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  • A Music Worthy of the NameOr, Agamben's Museicology
  • Naomi Waltham-Smith (bio)

A Revolution in Music

La musique, la philosophie. La, la. Not la, le. Not feminine, masculine. Not la bête, le souverain. But la, la. La vie, la mort. No—la vie la mort, life-death. La musique la philosophie, music-philosophy. A heady love affair of desire and repression, attraction and disavowal, fantasy and envy. This coupling of music and philosophy that traverses Western thought from Plato to deconstruction is what Agamben invokes when, in the appendix to the recent What Is Philosophy? he claims: "Philosophy is today only possible as a reformation of music" (2017, 97). Philosophy depends for its survival, he appears to argue, upon a transformation of music beyond its current state, an end even of what is called music today. Philosophy depends on what I want to call, after Derrida's phrase, a music worthy of the name—une musique digne de ce nom. It depends for its survival upon a music whose dignity keeps it alive, makes it an excess [End Page 179] over life, makes it a sur-vival precisely on the condition that it is exposed to the other, to indignity, and is therefore always life-death, always God and death.

If philosophy survives only by virtue of the fact that it overflows its bounds, it is music's dignity—that is, its excess over itself, its overspilling of "its" limits, the fact that music is always already music-philosophy—that makes possible the future of philosophy. This perhaps is how we should understand the Platonic claim that gives the title to Agamben's appendix. If philosophy is "the supreme music," this is not to say that philosophy supersedes music to replace it, as Plato appears to suggest. Or, insofar as philosophy does substitute for music, it is only because music's excess of life always already leads it into technicity and prostheticity. Philosophy is the end of music because, to the extent that music aspires to this supreme condition, it exposes itself to the other, which is to say to death and self-destruction. There is philosophy only because music has what Derrida would call an "autoimmune" character. Or, more strongly, the fantasy of philosophy as such is the retroactive effect of music's autoimmunity.

Music and Language

But this is to get far ahead of ourselves. If philosophy depends upon a revolution in music, what would, in Agamben's analysis, be a music worthy of the name even if he does not use this idiom? We can glean an answer to this by tracking his reading of Plato's famous banishing of the poets from the city. In keeping with a certain reading of aesthetic autonomy that we find, for instance, in Theodor W. Adorno and Jacques Attali's (1977) writings on music, "the state of music" (by which Agamben means a larger sphere typically referred to as art) "defines the political condition of a given society better than and prior to any other index" (2017, 102). Accordingly, "the bad music that today pervades our cities at every moment and in every place is inseparable from the bad politics that governs them." More specifically, this bad music consists in a music that "seems frenetically to pervade every place" and that is "no longer museically tuned" (106). Agamben then attributes "the general feeling of depression and apathy" that characterizes modern society to a music that has lost the "experience of the museic limits" of language. What is [End Page 180] disguised as pathology is actually the eclipse of the political that results from music's break with "its necessary relation with the word" (101).

If the disappearance of the political and the malaise of contemporary society is the symptom of a change in the state of music, then it is necessary to understand what is meant by an originary museic attunement. What exactly is the nature of the relation between language and music that Agamben calls "museic"? He derives this neologism from the Greek Muses with whom, according to an idiosyncratic reading of Hesiod's Theogeny, "we begin and are initiated" (2017, 98...


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