James Currie with Andrea Spain


photo by Andrea Spain at event Nocturminal, Buffalo, NY


James Currie is a philosopher, musicologist and performance artist. His recent essay, "Music After All" published in the Journal of the American Musicological Society [1], has raised a flurry of reactions, having called into question a certain type of self-assurance we—as nuanced readers of cultural contexts—might feel having properly politicized art. In contrast to figuring art or music as necessarily ethical, politically forward looking, or redemptive, he asserts that music instigates us toward excess (such as dance), the unexpected, and, even more radically, toward doing nothing useful at all. His work points to the possibility of a "kind of unemployed art." Paradoxically, he asks if we might "perhaps achieve more politically by doing less, hanging out mindlessly with the unemployed, with music after all?"


AS:  Your work asks us to think ontologically about politics and music – and to extricate the two from one another.  Central to your philosophical project is thinking the status of music “after all” we want from it has been stripped away.  In this, your work swerves from both theoretical and popular notions that music is first and foremost experiential.  Whether we believe experience of art is politically framed, culturally constituted, historically conditioned, or – most insistently – absolutely personal and irreproducible, we tend to believe that music is about us, about something fundamentally human.  By contrast, you conceive music as a force that exceeds the human.  Can you explain this notion of music as impersonal, inhuman force?


JC:  The perception that there is an almost inextricable connection between music and what it means to be human remains remarkably strong.  To name but one instance, the famous comparative literature polymath George Steiner in his theologically-tinged book Real Presences says that the meaning of music may well be the meaning of man—the phrase of course is en route to an outrageous pomposity, but it is a pomposity that, when we are tired and maudlin, most of us are more than happy to feast our souls upon.  My feeling is that people are often much more prepared to consider the notion of impersonality in relationship to the other arts than with music.  To play on “the human” for a moment, it is as if the more inured we become to the increasing “inhumanity of the world” (whatever that means exactly from a philosophical perspective), then the more music has to become like a religious outpost, a temple in which “the human” is preserved by means of musical sounds that we decide to perceive as, essentially, ourselves.  It is like the paradox of consubstantiation, where the bread is inextricably both bread and the body of Christ, the wine, wine and simultaneously blood; music is musical material, yet not merely materiality—it has a soul, it is vivified by the human, and it cannot exist without that.  Music comes into being in order to give voice—one of the most common of metaphors found in relationship to music; it expresses our deepest truths about ourselves.  Describing their most profound of musical experiences, many people talk of something almost lewdly personal, as if what had not even been known by themselves about themselves has somehow now been made known to them (given back, as it were) through music.  For many, then, to talk of impersonality in relationship to music is tantamount to robbing them of who they are; it is to transgress and speak a profanity, to intone the bad spell by means of which the temple is destroyed and we are cast out once more into the exposed world of alienation where, unlike when music is present, we are no longer known, respected or belong.

Impersonality for most invokes the cold, and there is very little quite as pretentious and depressing as those who refuse warmth.  One thinks of the cliché of the young adult male who has “seen through” the hot and confused emotional excesses of his adolescence and now opts for the pulpit of a cool and ironic distance from where he can then propound, without affect, his new political realism.  Whole epochs can take on this tenor, and similarly be prone to a kind of affected refusal of affect that, perhaps, masks a moral and ethical laziness, or even cruelty—one thinks to some degree, to take a musical example, of the European musical avant garde of the 1950s.  And, indeed, I would be mortified if that’s what people thought I was propounding by a certain notion of impersonality in regard to music; for it would imply that my way of thinking about music was against music itself—as if I had turned into some kind of latter day St Augustine, trying to reject the very pleasures to which I am undoubtedly addicted. 

This said, although music’s force is absolutely not in question within my thinking, how we understand that force, by contrast, is.  If I were feeling more full of myself than I am on this late, wet, depressing Sunday evening in which I write, I would invoke a certain philosophical leitmotiv (for example, in Nietzsche, Kant, Galileo) and state that what is needed is some kind of Copernican conceptual revolution, which, with regard to music, would run something like this: that it is not that music is important to us (forceful) because it is, as it were, able to sing the song of who, in our deepest sense, we already are; it is, by contrast, that it is important to us (forceful) because it allows us to fulfill the profound need not to be who we are any longer.  And by this, I don’t mean that it allows us to fantasize about being personally otherwise (more sexy, magnetic, mesmerizing, and so on)—although I think people can often take refuge in such narcissistic distractions precisely as a means of avoiding the shock of what is really going on when music’s at play.  (No, not at all; I’m increasingly less and less interested in always reducing the question of music to subjectivity.)  Rather, it allows us literally to be impersonally wise, and so it is working by a paradox: the reason we no longer feel alienated from “our humanity” when music is in play results precisely from the fact that we are fully wrapped up in something that isn’t human—after all, even though (barring the exception of birds and computers) music is made by humans, the resulting musical sounds are no more human than is a chair or a cup.  

