My thinking for this essay involved a progressive narrowing of focus from ontology of art to ontology of music and thence, via ontology of song, to that even more specific or pared-down object-domain that I have dubbed – in what is probably a nonce usage of the phrase – ‘the ontology of political song’. Why should anyone propose so curious a topic or so strange a conjunction of three distinct topics – ontology, politics, and song – which could be conjoined only through some perverse desire, as Dr Johnson somewhat unfairly remarked of the metaphysical poets, to yoke incompatibles by violence together? If ontological considerations have any place in the discussion of music then that place needs earning by some hard argument, since music is surely, of all the arts, the hardest to pin down, define, or characterise in terms of its ontological status. As regards particular musical works this has to do chiefly with their distinctive and perduring mode of existence, quite apart from their more or less extensive history of variant performances or interpretations. Such problems become all the more daunting when politics enters the picture, with its effect of creating a highly localised or context-specific link between ‘work’ – if that concept has any purchase here –, performance history, and particular socially mediated instances of production/reception. Thus it might well be argued that the term ‘ontology’ is subject to abuse – wrenched away from its proper usage – when applied to a genre like political song, whose very nature it is to exist, so to speak, on the wing and to resist treatment – heavy-handed philosophical treatment – in terms of its ontology or quasi-objective mode of being.
Such is, at any rate, likely to be the reaction even among those who would in principle acknowledge the case for addressing the ontology of art, of music, and (however grudgingly) of song. Still, they might say, does there not come a point on the scale of diminishing returns where the domain in question is so markedly bereft of distinguishing ontological features – so much a product of circumstance, occasion, context, impulse, passing inspiration, adaptive ingenuity, etc. – that the term ‘ontological’ seems utterly out of place? After all, philosophers have difficulty enough with the ontology of musical works on account of their inhabiting an indistinct zone between this or that performance, history of performances, ideal performance, work qua score, work qua composer’s intent, and – maybe – a realm of Platonic forms that is somehow accessed by all musical works – or at any rate those that achieve classic status (see Sharpe 1995). The range of possibilities is such that every attempt at a solution in line with any of these alternatives seems to generate insoluble problems. These problems are multiplied and deepened when the genre in question is that of song with its typical brevity, economy of utterance, lack of long-range or formally imposing structural markers, and – most often – extreme reliance on subtleties and nuances of performance as well as closeness of rapport between singer and other musicians. All the more must this apply in the case of political song, where these context-dependent features are yet further relativised by their insertion into a socio-cultural context or a highly specific situation which – it might be thought – removes any possible justification for affording them the dubious honour of a place in the ontological scheme of things. Such a claim is misconceived by reason of its failure to respect the proper scope of ontology as a highly developed discipline of thought, yet one that has certain limits of proper or legitimate applicability. It also goes wrong by erroneously seeking to dignify a genre such as political song by subjecting it to just the kind of discriminative process – the application of high-art derived and philosophically elaborated concepts and categories – which are wholly off the point in a context like this. Moreover, so the argument goes, it is liable to have just the opposite of its intended effect in so far as it risks devaluing that genre by holding it accountable to alien standards or criteria.
Such objections are apt to press pretty hard in a nominalist or anti-essentialist direction and deploy some version of the argument that political song is really not a ‘genre’ in any reputable sense of that term. This is because – on a certain understanding of musical ontology or ontology in general – it fails to meet the baseline generic requirement of possessing at least certain specifiable features, traits, or distinctive marks that are not wholly or exhaustively context-relative. That is, it falls short of full-fledged generic belonging precisely in so far as its defining characteristic is that which marks it as a product of the strictly contingent or generically non-subsumable encounter between some particular set of socio-cultural-political circumstances and some particular, politically inspired or ethically motivated musical response. Yet this is none the less a generic description and one that has a fair claim to capture what is distinctive – even generically salient – about political song as performed in the kinds of situation – for instance on picket-lines, at protest meetings, or in response to state-sponsored injustice or violence – that most aptly qualify for that description. Here we are on familiar ground for anyone who has read Jacques Derrida’s essays, such as ‘The Law of Genre’ and ‘Before the Law’, concerning the curious twists of logic – the paradoxes of inclusion and non-inclusion – that tend to crop up as soon as one asks what it means for a work to belong to some existing genre, or what properly counts as a mark of generic membership (Derrida 1980 and 1992). At their least challenging these paradoxes have to do with the point made by T.S. Eliot, again with the metaphysical poets in mind: namely, that our reading of past writers must be very different from any reading that they might themselves have produced quite simply because our awareness of them includes many things that they could not have known, including (crucially) the subsequent impact or reception-history of their own work (Eliot 1964). More tellingly, the paradoxes take us into regions of logic, mathematics or meta-mathematics where thinking comes up against Russell’s famous problem about self-predication, i.e., ‘the set of all sets that are not members of themselves’, or ‘the barber who shaves everyone in town except those who shave themselves’ – in which case who shaves the barber? (Russell 1930 and Potter 2004).
