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  • Musical Imprints and Mimetic Echoes in Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe
  • Eric Prieto

Oddly, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe's sole book devoted entirely to a musical subject opens with what appears to be an egregious error, its title, which is explained in the following way:

Depuis la fin de la Renaissance [...] la musique occidentale, pour trois siècles au moins, se sera principalement définie comme musica ficta. Et même l'École de Vienne, mis à part peut-être Webern, ne remettra pas en cause cette détermination. Admettons pour simplifier, comme on le fait généralement, que cette nouveauté soit plutôt circonscrite à l'art du chant et que tout commence avec l'invention du stile rappresentativo et de ce que Monteverdi appellera la seconda prattica.1

This description of the evolution of modern music is, historically speaking, accurate enough, but Lacoue-Labarthe's definition of the term musica ficta—as representative, imitative, figural music—is misleadingly presented as being widely accepted when in fact it is nothing of the sort. The standard definition of the term comes from medieval music theory (and not the post-Renaissance world, as Lacoue-Labarthe suggests) and has nothing to do with the role of mimesis in musical expression. It concerns, rather, a question of performance practice central to medieval music: the need for performers to infer correctly the presence of unnotated modifications to the notes in the score (accidentals, to use the modern term, which were not notated in medieval music).2 This is an important topic of study in its own right, but Lacoue-Labarthe makes no mention of it and, indeed, seems completely ignorant of this use of the term. Instead he justifies his usage through a kind of etymological fantasy.

Le fingere auquel renvoie ficta, dans musica ficta, est l'équivalent latin du plassein/plattein grec: façonner, modeler, sculpter—figurer donc. Mais aussi, la nuance existe déjà en grec, feindre et simuler, ou forger par l'imagination. On a là l'un des maîtres mots du lexique mimétologique: fiction, figure, etc. qu'on verra constamment reparaître dans les pages qui suivent. Il s'agissait de vouer la musique à l'imitation.


Fingere is the pivotal term of this etymology, since it serves as an invitation to move onto the terrain of fiction, imitation, and the metaphysics of mimesis, which, following Derrida, he calls mimetologism. This in turn enables [End Page 17] Lacoue-Labarthe to mobilize one of the central tenets of his entire philosophical enterprise: the paradoxical notion that representation is originary, a condition for, not a result of, the existence of models to imitate, even, and perhaps especially, when mimesis does not seem to be a primary concern.

This theoretical parti pris helps to understand, but not necessarily to justify, Lacoue-Labarthe's failure to mention the primary definition of the term musica ficta. The English translation of Musica Ficta seems tacitly to recognize this problem, since it adds a second justification of this usage, in a brief parenthetical remark referring us to the authority of Theodor Adorno.3 Now Adorno has indeed used the term in this way, as, for example, in Composing for the Films,4 and Philosophy of New Music.5 But whereas Adorno introduces this term in passing, presumably with a wink to those aware of the standard definition, Lacoue-Labarthe maintains the secondary connotation of the term in first (and only) position. For Adorno, as for Lacoue-Labarthe, the emphasis on figurality in post-renaissance music is a problem. But for Adorno it is a historical problem, whereas for Lacoue-Labarthe music, all music, is subject a priori to the principle of mimetic imitation.6 It is this presupposition, no doubt, that makes him so bold in his appropriation of the term.

It might seem like quibbling to take Lacoue-Labarthe to task on such a minor point, and I don't intend to disparage his argument on the grounds that he misuses musical terms, especially since his redefinition of the term is perfectly coherent in its own way, and provides more of a rhetorical embellishment than a critical cornerstone of his argument. Nonetheless, I insist on the primary definition...


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pp. 17-32
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