strike a slightly ridiculous pose or, at best, to brandish a now much maligned and denigrated shibboleth. Indeed, if ever there were a claim that set one community against another, it is the claim to the position of the ‘radical’, and if ever there were a community anxious about political commitment, belief and anything that smacks of the deadly ‘ideology’, it is the community of Anglophone music scholars. This, precisely, is what sociolinguists understand by ‘shibboleth’, a term, concept or idea that distinguishes one community from another (or separates one group from another within a community) by virtue of the term’s local differentiated articulations or usages within each group or subgroup. The reduction of the radical to shibboleth, then, is the consequence, as is often the case with shibboleths, of the desire to sort out friends from enemies, insiders from outsiders (to reference conservative jurist Carl Schmidt’s framework for understanding the operation of political discourse).[15] In this context, the radical, as shibboleth, is also an agent nonetheless: as ‘romantic’ agent, admittedly, it has a more fulsome operative territory than as mere shibboleth, but in both instances the logic of the radical remains the same – to distinguish between different kinds of attachment to political formations. Arguably, then, the radical is itself constitutive of political engagement, of political participation, agency, and, let us be clear, it is therefore also about contention – without some kind of (however distributed) agency there can be no politics and without there being a bearing witness to the operation of that agency on the political, the political as such cannot hold itself together.



Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau have called for a rethinking of the liberal conception of political discourse (as a quest for consensus) in favour of a conception of the political as an arena in which agents contend, contest, and confront each other; this is an arena that does not provide for a smoothing over of difficult differences in the interest of the serene operation of the institutions of governance, nor does its primary function lie in seeking out any consensus.[16] This kind of politics refuses that liberal quiet. What is striking in Laclau and Mouffe’s work is its commitment to a notion of political discourse as ‘agonistic’, as constituted by differences:



One of the key theses of agonistic pluralism is that, far from jeopardizing democracy, agonistic confrontation is in fact its very condition of existence. Modern democracy’s specificity lies in the recognition and legitimation of conflict and the refusal to suppress it by imposing an authoritarian order. Breaking with the symbolic representation of society as an organic body – which was characteristic of the holist mode of social organization – a democratic society acknowledges the pluralism of values, the “disenchantment of the world” diagnosed by Max Weber and the unavoidable conflicts that it entails.[17]


It is this ‘disenchantment’ which, for Mouffe, must be held in view since to seek to represent the political discourse as simply rational, as in some sense ‘in balance’, would be to foreclose the political altogether in favour of an emptied-out pseudo-discursive territory in which all statements accord with each other, or in which contestation is limited to (apparently) symmetrical structural oppositions. And it is precisely the radical, the agent that sticks out, that cannot be assimilated to any such pseudo-discursive structure and that insists on the political as an impassioned arena of contestation. We might thereby conceive of the radical as that which exceeds the political discourse, that which constantly gestures to a kind of ‘beyond’ or supplement by making demands which draw attention to the structural flaws of political consensus. In short, the radical paradoxically holds the political together (guarantees its viability) by continuously breaking it apart (guaranteeing its non-viability).


It is, of course, a very particular logic of demand that structures this vision of the political, where the border between request and demand is constantly being redrawn. Laclau has even suggested it may be possible to conceive of the demand as that which precedes the emergence of the political actor. Here, dealing with the emergence of ‘the people’, for example, Laclau lays out his striking reversal of classical political theory:



… a demand which, satisfied or not, remains isolated [is] a democratic demand. A plurality of demands which, through their equivalential articulation, constitute a broader social subjectivity we will call popular demands – they start, at a very incipient level, to constitute the ‘people’ as a potential historical actor. Here we have, in embryo, a populist configuration. We already have two clear preconditions of populism: (1) the formation of an internal antagonistic frontier separating the ‘people’ from power; and (2) an equivalential articulation of demands making the emergence of the ‘people’ possible.[18]


What is interesting for me in this reversal is precisely the positioning of the demand before the constituting of the actor and, more importantly, the manner in which it thereby constructs the actor as an effect of the discourse of demands.[19] What also interests me here is the way in which the political actor nonetheless is able to retroactively fill the primary demand with content – literally to populate it. In preceding the actor, the demand is not its cause, but, rather, actor and demand together constitute together a singular political instance.


