Music, politics, government: truth procedures and their linkages

It occurs to me now that I haven’t written a blog post for over a month. That’s largely because I have been knuckling down finishing piece for solo piano and tape for Alex Raineri. But, now that that is finished, I have a lot I want to rant about on this blog: the medieval motet and counterpoint in early music, composing my piano piece, ideas for my new pieces, more on Ferneyhough’s approach, OpenMusic software, etc. So expect all that pretty soon. But for now, I just want to take up (again) the music-politics relation, and move outwards from there to the relationship between truth procedures and government.

This is all just thinking out loud, so don’t hold me to any of this, and apologies for its sprawling length. Nonetheless, I feel there’s something in the below line of thinking…

François Nicolas recently gave a presentation at a conference in Tunisia on music and politics (which he kindly sent to me). In this he spoke about the need to recognise the irreducibility of art to politics and vice versa and what it means to be both a musician and a political militant, to live in this divided space. It helped me to clarify some thoughts and frustrations I’ve been having for a while. If you read French and want a copy of this paper, let me know, and I’ll send it to you. If not, well, hopefully I’ll translate it soon, and post it here.

Anyway, I find myself agreeing (increasingly, again) with both Nicolas (and Badiou, the philosopher with whom he has worked for many decades) that music and politics represent distinct ‘truth procedures’ (the best introduction to this is, of course, Ethics). The relative autonomy of the one to the other is nothing new or particularly interesting, but what I’m curious about is the idea, that Nicolas makes explicit, that to draw proper links between the two procedures, on condition of their irreducibility, you need to be ‘subjectivated’ twice, both as a musician and a political militant, in two different truth procedures.

Accepting this idea, I would add the following ‘liberal’ sounding thesis: political art is not something to be encouraged in and of itself. Political activism is something to be encouraged. Musical (or artistic) commitment, commitment to the development of the ‘art itself’ (a contested idea, to be sure, but one that can be demonstrated in a materialist manner, albeit with a large grey area), should be encouraged on its own terms.

What has always got me about this idea of Badiou’s of artistic truths, is that it seems to let artists off the hook: obsessed with their art and the construction of its truth, the artist participates in a subjective procedure that seems to give them a free pass for ignoring anything that falls outside of this domain. Of course, this more or less Romantic-Modernist reading is just one possible reading of Badiou’s idea, and not a necessary one, but it is one that comes up when people suggest the idea of a self-validating artistic practice, or a truth content to art that is irreducible to anything else.

On the contrary, I would like to affirm (precisely by severing the artist and the art) that being musically subjectivated, for instance, offers no excuse for avoiding political subjectivation. What this means is that musicians should as a human being and not an artist, independently of their art, put themselves to a political cause. That is, they should, just like anyone in any other job (be it nursing or construction or teaching or whatever) should, to the greatest extent possible, take up political activism – daily organising of demonstrations, meetings, strikes, debating positions and tactics, etc, in the service of a political-social cause. What I’m suggesting, therefore, is the totally sensible point that, while art may contain its own truths, an artist as a human being does not therefore live in truth. An artist is not the art-subject; according to Badiou, this is the work. An artist is instead an arts-worker, an economic subject linked in this sense to the political (though not for all that naturally ‘politicised’, far from it).

I often feel composers decide to make ‘political art’ without having entered into a political subject themselves. That is, they take up a political issue because they are interested in politics and have read a bunch of theory about art and politics and think that, by doing their art, they can do some kind of politics. Yet these people often have never organised a demonstration, debated the best demands to take up, held public forums on political issues, tried to build a democratic political organisation, etc etc. What they end up dealing with are political opinions, and not politics. In general, these days, they are reduced to some kind of critical art, all the more powerless both artistically and politically. (Since politics means one thing to them, and another thing to the militant, you can have a conversation with them and completely miss each others’ meanings. A frustrating experience).

I am not suggesting that if one is subjectivated both musically and politically, that then a genuine political art will flow. Not at all. Political art is always difficult and unstable and always changing depending on the conjuncture. But, nonetheless, we can hazard a basic thesis: Without political subjectivation, political music will be insincere and incorrect, without artistic subjectivation, political art will not function as a universal bearer of human development.

Instead of the category of ‘political art’ then, perhaps we need a category for the organic emergence of the political truth procedure into the domain of arts, or the organic formation of (unstable) relations between the two fields.