At stake here is the conceptualization of the human.  Broadly speaking, the “humanist” tradition has argued that there is a human content that the human then, as it were, expresses.  We should remember that, etymologically speaking, expression just means out-pushing, and so in this formulation, music is just one such manifestation of human-content having been pushed out.  By contrast, I increasingly think that “the human” is created as an effect—a remarkable act of grace—resulting from the human animal’s engagement with something that is, in a literal sense, not it (much of this sentence, I feel, has been allowed to resonate with me as a result of our conversations on the topic—there’s a strong and productive influence at work here).  For me, that does not denigrate the force of music’s impact.  But it does imply a different kind of characteristic movement to human desire than the one offered by humanism: in other words, instead of us wanting to return to ourselves, I would argue that we want to escape.  This, for example, would help us to explain the complex phenomena of the enjoyment that we gain from music that is sad.  Instead of returning us to sadness, I would argue that what we experience in sad music is the release of tension that is attendant on sadness (part of the human) escaping into musical material (the non-human); it is that movement, epitomized for me in Chopin’s Nocturnes, that makes us smile, and so, ironically, makes us feel more human. 

AS:  Can you describe what you call “productive failure” incited by music’s excessive generosity?


JC:  A scholarly project, as a dear friend of mine, the comparative literature polymath Irving Massey pointed out to me the other day, is like a mood: you live it and then get over it, and can’t quite believe that, once it has passed (once one has been cured), that one had ever been ill with it.  And so I’d completely forgotten that I’d ever written about productive failure.  I’ve had your question in my head all day, and decided that I would either make up something new about it (which would have been more fun), or try and remember without looking at the blasted essay itself.  Unfortunately, I think the latter has transpired, but what I’m about to say is still a remembrance.  I will not read it again!

What fails when music is at play is our ability to be able to pin it down; this can be immediately illustrated if you play a piece of music (particularly without text) and ask yourself what it is about.  If you are being honest, you get an almost orgiastic mental response: a lewdly fecund flowering of completely contradictory narratives; magnificently profligate palettes of emotional colors; gestural imaginings dancing with religious epiphanies; jokes in the midst of tragedies, tears dripping down into wide-mouthed smiles.  From the perspective of a certain conceptual precision, then, music can be incredibly frustrating.  This is particularly the case for the academic or the critic, where the ability to be able to bring an understanding to rest (through historical contextualization, aesthetic value judgment, or what have you) is still much more professionally valued than the desire to keep things in movement.  But this failure, I would assert, is productive because it reveals the lack in what we try to say about things.  To use what is increasingly not my favored terminology, music’s ability to make us fail, conceptually, thereby negates us, and so opens us up into the possibility of a different kind of inscription.  What I believe I didn’t say in “Music after All,” however, and which I think is increasingly important to point out, is the following paradox: that music’s endless production of more results from whatever we are listening to being one.  In most instances, we recognize the piece of music we are listening to as a singular entity; it is not impossible (though not incredibly easy either) to mark out its parameters.  And yet this one thing (say a song that we listen to a lot) cannot be successfully reduced to one by our conceptual work.  I wonder, in fact, if it is precisely this quality about music as a singularity in relationship to the human that allows it to make us feel more “human” in the terms that I used in answer to the first question.  It allows us to endlessly escape into something else, yet without the horrific sense of there never being any stable ground—the very fact that it is a singular piece makes the endless escape and slippage pleasurable.  Other arts have tried to capture this—one thinks, for example, about Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.  However, I think Joyce, personally, is very distressing to read; he can’t create the impression of the necessary yet impossible singularity.  By contrast, music . . . but, this might all just be a gratuitous way of dissing Joyce, with whom I’ve never been able to establish a good relationship.  Joyce strikes me as very bad (if technically brilliant) music indeed.

AS:  You know I’ve long been preoccupied with different registers of forces, almost imperceptible resonances, sense and affect that permeate bodies, alter their trajectories.  How do you understand the body in relationship to music?

JC:  This is a tricky one for me, just simply because I don’t think about the body that much.  So I don’t have a theory in the making here.  But I have done a lot of dance in my life, and I think that what is interesting to me about dance is again how it allows one to escape into something not quite human.  Let me see if I can follow through on my own argument for a minute: if music is where the human experiences a form of escape from itself, then dance (when done to, or in the presence of, music) is the paradoxical maneuver, perhaps, by which that escape then inscribes itself on/through the human body.  So we start with the human, move to music, and then move not back to the human, but forward to the human body that is now inspired to somehow be outside of being fully determined by the human.  Music, through dance, inspires the body to do things that are, essentially, not necessary (or even particularly helpful) for the human animal per se: to ape the ability to fly, to make all sorts of shapes that distort and can seriously damage the body (I, for example, did large amounts of vogueing in the late 1980s and 1990s, and as a result, my shoulder and upper back are completely screwed up).  On a certain level, like music, dance seems most dance-like when it offers me the possibility of release.  Now, of course, one could subjectivise that as bespeaking about something to do with my sense of claustrophobia (which is often quite overbearing—I’m haunted by images of being trapped); one could then invoke some kind of oppressive and negative maternal presence as a means of decoding that.  But maybe the release is about something completely different?  That’s what interests me a lot at the moment: what does it mean to escape, and how can we distinguish it from mere escapism.  I don’t know if that really helps.  


His book Music; or the Politics of Negations is forthcoming from Indiana University Press. Look for it early 2011.

[1] James Currie, "Music After All," Journal of the American Musicological Society 62, no. 1 (2009): 145-203.


all contents © copyright 2009 / design by Artist Website Service