The Birth of Music out of the Spirit of Critical Idolatry?
“Sounding the idols”—wait, isn’t this what music already does? What music is? Everything music touches—and it touches everything—seems to appear after the fact as having been an idol, or at least idol-like: hollow, silent, still. A drum, a mouth, a score for sure. A room, a premise. Maybe images above all? None dead, none even all that mute, and yet music, once it arrives on the scene, makes them seem as if they had been dead and mute, refuges for a kind of unearned authority. No idols without unearned authority. To say music brings things—objects, conditions, ideas—to life isn’t quite the point. It’s more that music lends this extra life to an order of things whose preceding stillness is always being mistaken for a kind of power that rules by refusing to speak, move, vibe. All the clichés about music’s power miss how music also makes things less powerful. It makes things less interested in power, and more interested in playing—moving, improvising, just fucking going. Music makes the everyday life of power less efficacious. It transforms that hollowness from miserly cache into shared resonance. A nice metaphor, even a model, of redistributive justice!
But all this is a pretty utopian account of music, quite la-la, as if music didn’t operate within, among other things, a visual logic locked in a scam dialectic that rigs the venerable binary vis-à-vis images. It’s not just an opposition between semblance and reality, seduction and suspicion, believing in images too much or too little. It’s a monstrous conflation of the two positions: a “plague of fantasies,” a deluge of lures, is superimposed onto the absolute refusal to be duped. The fanaticism of the idolater is the fanaticism of the iconoclast, the blue pill is the red pill. This possibility is latent in the code of the imaginary itself. But there’s a peculiar intensity to it now, more structural in nature, more fatal.
Would it be too facile to call iconoclasm the great idol of our age? To say that smashing (perceived) idols, declaring every image one encounters hollow, and declaring everything one encounters a (mere, forged, specious) image, is today’s great vice?1 I’m not talking about actually tearing down monuments, the righteous defacement of symbols of evil and oppression—the destruction of objects, which can be destroyed. Images can’t be destroyed. No, this is something more generic, not entirely conscious, properly ideological. It governs the dismantling of infrastructure, the stripping of the state, the privatization of all public life and shattering of all commons and common good. The psychoanalytic distinction between desire and drive helps get at it: the way drive, as a constant self-sabotaging pressure, gives way to desire as a kind of coping misdirection. The inescapable-intolerable is disguised—brilliantly!—as the fantasized-unreachable.2 “When [the picture] asks to be shattered,” Tom writes in What Do Pictures Want?, “it enters the sphere of the offending, violent, or sacrificial image, the object of iconoclasm, the pictorial counterpart to the death drive …”3 What happens when the death drive itself, as image-shatterer, becomes an iconic image? Freud famously stressed drives are stumm, mute, speechless.4 What happens when the drive’s muteness becomes indistinguishable from the idol’s? When the idol’s “dumb insistence” and “spectacular impassiveness” doubles as the drive’s own?5 How do you make this infernal chimera speak? How do you make it sing?
It’s tempting to despair and say that music is in on the game too. Sarah Hickmott points out that Nietzsche’s “great declaration of war” on idols relies on an age-old faith in sound and music as beyond duplicity—so: essential, selfsame, originary—and this faith itself is “one of the most believed-in idols in Western philosophy.”6 There’s a direct line between the fantasy that music is incapable of lying, and the fantasy music can help you “live the drive,” hack you into the inescapable-intolerable and ride it into oblivion. Not so much a perversion of Susanne K. Langer’s famous claim that “music is our myth of the inner life,” as its super-aggro endgame.7 But Hickmott’s alternative vision—music as radically networked and dispersive and impossible to disentangle from the weave of reality itself, music as an agent of radical fabrication—is no less actual.8 Nothing is less age-of-the-drive than this idea. It’s not a vision of music as even making idols speak, showing hollowness for what it is. It’s about putting that hollowness to work. Misappropriating it, squatting in it, turning it into architecture. Into infrastructure! For assembling, convening, instituting, building. For opening circles, and then finding ways to dance in and on them. If drive is now the idolatrous music of our inner lives, how could music become our myth—our icon—of the outer life?
- It’s hard not to imagine a Nietzsche in the burbs right now getting out his hammer and gonging the hell out of this idea.
- I’m paraphrasing here from Jodi Dean, “Complexity as Capture: Neoliberalism and the Loop of Drive,” new formations: a journal of culture/theory/politics 80 (2013): 139.
- W.J.T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 75.
- Freud, “The Ego and the Id”, in James Strachey, trans. and ed., The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XIX (London: Hogarth Press), 46.
- Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?, 27.
- Sarah Hickmott, Music, Philosophy and Gender in Nancy, Lacoue-Labarthe, Badiou (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020), 2.
- Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key, 3rd ed (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957), 245. Also—remember the nasty hilarious Daniels video from 2014, for Dj Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What”? Iconic living-the-drive stuff.
- “It seems to me,” Cecil Taylor says to Ron Mann in 1981, “what music is, is—everything that you do.”