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.