Category Archives: Zizek

Music as Language — structured thought without content

Recent discussion on this blog has prompted me to think about how much music really is like a language.

Language is constituted by syntax, grammar, structure, adjectives and so on; this seems to be basically all that language is. And music, too, has all of these things.

One can compose a sonata where one theme struggles against another. The result is often one where the initial theme is transformed a new. Beethoven’s music often exemplifies this idea. For instance, his fourth piano concerto, second movement. Occasionally, this dialectical movement between the demanding orchestra and the pleading, comforting words of the piano are believed to be Beethoven’s musical realization of Plato’s dialectical method, which Beethoven was probably reading at the time of this composition. In contrast to Plato, we have no content, we have no definition of Justice that must be tested against another. With Beethoven’s concerto, each theme is anonymous. What we do have is the fact that the piano is finally able to convince the orchestra to agree with its serene idea. One can easily make up a story to go along with it: the shepherd David comforting the raging king Saul with his harp. In any case, we don’t know. We only have the struggle. We do not know what the struggle is about. The explicit meaning escapes us.

So, music does not, however, have the same relatively fixed meaning that nouns have in language, one of its essential cores. Still, bits of pieces of music carry with them connotations derived from context. More generally, specific genres of music are associated with certain peoples or genres of art. Wagner’s late operas were composed in such a way that specific characters or themes received their own motif. These associations provided the listener with new ways of deciphering what was happening on stage. More broadly, Wagner’s music was also played during Nazi propaganda videos. As a consequence, his music is associated with anti-Semitism (which Wagner was. Ironically, Zizek claims that Wagner’s music actually epitomizes the wandering Jew).

One could easily imagine a musical composition that could carry this even further where a Wagnerian theme would struggle against a Jewish klezmer theme. The struggle would be easily recognizable as the Nazi’s struggling to wipe out the Jewish people.

But these examples with such obvious connotations are exceptions rather than the rule. The explicitness of these kinds of connotations are actually quite few and far between. Often, the connotations are rather subtle and are lost on those who have not spent many hours with the work. For instance, upon the first hearing of Bach’s St. John’s Passion, we don’t understand that the aria Mein Teuer Heiland is composed as a pastorale (Christ the shepherd), where the believer (bass soloist) asks the Christ nailed to the cross if he has redeemed the whole world. While the believer petitions Jesus, a choir sings a chorale with text of the realized eschatology of the church, nor does one immediately grasp that when the believer is asking if the world is redeemed, the word redeemed (Erlösung) wraps around the chorale’ affirmative answer in continuous sixteenth notes. Thus, Bach emphasizes the scope, steadfastness and persistence of this redemption. There are many other examples of this kind of work in this aria, and Bach’s work in general, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

The point I’m trying to make is that music contains the structure of language without much of the content. The content that does become associated with music is extremely unstable and often only understood by a few. One can use music to have a nuanced conversation in purely musical terms, about musical terms. But one cannot have a nuanced conversation that is not about music with music.

If language structures thought, then, what is structured thought without explicit content? Is it merely an invitation to fill the empty envelope of sound with whatever content one likes?

With Music — we are never quite sure

In a recent comment by Gerald Ens, I was asked what role music has in the formation of character. This is a question that has a long history. This isn’t the place to do a thorough genealogy of the question. However, to make a broad generalization, I would say that opinions about character and music have not changed so much throughout history.

Certain genres of music are still associated with certain groups of people and time periods. It seems that when people partake in a certain genre of music, they immediately take on the cultural connotations of a that genre and a character attribute is thrown onto the subject: one cannot like rock and roll without having some inclination towards being a rock god, a groupie, sex, drugs, etc. One cannot like classical music unless they have a pretentious side of them.

Furthermore, one can be accused for not actually liking the music at all; they like the culture that goes with it. For example, if I am a rich aristocrat in the middle of the 19th century, I go to concerts whether I like the music or not because that is where politics happen, that is where I retain my status in society. To take a more recent example, if I am an avant garde type, a hipster maybe, I like strange and atonal music, or even terrible bands because if I say that I like something on the fringes, I gain the respect of those who are also on the fringes. Those who enjoy more mainstream music cannot accept how someone can actually “enjoy” listening to music so strange. To both types of people, the accusation can be leveled: you don’t like the music, you’re doing it for social reasons.