* * * * *


In recent years, so-called ‘activist’ or radical music scholarship has come to be viewed by many as damaged, or marked by an over-simplified and intense commitment to a certain reductive ‘ideological’ trajectory. The scholarship of the late 1980s and the 1990s that questioned and critiqued the dominance of formalist-analytical and archival-empirical tendencies in musicology, for example, were accused of an over-commitment to a ‘populist’ discourse, or even accused, as we have seen, of a covert ‘Puritanism’: these scholars, so the conservative critique went, attached themselves too readily to their ideological positions, overidentified with the transformative potential of their work, or, worst of all, overburdened musicology with an array of inappropriately complex and alien theoretical resources that had no business contaminating the pursuit of musical meaning (ideology critique, psychoanalysis, feminism, sociology, anthropology, semiotics, avant-garde continental philosophy etc.). In short, they displayed a scholarly excess. They lacked moderation. There was something unseemly in their protests. Yet this journal wants to hold the possibility precisely of this kind of unseemliness firmly in view, not because its editors or the editorial Collective and Board have a shared or prejudicial view of what it might mean to be ‘radical’, nor because they wish to silence or close down any branch of musicology, but because without an agonistic forum in which actors and agents feel able to openly debate the terms on which we should engage music, musicology will remain hopelessly enthralled to its own pleasures. Indeed, as Laclau and Mouffe have suggested, agonism provides a channel for the expression of differences such that there should be no need for recourse to other less ethical actions outside the arena: whilst constraining musicology to a genteel consensus by no means leads to the violence that Laclau and Mouffe identify as the outcome of such enforcement, we can imagine it leading (if it hasn’t already) to a situation in which a set of quasi-tribal alliances governs appointments, acceptances for publication, promotion and the doling out of the benefits of disciplinary validation. There is no guarantee that the agonism I propose can guarantee this will not be (or is not already) the case, but I am persuaded by Laclau and Mouffe in this at least: an enforced genteel consensus is no way to generate strong and thoughtful discourse.



The homepage of this journal makes the case for the unseemly questioning of musicology’s ground in the following terms:



… responding to a perception that the projects going under the names of ‘new’ and ‘critical’ musicology have been succeeded by a certain disciplinary retrenchment or even counter-reaction, we aim to encourage work which explicitly or implicitly interrogates existing paradigms, and which acknowledges that musicological work will always have a political dimension.


I cannot speak for the Collective or the Board, and I make no claims to knowing what this dimension will look like in advance; nor would the journal seek to limit content to any particular ideological trajectory. However, journals inevitably develop a characteristic tone of their own and there will inevitably emerge a certain style, a certain emphasis and trajectory in the articles we publish. For the moment, it is my hope that we can continue to encourage and publish work of the highest quality that fundamentally questions those elements of musicological discourse that Gramscians have come to call ‘common sense’, that is, those reductions of discourse to the unquestionable of that which can and should always be questioned.


[1] Philip Bohlman, ‘Musicology as a Political Act’, The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Autumn, 1993), 411-436.

[2] For more on this, see James Obelkevich, ‘In search of the listener,’ Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 114 (1989), 102-108.

[3] Heinrich Schenker, ‚Das Hören in der Musik’, Neue Revue Vol. 5, No. 2 (1894), 115-121; repr. Helmut Federhofer (ed.), Heinrich Schenker als Essayist und Kritiker: Gessamelter Aufsätze, Rezensionen und kleinere Berichter aus den Jahrn 1891-1901 (Hildesheim, Zürich and New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 1990), 96-103: ‘Was aber im Hören eines Kunstwerkes der höchste Triumph, die stolzeste Wonne ist, ist, das Ohr gleichsam zur Macht des Auges zu erheben, zu steigern. Man denke eine Landschaft, eine weite und schöne, von Bergen und  Hügeln umrahmt, voll Felder und Wiesen und Wälder und Bäche, voll alles dessen, was die Natur in Schönheit und Mannigfaltigkeit, so vor sich hin, schafft. Und nun besteige man einen Ort, der mit Einem die gesammte Landschaft dem Blick erschließt ... So gibt es auch, über dem Kunstwerk hoch irgendwo gelegen, einen Punkt, von dem aus der Geist das Kunstwerk, all’ seine Wege, und Ziele, das Verweilen und Stürmen, alle Mannigfaltigkeit und Begrenzheit, alle Maße und ihre Verhältnisse deutlich überblickt, überhört.’ (103).