Switching the arena a little, this goes some way to offering a left government (understood in the anti-capitalist sense) policy on the arts – a revolutionary government should not directly support ‘political art’, but instead support the people’s participation in both political truth procedures and in artistic truth procedures. To be clear: the political truth procedure should make sure that it organises itself on the institutional terrain of the arts (for instance, conservatoires and arts colleges/universities should be sites for organisation of students and lecturers, etc), but this in no way amounts to a take-over of the artistic form itself, which should retain its relative autonomy. At Darmstadt last year, I organised along with some other musicians-militants, an Open Space workshop on ‘Music and Protest’. If I went again, I might well simply organise some workshops on some political topics, since the idea that Darmstadt should be immune to politics or that it should only be taken up as a (never ending) discussion about ‘music and politics’ – this idea should by no means go unchallenged.

All this is quite close, of course, to Trotsky’s position, although I’ll have to return to that and check the specifics… I’m not as convinced anymore of his support for a kind of ‘withering away of the arts’ on condition that all life becomes art, the breakdown of the division of labour, etc. I suppose if that ever took place, it would have to do so organically, and not from the state, and that this would happen in such an unforeseeable future, that it is really not a theoretical issue for today. Yet the historical materialist perspective which locates the emergence of art and its various historical modalities as historical phenomena based (in the final analysis) on particular economic factors (alienation, division of labour, class division, commodification) does provide an important counterweight to reifying the distinction between the ‘artistic’ and the ‘economic’ and, by extension, the ‘artistic’ and the ‘political’ (which is to say that there is something always already economic in art, and something always already political (at least in the sense of ideological) in there too).

Moving on, though, accepting for the moment a relative stability in the present of the distinction between truth procedures, we could draw upon Badiou’s four-fold distinction (no doubt in a way that he would detest) in this broader sphere of left government.

Following the logic so far, the policy of a left government would be to support each of the four truth procedures independently, but not to attempt to take the position, nor encourage any particular way, of uniting them (which would likely result in a Stalinist terror). A left government should support people’s involvement in politics (that is, by increasing civil liberties, taking the side of the people in their struggles, providing resources to people’s organisations, changing school curricula, arresting climate change, etc), in arts (through increased funding, opening up new spaces, expanded education, etc), love (through increased rights for women, LGBTIQ, etc, women’s shelters, challenges to inheritance, undermining the normativity of the family unit, etc – all of which would increase people’s capacity to respond properly to love events), and in science (through funding, education, pulling support from institutions that are anti-science, etc). All this means a left government would be nourishing – through these measures, and through general social policy (i.e. alleviating poverty, etc) – the truth procedures already underway, not usurping them, and not forcing a state ideology of their unification. Their unification (or better, their various linkages and fusions, themselves transient and subject to change) will come from organic experimentation between people who are subjectivated in two or more of the truth procedures.

(This distinction between government and truth procedures is an interesting one, which I would like to explore some more. It implies also that the party is not in itself a political truth procedure, but merely one expression of it. It somehow brings Badiou and Poulantzas together, who, in his late years, came to believe both that the social movements should be allowed some distance from the party, and that not everything is political. But this is a political question to tease out later).

Back on music and politics: There remains in all of this the problem of popular music or folk music. Are they elements within political truth procedures, or musical events themselves? Badiou (and seemingly François, though I have to check) has no theory of popular musics as sites for truth procedures. He remains rather Eurocentric and elitist when it comes to art. Protest music, for François is part of the political subject, not the musical one. I tend to agree. But what would the conditions of it travelling into a musical subjectivity be? Surely not its taking up of Western art music’s formal qualities and institutional structures. This will be a big challenge to overcome: think of popular musics and art musics in the same way, not as qualitatively different phenomena.

All of this remains meta-level and barely begins to suggest the specific relationships musicians should be forging between music and politics today. Nonetheless, what it does is provide an ethics for the musician-militant (as François calls it). It clarifies that there is no substitute for political action proper, and that there is no substitute for artistic development on its own terms. From a political point of view, it proposes that the institutions of musical production and reproduction first of all should be considered sites of struggle, that is, prior to the conscious entrance of politics into the art form itself. It also suggests that nothing is precluded in linking these two fields of truth, but also that there will never be theory or practice of the relationship between the two, since it will always be a matter of starting at the historical conjuncture of each.