This is not the place for a lengthy exposition of that problem or its various attempted solutions, among them Russell’s stopgap remedy – his so-called Theory of Types – vetoing any formula that mixed first-order (object-language) expressions with second-order (meta-linguistic) levels of analysis, and so on up through the hierarchy of levels with a similar injunction at every stage so as to prevent such problems from arising in the first place. Sufficient to say – with an eye to our present topic – that although its home-ground is in logic, mathematics and the formal sciences this issue has a significant bearing on that of generic membership or affiliation as raised by Derrida’s deconstructive quizzing of the boundaries between work and world, text and context, or art and its socio-politico-cultural-material environment. Thus any issue concerning the ‘law of genre’ and its constant liability to raids and incursions from across the generic border is closely bound up with the issue of aesthetic autonomy. Both questions are raised with peculiar force by works, performances, or events – such as political songs – which would seem to be tokens maximally open to change or transformation from one context to the next, and hence minimally open to subsumption under this or that context-transcendent generic type. That is, they are peculiarly ill-suited to treatment under the usual range of descriptive, prescriptive or evaluative predicates based on the presumptive autonomy of the musical work as a self-sufficient type with the ontological wherewithal to hold its identity-conditions firm across manifold shifting contexts of performance. Hence, according to autonomists, the need to distinguish that work from the various factors – historical, political, socio-cultural, psycho-biographical, and so forth – that make up its background history (see Hartman 1970). These latter kinds of circumstance may well have played some role in the music’s genesis and perhaps in its reception-history but cannot – or should not, to this way of thinking – be allowed to affect our ‘purely’ musical response, itself arrived at through a cultivated grasp of all and only those formal structures intrinsic to the work itself. Nothing could be further from the mode of existence enjoyed by most political songs, composed as they are very often on the hoof, under threat, against the clock, or out of some urgent communicative need and, therefore, with little regard to such high-cultural notions of musical autonomy. Indeed it is very clearly a part of their purpose – almost a defining feature of political song – to invite the kind of engagé – or enragé – listener-response that has no truck with that aestheticist creed or that appeal to timeless values beyond the time-bound contexts of production and reception. Such an auditor hears in the punctual coupling of words, music and event a call to action all the more effective for involving precisely those ‘extraneous’ elements that the formalist seeks to preclude.
So one main reason for my odd choice of topic, ‘the ontology of political song’, is that it offers a particularly strong challenge to certain deep-laid assumptions concerning the status or mode of existence proper to musical works. Those assumptions have primarily to do with their formal autonomy and hence their capacity to transcend the order of merely contingent events, whether singing events, e.g., street performances, or events of a more directly political character. Of course that distinction is one that any writer or performer of political songs would reject straight off as failing to recognise that certain songs in certain contexts have a singular capacity to mobilize protest and strengthen resistance to various forms of social injustice that is ‘directly political’ in every sense of the phrase. Still there is a question as to whether such songs, or the best of them, may be said to possess that galvanizing power not only in virtue of their timeliness and their happening to ride some wave of popular discontent, but also on account of certain musical attributes – melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, structural – which place them in a class apart, or which define them as veritable classics of the genre. The problem for anyone who makes this claim is that the notion of ‘the classic’ comes laden with a weight of inherited ideas concerning the markers of canonical status – of literary or musical greatness – and their timeless, transcendent character. It is this way of thinking that political song most pointedly calls into question, since its very existence as a popular alternative to high-cultural art-forms is premised on its audibly not going along with the various ideologies of genius, transcendence, organic form, structural complexity, etc. promoted by the guardians of musical good taste. Yet there are other, less ideologically compromised ways of thinking about ‘the classic’ – among them Frank Kermode’s marvellously subtle and nuanced reflections on the topic – that entail no such commitment (see Kermode 1975 and 1988, and Norris 2011). For Kermode, the classic is most typically a work ‘patient of interpretation’, or apt to reveal new possibilities of meaning in response to shifting historical-cultural circumstances. On his account it is still a work – not just a ‘text’ dissolved into its context or reception-history – but a work whose very capacity to survive those changes should be taken as evidence of its openness to a range of alternative readings.
