Against Deleuze, Boulez (Music as Oracle)

In his book The Age of Extremes, Eric Hobsbawm notices the curious way the arts and aesthetics demonstrate an uncanny aptitude for prophetic foresight. For Hobsbawm, the avant-garde revolution in the 1910s, for example, took place long before the world whose collapse it expressed actually fell apart. It is for this reason that the cultural historian should pay close attention to the evolving aesthetic modalities of art in the context of particular political conjunctures. What are we to make of Gilles Deleuze’s use of the music and writing of Pierre Boulez in service of a philosophy that reads like an oracle? Against his own philosophy of discipline and punishment, Michel Foucault prophetically suggested that the century to come would be known as Deleuzian. When it comes to the critical reception of Boulez’s compositional aesthetics, the fairly predictable association of serialism (via Webern) with a kind of hermetic totalitarianism (the music’s mathematics as antisocial hyperintegration, etc.) has given way in more recent times to a more empirically grounded critical association of serialism and dodecaphony with the cultural politics of the Cold War. What the latter critique misses (modernism as the false mask of capitalism) is the truly uncanny prophetic resonance (in Hobsbawm’s sense) of post-war radicality with the new modalities of social life produced by the neo-liberal digital information network that emerged at the end of the twentieth century.

The paper demonstrates the prophetic dimensions of Boulez’s oeuvre by way of the politico-musical philosophy of Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Boulez’s music and music theory claims residency in and serves as an important conduit for the writings of Deleuze and Guattari in the 1970s and 1980s. For example, the philosophers creatively adopt serial musical structure as a philosophical trope for thinking identity across strata. The terms they employ are largely borrowed from Boulez’s technical writings on music written nearly twenty years earlier. By situating the philosophers’ engagement with music in the historical context of a romantic-modern tradition (which, broadly, emphasises the critical aspirations of music), the paper assesses the political valences of their central arguments in the current context of postmodern capitalism, to which their work is addressed. The paper demonstrates how the philosophers’ use of Boulezian aesthetics is ultimately prophetic of dominant modalities of techno-political praxis today.

Corpus Delicti #2 // Untimely Precursors

On 30 July 1881 Nietzsche sent a postcard to his friend Franz Overbeck, enthusiastically expressing his surprise at having discovered he had a famous precursor in the history of philosophy:

I am utterly amazed, utterly enchanted! I have a precursor, and what a precursor! I hardly knew Spinoza: that I should have turned to him just now, was inspired by “instinct.” Not only is his overtendency like mine—namely to make all knowledge the most powerful affect—but in five main points of his doctrine I recognise myself; this most unusual and loneliest thinker is closest to me precisely in these matters: he denies the freedom of the will, teleology, the moral world-order, the unegoistic, and evil. (Postcard to Franz Overbeck, Sils-Maria, 30 July 1881)

In our fictional lecture-performance, Franz Overbeck (Arno Böhler) responds to Nietzsche’s postcard by recommending that he read two young French philosophers: Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault. Overbeck is particularly enthusiastic about Deleuze’s book Nietzsche and Philosophy and Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. He claims that both authors have finally understood that his friend Nietzsche’s work, due to its untimeliness, is a foreign body to what has been called philosophy so far. Having started the “Prelude of a Philosophy of the Future,” Nietzsche’s thought is now at last recognised as being a precursor of thought events, still waiting to be discovered and called into being posthumously.

Such a futuristic mode of thinking and doing philosophy, says Deleuze, “has an essential relation to time.” It is fundamentally untimely, that is to say:

… essentially against its time, a critique of the present world. The philosopher creates concepts that are neither eternal nor historical but untimely and not of the present. The opposition in terms of which philosophy is realized is that of present and non-present, of our time and the untimely (UM II Use and Abuse of History, Preface). And in the untimely there are truths that are more durable than all historical and eternal truths put together: truths of times to come.
(Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy. London and New York: Continuum 2006, 100.)

Franz Overbeck’s reflections in response to Nietzsche’s postcard are interrupted by Susanne Valerie Granzer, who presents a selection of texts by philosophers whose philosophy has been interpreted as a disruption, or sometimes even as a crime against the classical canon of philosophy they inherited: Spinoza, who was cursed for his thoughts, the man in Kafka’s The Trial who was executed without reason, and the poets in Plato’s Republic who were expelled from the state.

The lecture-performance stages philosophy, rendering the words uttered in the performance as a sensual, bodily experience, to be shared with the audience.