[4] Ibid.: ‘Wer diesen Höhepunkt gefunden, – von solchen Punkten muß auch der Componist sein Werk aufrollen, – der mag ruhig sagen, er hat das Werk “gehört”. Aber solcher Hörer gibt es wahrlich nur wenig.’ (103). My emphasis.

[5] Pieter van den Toorn, Music, Politics and the Academy (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press), 53, n.16.

[6] Ibid., 53

[7] Slavoj Žižek, For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor (London and New York: Verso, 1991), 237.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Slavoj Žižek, The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Woman and Causality (London and New York: Verso, 1994), 54.

[10] Although, within the second branch of musicology, ‘systematic musicology’, he does mention, as a ‘Hilfswissenschaft’ or ‘auxiliary  discipline’, ‘Psychologie’ and the sub-disciplines ‘Tonvorstellungen, Tonurtheile und Tongefühle’. Guido Adler, ’Umfang, Methode und Ziel der Musikwissenschaft,’ Vierteljahrschrift für Musikwissenschaft, Vol. 1 (1885): 5-20 (17). For more on the absence of the listener here, see also Obelkevich, ‘In search of the listener.’

[11] Adler, ‚Umfang, Methode und Ziel’, 16-17.

[12] See, for example, Sir Thomas Elyot, who, in 1534, speaking of the ‘dolours of heauiness’ used ‘radical’ to refer specifically to that which was foundational: ‘[heauiness] is so puissaunt an ennemye to nature and bodyly helthe, that to resyste the malyce and violence therof, are requyred remedies, as well of the holsome counsayles founde in holy scripture & in the bokes of morall doctrine. As also of certayne herbes, fruytes, and spyces, hauynge the propertye to expelle melancalyke humours, and to comforte and kepe lyuely the spirites, whiche haue theyr proper habitation in the hart of man, and moderate nouryshyng of the naturall heate and humour, callyd radical, which is the base or foundation, whervppon the lyfe of manne standeth, and that faylyng, lyfe falleth in ruyne, and the body is dissolued.’ The Castel of Helth Gathered and Made by Syr Thomas Elyot Knyghte, out of the Chiefe Authors of Physyke, wherby Euery Manne May Knowe the State of His Owne Body, the Preseruation of Helthe, and How to Instructe Welle His Physytion in Syckenes That He Be Not Deceyued (London: In aedibus Thomas Berthel, 1539), 66. Emphasis added.

[13] We tend to conceive of this usage as emerging some time after the Enlightenment, although the specific meanings ‘extreme’ or ‘root-and-branch’ are prevalent as early as the mid seventeenth century, and connected in particular to non-conformist groups such as the puritans or Quakers. See Richard Baxter’s An apology for the nonconformists ministry (London: Printed for T. Parkhurst and D. Newman, 1681): ‘OUR Fourth main Reason why we dare not cease our Ministry, is, Because we shall sin against Nature it self, even the great and radical Law of Love, and shall be guilty of murdering mens souls’ (46), emphasis added.

[14] I do not mean this term here as in any sense pejorative, but merely as contrastable in political and psychoanalytic literatures from so-called ‘classical’ notions of agency as always already inscribed within the operations of institutions or other social formations, as effects of them. Hence, the romantic psychoanalytic understanding of the psyche embraces dynamism, agency and effective activity and supersedes the classical model in emphasising in particular the subject’s proactive investment in its environment.

[15] See in particular Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1985), 36.

[16] See in particular Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 2nd edition, [1985] 2001).

[17] Chantal Mouffe, ‘Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism’, Reihe Politikwissenschaft/Political Science Series, No. 72, 2000, http://www.ihs.ac.at/ (19 March 2007).

[18] Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (London and New York: Verso, 2005), 74.

[19] It was Leon Trotsky himself, after all, who recognised the usefulness of the demand among the ‘tasks’ of the Fourth International. See Leon Trotsky, Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International (London: Bolshevik Publications, [1938] 1999).