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  • Parahuman Wagnerism
  • Gary Tomlinson (bio)


No one speaks of Verdism, of Bachism, or even of Beethovenism or Mozartism; but Wagnerism we cannot avoid. Twentieth-first-century discourse about Wagner should start by noting this fact, then work toward a clearer separation of the historical formations “Wagner” and “Wagnerism” than the last century observed. I will begin with the second and come around later to the first.

Within Wagnerism the subject and the sign have been the markers of catastrophe. The subject is usually thought to be that which Wagner unmade, or at least exposed as untenable or false. Sign is the Wagnerian proclivity that lessens or cheapens music, subordinating its prerogatives to those of narrative and symbol; here “leitmotif” is a pivotal, ever-compromised term. This derogation of Wagner’s sign and subject reaches back to Nietzsche—even, in the case of the sign, to Hanslick—and has been developed by Heidegger, Adorno, Lacoue-Labarthe, and many others.

Viewed from a distance, from a position outside Wagnerist discourse, this subject and sign look different. They come to seem not Wagner’ s creation so much as the upshot of a defensive and barbed retrospection that set in early and has been difficult to shake. They take on the appearance of straw men to be toppled in the rush to condemn Wagner and celebrate others—Beethoven, Schoenberg, even Bizet; or the appearance of tokens for a scapegoating of Wagner featured in a threnody for the Euro-American twentieth century. The fact that Wagner did much to invite this scapegoating says little about the subject and sign invoked in it.

How would Wagnerism be reshaped if we were to approach subject and sign alike along a different avenue? The answer I will sketch here takes its start from a revisiting of Wagnerian concerns I elaborated a decade ago in Metaphysical Song—more specifically, from a wish to see anew the Wagnerism I subscribed to there by looking, so to speak, around its corners. I am pushed in this direction by a reading of Alain Badiou’s recent Five Lessons on Wagner—which will show a distinct imprint on what follows, even though I find there less rethinking of conventional Wagnerism than meets the eye. I am pushed also by issues that have arisen in my [End Page 186] recent work in a very different area: music and human evolution. These reframe fundamental terms of Wagnerism—or can be used to do so, at least. They point toward a novel Wagnerism, if not a new Wagner, that might be said to move beyond conventional academic and critical humanisms—a Wagnerism that could be, in a sense I will try to make clear, parahumanist.


To begin, a case in point from the heartland of Wagnerism: Theodor Adorno’s In Search of Wagner. One of the more eye-widening passages in the book—it is even a moment of unintended humor—comes in Adorno’s analysis of the “bourgeois” orchestra. Key to this analysis, we recall, is the concealing of the individual labor involved in producing sounds. It is brought about through expanded string and wind sections and the doubling of strings by winds, orchestrational techniques that yield a totalizing effect at odds with the individuals whose labor creates the music, making the sound a “metaphor of infinity.” The techniques are favored in the Wagnerian tradition because they hide so well the injustice involved in the submerging of the individual in this totality. Their antecedents in Haydn and Mozart are clear enough to Adorno, but he does not stop here in tracing their history. Instead he sees them reaching all the way back to the beginnings of technology. (This is the funny bit.) He writes,

[Bourgeois orchestration] . . . repeats in a foreshortened manner the history of music as a whole. . . . Anyone fully able to grasp why Haydn doubles the violins with a flute in piano might well get an intuitive glimpse into why, thousands of years ago, men gave up eating uncooked grain and began to bake bread, or why they started to smooth and polish their tools. Works of art owe their being [Dasein] to the division of labor in society, the separation of...


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