Music and Interpellation

Just read the bit in Althusser’s Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses that deals with the idea of ‘interpellation’.

I am interested in exploring how the concept of ‘interpellation’ relates to music, and specifically polyphonic or contrapuntal music. What I want to know is how the listening subject recognises himself in the music. This is important, since I want, on a theoretical level, to show that there are stakes in the composition of music, and that it relates to how people define themselves socially. I also, naturally, want to create music that has an effect on people, that isn’t ‘a-subjective’.

So, here’s some unordered thoughts:

I only wish to point out that you and I are always already subjects, and as such constantly practice the rituals of ideological recognition, which guarantee for us that we are indeed concrete, individual, distinguishable and (naturally) irreplaceable subjects.

Connection to idea of ritual in Small’s ‘Musicking’. Ideology is not just ‘text’ or ‘ideas’ propagated through written media or whatever. Ideology is more fundamentally the ritual practices through which we recognise ourselves as subjects (for better or worse).

The second point here is that we are ‘always already’ constituted as subjects. From the moment of birth we are surrounded by rituals (including being named) that form us into subjects. I would add that we are surrounded by music from birth and it helps ‘subjectivate’ us; it trains us to behave and see ourselves in certain ways.

Music, as Small points out, is a particular configuration of human bodies and their products in a representation of ideal relations, so it is in a very profound sense, ideological.

As a first formulation I shall say: all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects, by the functioning of the category of the subject.

We are ‘hailed’ as subjects to music in an almost literal sense. The music ‘appeals’ to us. The sound is eerily compelling, from the get go, before we are conscious of it, and certainly before we work out why (if we ever do). “We are the music, while the music lasts” as T.S. Eliot has said. But the structures that musical practices instil in us are connected to many other ideological structures that certainly do last after the music stops.

The question then is what are the structures (the sets of relations) to which music interpellates us? I’d say there’s two basic dimensions, the borders between which are hardly immutable, if nonetheless real. Firstly, there’s the ‘external’ relations: the structure of the venue, the ticketing system, the bar, the parking, the wages of the cleaners, the seating arrangement. Then there’s the internal relations: the harmonies, rhythmic structures, polyphonic arrangements, gestural language, formal procedures, and so on. In between these two, connecting them, is the mode of participation of the human beings engaged in the ‘musicking’. I am tempted to put the ‘mode of participation’ in the category of ‘external relations’, but it is so bound up with the particular form that it is hard to extract from the internal relations. It is perhaps the immediate and largely inseparable ‘frame’ or the ‘internal margin’ of the work.

I shall then suggest that ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: ‘Hey, you there!’

I think this relates very much to this question of the mode of participation. The term ‘recruit’ is a giveaway: how does a particular music ‘recruit’ its participants, and what does it ‘recruit’ them to do? Sit down, shut up and listen? Sing along? Dance? Tap the fingers on the steering wheel? Feel miserable about themselves? Hate the opposite sex? And so on…

“ideology never says, ‘I am ideological’. It is necessary to be outside ideology, i.e. in scientific knowledge, to be able to say: I am in ideology (a quite exceptional case) or (the general case): I was in ideology.”

Music is incapable of being fully self-conscious. This is not a wholly lamentable fact. Firstly, I don’t agree that there is a simple division between ideology as ‘false consciousness’ and Marxist science as ‘true consciousness’. Reality is much more complex than that, and do we not need to create utopian ideals, heroic figures, symbolism, and so on for ‘the left’? Of course we do. There will be no moment when musicking will be replaced by science.

for you and for me, the category of the subject is a primary ‘obviousness’ (obviousnesses are always primary): it is clear that you and I are subjects (free, ethical, etc….). Like all obviousnesses, including those that make a word ‘name a thing’ or ‘have a meaning’ (therefore including the obviousness of the ‘transparency’ of language), the ‘obviousness’ that you and I are subjects – and that that does not cause any problems – is an ideological effect, the elementary ideological effect.

Music, insofar as it has an interpellative function, will tend to be ‘obvious’. This self-evidence can be used by the ‘culture industry’ to create subjects of capital, or it can be the result of more authentic social practices (folk can represent a continuity with a pre-alienated time, or it can represent the forging of collectivity from within an alienated situation (workers’ songs for instance)). Or, in the case of modernist art music, it can take the breakdown of the social as a starting point and attempt to start from something other than obviousness, but it must maintain a relation to it.

It then emerges that the interpellation of individuals as subjects presupposes the ‘existence’ of a Unique and central Other Subject, in whose Name the religious ideology interpellates all individuals as subjects.

This is complicated. I’d like to say that the musical ‘subject’ or ‘theme’ in classical music represents the Subject as absolute that guarantees the subjects that are interpellated. This is what François Nicolas argues is thematism’s function: a representation of self-consciousness, and Yearsley hints at the relationship between the Fugal or Canonic subject and the Sovereign subject. However, if all music ‘interpellates’ this ‘Subject’ (should such a thing really need to exist) probably has more to do with the univocity of the musical discourse, which is in part a function of its fetishisation. Insofar as the music ultimately tends towards unity, it tends to interpellate its subject to a sovereign Subject. But this shouldn’t imply that any music that is fairly univocal in its language is therefore reactionary: that’s a libertarian delusion. Musics that bring people together to sing, or to dance, or whatever, are good. These (at this stage of history) need to be simple and univocal. We need more of that. It does become a problem when individual subjects have no real option but to see themselves in the relations set up by the culture industry.

The real aim, at the end of the day, is for the people to collectively ‘interpellate’ themselves into their own musics. That is to say, to have control of their own dreams, not have dreams thrust upon them by those in charge of the record industry, the big venues, marketing agencies, etc, etc.

As far as new contrapuntal music goes, as I see it, it needs to reckon with how the listener is interpellated into its unfolding discourse. Unlike Mahnkopf, I am not interested in seeing polyphony primarily in terms of a multiplicity of abstract parametric procedures and morphological types. I am interested in a counterpoint where listeners follow lines and their interaction, and hopefully, get a sense of the freedom, the alienation (from themselves and each other), the tension, and the triumph that these relations imply. Does this make me less ‘radical’?