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  • Musical Modulations of Politcal Thought
  • Geoffrey Whitehall (bio)

Music, like drugs, is intuition, a path to knowledge. A path? No — a battlefield.

— Jacques Attali

It is the silence, rather, that obliges the poet to listen, and gives the dream greater intimacy. We hardly know where to situate this silence, whether in the vast world or in the immense past. But we do know that it comes from beyond a wind that dies down or a rain that grows gentle.

— Gaston Bachelard

If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution.

— Emma Goldman

This paper highlights the contemporary political problem of affirming life, joy and difference in a world increasingly obsessed with creating uniform mediocrity.1 It does so by exploring different uses of music. This attentiveness to “uses” enables the paper to treat music, not as a thing, but as an active force imbued with transformative political potential. In this paper, I broaden the political impulse of Plato’s warning that “any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole State and ought to be prohibited....” The danger, for Plato, rested in his contention that “forms and rhythms are never changed without producing changes in the most important political forms and ways.”2 Except for the times when the state captures music for its own unifying ends (i.e., marching bands and anthems), therefore, state philosophy opposes the work of music. Broadening this insight, I will show that music has a different kind of relationship with politics than state philosophy’s regimes of qualification. In other words, music operates on epistemological and ontological registers that exceed, overwhelm and transgress the organizational drives that constitute and support state philosophy. More importantly, the paper argues that because musical modulations can amplify political differences (as rhythmic encounters, connections, and intensities) music stands to offer the possibility of affirming life, joy and difference beyond state philosophy’s drive to creating uniformity.

Lars Von Trier’s film Dancer in the Dark 3 acts as a guide for this paper because it develops the importance of musical modulations of political thought. At some point in all of Von Trier’s films ( Elements of a Crime , The Idiots , Breaking the Waves , Dogville and Kingdom ) the viewer is left sickened, in shock and groping for different endings to the story that they have just watched. What is interesting about Dancer in the Dark is that it develops the affective impulse “how can life, joy and difference be affirmed in a world hostile to becoming otherwise?” through a musical register. The film is about Selma (played by the musician Bjork) — a siren who is caught in a visual world inimical to her musical existence. Selma is a young quirky mother and is slowly going blind. Because her illness is genetic, her son, Gene (played by Vladic Kostic), faces the same fate. The film’s narrative unfolds around Selma’s attempts to earn enough money to get Gene an operation and free him from impending blindness.

Since Dancer in the Dark embodies a tragic theme, things do not proceed easily. Two horizons of becoming are colliding: one of visual qualification and one of acoustic vitalism. The clash occurs in the film making process itself (i.e., in the conflict between Von Trier’s cinematography and Bjork’s soundtrack) and in the dominant narrative played out by the film’s characters (i.e., the State vs. Selma). Dancer in the Dark is a re-telling and re-enactment of an epic contest between Apollo, the sun God who comes to represent light, seeing, consciousness and knowledge, and Dionysius, the God of life, who comes to embody sensual festivals of sex, drink, dancing and music. As Selma’s story or song progresses, the Apollo/Dionysius clash is staged through the body of Selma’s musical being. This clash does not constitute a dichotomous antagonism between the visual and the acoustic since, as Nietzsche reminds us in The Birth of Tragedy , Apollonian and Dionysian forces are interwoven with each other in the pursuit of art.4 What is central to tragedy is not the sadness, but instead, a political lesson about appreciating the different (political) ways...

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