The obverse of this argument is equally absurd: how can one be attracted to music with no cultural associations? Can one be attracted to the rap music or the protest songs of the 1960s without the “Fuck the system”? Probably. But perhaps they are attracted to other aspects of the music, e.g., be care free, be yourself, love everyone. The various elements of music that compete for our attention are far ranging. Usually this is named by answering the question “Why do you like this music?” Even music that you have never heard before becomes quickly associated with meaning from your experience. In order to be meaningful it must have meaning and meaning.

Another argument that had great success throughout a good deal of music history goes something like this: when we listen to holy music, we become holy whether we like it or not. This took the form of an argument that goes (very brutally) like this: The universe has been ordered according to divine proportions, unity being the purest; it is the most like God. Those intervals that are most unified are those intervals that resonate with the most divine presence. For example, the unison, the simplest of intervals, is the most like God since there is only one God and one universe and one Truth. The octave, the next closest interval to the unison exemplifies a similar relation, though not quite as pure. In the Baroque, exemplified by the music of Bach, the unison represented God, the octave the Holy Spirit, the fifth Jesus, and the third, man. The third also plays a special role because one has to flatten the third in order to achieve a tuning system that enables one to play in more than a few keys. This also serves to symbolize that man has fallen.

This tradition enjoyed its heyday during the renaissance. The people didn’t have to understand what was going on, nor did they have to like it – it was good for them because the music was in itself good and the soul would recognize it as such.

During the Baroque, the Lutherans developed this idea into saying that music moved a person’s disposition to be in a place where they could be better able to receive the words that were said in the music, e.g., the gospel. The composer had at their disposal a set of compositional devices that could be used in such a way that one could easily predict the audience’s reaction to the music. Compose the music in a minor key with a slow tempo and the audience becomes melancholic.

Closely connected to this use of rhetorical devices in music, we have composers who write for film. Tense scenes are often accentuated with deep bass and slow high notes, always in the minor. Joyous, triumphant scenes are in a major key with full orchestra with an easily identifiable theme. Basically, and it is obvious, the music accentuates the mood of each scene.

There is another theme by Zizek that should mentioned. He writes in various places that Beethoven’s Ode to joy has been played by many dictators with opposing politics. For some reason, there seems to be a unifying, sublime element in Beethoven’s ninth that many people seem to easily grasp. This, he claims, is often claimed to be the redemption of music: the same music that served evil can now serve good; it is an empty signifier. And he claims, in a Perverts Guide to Ideology, that this situation should be read in a much more ambiguous way that “with music, we are never quite sure.” Zizek also claims that this sublime element is nothing other than a void: it is too ambiguous to make sense of; it serves too many purposes; it is merely a deep feeling of connectivity to whatever one is already connected with.

Now, after these long winded remarks, what do I think? Well, in my platonic days I fancied the idea that when you listened to the music of Arvo Pärt your soul and character were slowly worked upon in a good and ordered way because the profound simplicity that his music exemplifies can do nothing but correct those straying from the straight and narrow.

I don’t hold to this view so stringently any longer. I do tend towards the idea that music speaks culture and that music is always drenched with connotations that are difficult to divorce. I tend toward the idea that certain cultures of music produce a certain character attribute and vice versa. Perhaps Gregorian chant is attractive for those who yearn for a simple life of divine mystery. If I only want to sing Italian opera, if I want to be on stage, if I want to be adored for my voice of gold that soars above the orchestra, I might have a deep need to be publicly adored, to be noticed, to be admired.

Still, I am hesitant to think in these terms because it tends to pigeon-hole people into categories based on their musical choices. And yet, this is often what we do: “You listen to Bob Dylan? Okay, now you are legit.” “Oh, you listen to Radiohead? Okay, now my respect for you has grown immensely.” In most of these cases, we are congratulating people on being attracted to bodies of work that have historically (or culturally) been respected that we also align ourselves with. While I do tend towards a view of art that holds a certain kind of complexity as criteria for long lasting meaningful interaction, I do not want to say that it is universally true that complex music is always better than simpler music. This argument is also used in the defence of most kinds of art: Doestovesky writes polyphonic novels; therefore, the complexity of the characters continually draws readers into the bountiful resources of the text. But I do believe that well-constructed complexity lends itself to continual interpretations which the West tends to find historically meaningful (maybe it’s just a white dude thing?).

