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  • Small Change When We’Are to Bodies Gone? Response to Gary Tomlinson
  • Christopher Norris (bio)

(John Donne, “The Ecstasie”)


Every so often—and with increasing frequency of late—the arts and humanities disciplines, musicology included, take a militant turn “against interpretation.” Around thirty years ago Susan Sontag sounded one such offensive in a famous essay under just that title, while Roland Barthes put a broadly similar case first from a structuralist and later—more engagingly—from a poststructuralist standpoint.1 Since then the attacks have continued at regular intervals, through both a range of arguments concerning what’s wrong with that despised activity and a range of proposals for what should take its place. Roughly speaking, the diagnoses fall somewhere on a scale that runs from “interpretation = subjectivism = mere impressionism and/or associative whimsy” to “interpretation = failure to apply the requisite standards of formal, structural, syntactic, or depth-analytical precision and hence the fall into various kinds of naive or uncritical talk.” Or again, there is the more politically angled (e.g., Adornian negative-dialectical) version of the charge that regards interpretation—at any rate, existing modes thereof—as always in hock to some ruling conception of the work’s manifest or latent content, this content presumed to be somehow “there” for any listener with ears to hear.2 If criticism hopes to resist such forms of ideological compliance, then it will need to combine the utmost powers of formal analysis with the utmost politically informed attentiveness to cultural, historical, and (ultimately) socioeconomic conditions.

Just recently the attacks have tended to come from a different quarter, with the emphasis less on these somewhat (so it’s thought) overcerebral concerns than on the body—the living, sensing, feeling, erotic, vibrantly responsive human body—as the focus of attention. Here again Barthes was a strong precursor, with his late meditations on the ways that musical as well as literary texts might be valued, not so much for their structural complexities or other such arcane delights but more for their elusive teasings-out of a bodily-erotic repertoire. At one time, as Terry Eagleton jadedly remarked in a review of Peter Brooks’s Body Work, there seemed [End Page 203] to be as many bodies strewn around the field of cultural theory as around the field at Agincourt.3 However, there was also something that dropped out of sight in the reaction against all things cerebral, that is, not only against interpretation but very often against its formalist, structuralist, poststructuralist, and negative-dialectical antagonists. It was simply that, after all, the upshot of this was a whole lot of talk—sophisticated talk at that—about the body and its various modes of sensory-libidinal-erotic stimulation, rather than some strictly impossible appeal to the immediate, preconceptual, unspoken (indeed unspeakable) register of inchoate drives and affects. Such was the recurrent dilemma, basically a far-out and chronic version of the old Kantian dualism that afflicted so much avant-garde literary theory after poststructuralism.4 It is still a striking feature of many developments in the wake of the 1980s new musicology, among them certain problematical aspects of Gary Tomlinson’s article on the sins and omissions of mainstream “Wagnerist” discourse.

I should say straight off that I am essentially in sympathy—that is to say, in jointly musical, philosophical, and cultural-political agreement—with a good deal of what Tomlinson says. Music is indeed first and foremost experiential, and the experience of it had much better not be described, represented, theorized, or indeed experienced at some artificial remove through the influence of ideas about music that ignore or in various ways manage to obscure that basic truth. Insofar as “Wagnerism” is one handy name for a whole bunch of such ideas—a name that connotes their highest common factor, that is, an inbuilt aversion to Wagnerian music drama—it does serve a useful diagnostic purpose. Thus Tomlinson can argue convincingly, up to a point, that responses to Wagner are something of a litmus test for critics, analysts, philosophers, and theorists as regards their attachment or (less often) nonattachment to those deeply acculturated notions. In short, the Ring cycle could almost have been created...


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