What is the task of Marxist musicology?
Saturday, 29 April 2017 17:22

What is the task of Marxist musicology?

Published in Music

In the first of a series of articles, Mark Abel discusses music and Marxism. We hope they will stimulate further contributions on this topic. 

Part 1: Explanation or critique?

This website welcomes discussions of how Marxism relates to art and culture. But what does Marxist inquiry look like? This might seem obvious when we are looking at political questions, but is less so when Marxism is used as a tool to talk about things like art or music. Specifically, to what extent should we be attempting to provide explanation, and to what extent critique?

This dilemma might be said to be a question which arises from Marxism becoming an academic discipline. Only in academia has the idea grown up that Marxism might be for ‘objective’ analytical purposes only. Outside of academia it is taken as obvious that Marxism is critique, to the extent that it is more likely that the reverse is assumed: that it is only critique, i.e. that it is pure political ideology with no claim to objectivity.

However, within academic disciplines – especially cultural studies – we find the notion that a Marxist analytical method can produce important insights without being connected to any political project or wider goal of changing the world. Probably the key statement against this approach by Marx himself in the second of his Theses on Feuerbach:

The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.

I take the practice in question here to be political practice, and, therefore, the meaning of this thesis to be: all (social) theory which is not connected to political practice is idle, since there is no way of grounding it outside of practice. The test of the correctness of theories about economy, politics, social structure etc. is the extent to which they facilitate the fruitful practice of those engaged in the struggle for socialism. Conversely, the best way to ensure the correctness of one’s theory is to develop it from the vantage point and perspective of engagement in the struggle for socialism.

When it comes to theories not directly relating to the class or political struggles – for example, cultural questions, aesthetics etc. – the test of practice seems a little stringent.
Perhaps for that reason, the first generation of Frankfurt School critical theorists developed an alternative justification for taking a critical stance. Adorno and Horkheimer argued that to take for granted the current state of affairs – a false society, divided against itself – was to produce theory which was complicit in present society, and was, in effect, to act as an apologist for it. Theory was not worthy of the name, said Horkheimer, if it was not ‘dominated at every turn by a concern for reasonable conditions of life’.

It is of course Theodore Adorno who is the most obvious example of the deployment of that stance in relation to music. His writing is full of the most excoriating and uncompromising critiques of composers who, he argued, produced music which capitulated one way or another to the mystificatory and oppressive tendencies of modern society. Stravinsky, Wagner, popular music and jazz all came under fire, while Adorno was unashamedly partisan in his support for Schoenberg, Berg and Mahler.

This method of producing theory is diametrically opposed to the standard of disinterested positivism upheld by mainstream inquiry, particularly musicology. That shouldn’t surprise us. The dominant mode of doing musicology is to pay due deference to the canon (the greats of Western art music) but beyond that, not to make value judgments. It is felt that to do so would only serve to reveal one’s personal preferences which are of no relevance to academic study.

Lukács is one Marxist interested in cultural questions who is scathing about this ‘parading of one’s lack of convictions’. Nonetheless, it persists, even among self-styled Marxists. Take, for example, Adam Krims and Henry Klumpenhouwer, who claim to deploy a ‘postmodern Marxism’ in their musicology. They argue that there is no basis on which to make value judgments about culture or music, and the task of Marxism is to be analytical, not critical. Because capitalism, under its contemporary regime of ‘flexible accumulation’, has achieved the total commodification of cultural products, and because, as any good Marxist knows, art cannot transcend its socio-historical circumstances, they conclude that there can be no moment of resistance or opposition in art. Those, like John Storey on this website, who search for such resistive elements have been misled by a distortion of Gramsci and an anachronistic concept of civil society, while those who believe that Marxism is consistent with aesthetics (or that there can be a Marxist aesthetics) are clinging to the residues of idealism present in Marx’s early works.

Art is not a realm of freedom, or even a premonition of a future realm of freedom, they argue. All we have are commodified cultural products bearing the stamp of the regime of capital accumulation under which they were produced. Therefore, says Krims, the task of Marxist musicology is ‘to trace flexible accumulation in the very sound of the musical tracks’. Klumpenhouwer goes further and asserts that ‘it is pointless to struggle towards an exit in such a closed system as capitalism’. In other words, echoing the Borg in Star Trek, resistance is futile.

Marxism here is understood as an analytical tool shorn of all political purpose. Marxist musical analysis becomes a quasi-scientific practice whose task is to explain why music is bound to sound the way that it does.

We have arrived at a paradox. Despite the attempt at objectivity, or neutrality, this approach is not a bad definition of ideology: the naturalisation of the existing state of affairs and the refutation that things could be other than they are. The only way to avoid being ideological in this way is to do what Marx himself did and take a determinedly critical stance to one’s object of study from the outset.

The kind of Marxism which eschews critique is a complete misunderstanding of Marxism. Any attempt to dissociate a Marxist analytical method from the critique of capitalism and the project to supersede it effectively turns it into something else.

So, a Marxist musicology must be about making judgments as well as analysing music. In fact, ‘musicology’ is an unsatisfactory word for it, since it tends to imply a forensic examination of compositional techniques. ‘Marxist musical critique’ might be a better description of what I have in mind, but ‘musicology’ at least has the virtue of emphasising a focus on the musical aspects of music, something that much Marxist writing on music has ignored.

But what kind of judgments should a Marxist musicology make, and on what basis? Clearly, they would ultimately be political judgments, but in what sense political? I will address the possible alternatives in the next instalment.