I would like to conclude these remarks by addressing the most difficult to address: Zizek’s claim. How should it be read that the same music can be used for both good and evil? In truth, I can’t say much. His claim is basically that music is tool that can be used by a person of any persuasion. And in this sense, the only thing that I can say is that music is a language. As a language that speaks a certain vocabulary, it doesn’t possess inherent meaning independent of culture. It can be used for good or evil and though certain genres of language are cultivated in certain spheres of our human world, the genre itself is almost always easily adaptable to be used for other purposes and political views.

And that, my dear readers, is what makes it so difficult to say whether some forms of music are better than others. Music doesn’t seem to be a tool like any other that has potential consequences like, say, the internet does (it influences the way you read, interact, etc.). The cultivation of certain styles do tend to lend themselves towards certain kinds of practices and techniques, but the musical technique in itself does not make a person more holy. Music is an ambiguous tool that seems to be able to serve basically any political movement. And this, my friends, is difficult to accept.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (Zizek)

I have been participating in a Badiou, Zizek and Lacan reading group for a couple of years now. Reading these authors in the same reading group has been all the more productive since they overlap a great deal. Recently, we have been expanding our projects with these authors beyond just close readings of their works. For instance, we are currently finishing up a reader’s guide to Badiou’s most intimidating text, Being and Event. And last night, we finished our Lacan Ciné club, where we watched a few of the movies that Zizek analyses and ended with the two of Zizek’s own movies: The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.

Zizek is notoriously scattered. He continually bombards his audience with examples and bits of dense theory which are supposed to explain the examples. The examples are supposed to explain the dense theory. Usually, everyone ends up being confused. His movies are no exception.

Unless, however, one has watched these movies a number of times, as I have.

Tonight we ended the club with The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. The audience (made up of an assortment of people, not just my reading group) had a standard reaction: confusion.

The first few comments were basically this: he seems cynical; it was hard to follow; I didn’t agree with this one thing, etc. So, yes, pretty standard. But this is where it gets interesting. The conversation started to zero in on Zizek himself, rather than the film: he is too cynical, superficial, even evil, and so on. The confusion was slowly drained away, and it was replaced with confident scorn for Zizek. People even began to enjoy seeing him as an “empty shell” of a man.

The irony is that this is exactly what Zizek’s film was about: the reduction of complex ideas into an easily understandable enjoyable simplification, in other words, the critique of ideology. So, for Zizek, in the simplest of terms, ideology is being convinced that all of your problems can be explained through a single lens; this lens even allows you to enjoy your oversimplification. For Germany, The Nazis were able to explain that all of the problems plaguing them now and that have plagued them in the past could be explained by the foreign element of the Jew. In Capitalism, it is a little bit more varied: it can be communism, big business, terrorism, etc.

The basic idea is this: an ideology allows you to blame all of the complex problems of your world basically on one thing. But it also allows you to enjoy this scorn by giving you bits of pleasure here and there. And this is what happened tonight: I did not understand the entire film; bits of it made sense, and the bits that did I disagreed with what the author was saying; his words were to scary; he seemed evil; the author, as a person, must be flawed; So, we can reduce anything that he has to say to being problematic because he, himself, is problematic. He threatens our way of enjoying films and this should be avoided at all costs.

I claim, then, that Zizek’s films critique ideology in form and content: they give you a seemingly complex picture of how things are, and if you do not understand it right away, you reduce it to an easily understandable idea which allows you to retain and enjoy your superiority over what you don’t understand. However, you are able to break out of this ideology — If you investigate it further: watch it again, do some research, and watch the films he analyzes, then you are able to break out of ideology. This move, breaking out of an ideology, is painful. But it can also be revolutionary.


Let’s be honest: Zizek is a strange dude, but wow is he an amazing philosopher!

“The inherent obverse of ‘Be your true Self!’ is… the injunction to cultivate permanent refashioning, in accordance with the postmodern postulate of the subject’s indefinite plasticity… in short, extreme individualism reverts to its opposite, leading to the ultimate identity crisis: subjects experience themselves as radically unsure, with no ‘proper face’, changing from one imposed mask to another, since what is behind that mask is ultimately nothing, a horrifying void they are frantically trying to fill in with their compulsive activity.”

Page 373 — Zizek, Slavoj. The Ticklish Subject: the Absent Centre of Political Ontology. London: Verso, 1999.