I should not wish to say that ‘classic’ political or protest songs should be thought of in exactly those terms, i.e., as sharing with Kermode’s prime examples (from Homer and Virgil to Dante and Shakespeare) this quality of holding senses in reserve, or this capacity for endless self-renewal in the face of unending historical change. To make such a claim would be doubly mistaken, on the one hand by ignoring Kermode’s emphasis on the subtle, oblique, or roundabout ways in which the classic text succeeds in holding out against the ravages of time and change, and on the other by ignoring the very different range of musical, verbal, social and communal factors that make for the survival of political or protest songs from one specific context to another. What ultimately underwrites Kermode’s idea of the classic is the notion that there must be some structural feature or set of features by which to explain this inexhaustibility of sense, this joint resistance and responsiveness to pressures of time and change that would otherwise have long since consigned the work to oblivion. If he doesn’t go far toward saying just where those structures might be located, then this is no doubt because Kermode had by this stage travelled his own long path from an openness to certain structuralist ways of thinking about narrative and language to a more hermeneutically-oriented sense of everything – all those subtleties of meaning and oblique implication – that the text withholds from any too direct or overly technical approach (Kermode 1991 and 2003, and Payne and Schad 2003). Indeed the greatest virtue of Kermode’s criticism is the way that it managed, over five decades, to occupy that difficult middle ground between ‘theory’ in its various high-powered manifestations and a mode of reflective, meditative brooding on what he knew to lie beyond the limits of critical system or method. Still, there is clearly a sense in which this space for manoeuvre between theory and that which theory occludes or fails to acknowledge is itself a high-cultural or intensely theoretical space which finds no room for genres (or anti-genres) such as political song. For it is precisely their distinctive mark – their claim to an ontological niche quite apart from other, more familiar or tractable genres – that they occupy a different space and one that is more radically open to the reception-changing impact of historical, social, and political events.
Of course my approach is itself open to the charge of manifest inconsistency since it has already brought a whole battery of heavyweight theory and theorists to bear on what it asserts to be a mode of politically motivated music-making which intrinsically eludes specification in terms of any preconceived theory. It seems to me that this charge sticks – constitutes a powerful objection to what I have said so far and will go on to say – only if there is something fundamentally wrong or misconceived about the whole business of theorizing in relation to music, literature, and the arts. Otherwise the main lesson is that enquiry into ontological issues in the broadly aesthetic sphere had better be ready to adjust its critical focus so as to accommodate the range of cases – including some on the outermost fringes of that sphere, conventionally speaking – which should properly be taken into account by any such enquiry. My point is that conventions often run very deep and that it actually requires an effort of thought with strong theoretical back-up if we are ever to succeed in breaking, or at any rate loosening, their hold. Thus it may take something like Derrida’s complex modal-logical reflections on the deviant logics of supplementarity, iterability, or parergonality – along with his intricate drawing-out of those aporias intrinsic to the ‘law of genre’ – in order to shift some of our basic assumptions concerning the scope and limits of aesthetic response (see Norris 1998 and 2006b), Such thinking against the orthodox (canonically invested) grain is strictly prerequisite if any serious question is to be raised with respect to what should or should not qualify as a musical work or an instance of art as distinct from an instance of music put to political or other such non-artistic ends. At any rate that we won’t get far in any discussion of ontological issues vis-à-vis musical works (or performances) unless, like Derrida, we make a regular practice of challenging those otherwise largely unspoken assumptions that underlie our routine habits of judgement and response.
It might even be said that political song is itself such a practice – or exerts such a deconstructive force – by dint of very pointedly calling into question certain deep-laid values and beliefs concerning the autonomy of musical form, its transcendence of the merely contingent or temporal, and the inviolable unity of words and music as a touchstone of aesthetic worth. Moreover, those values are further contested by the very existence of a genre (or anti-genre) that so conspicuously flouts the Kantian veto on artworks that have some palpable design on the listener/viewer/reader – some purpose to persuade, arouse, or convert – and which therefore conspicuously fail to meet Kant’s requirement of aesthetic disinterest (Kant 1978). After all, it seems pretty much self-evident that any item of purported ‘political song’ that did manage to satisfy this criterion wouldipso facto be a bad or ineffectual instance of the kind, since incapable of stirring anyone to action or decisively changing their minds. Here again we might usefully recall Derrida’s deconstructive reading of Austinian speech-act theory and his convincing demonstration – pace opponents like John Searle – that Austin’s distinctions, like Kant’s before him, are a deal more complex and problematical than his orthodox commentators wish to allow (see Austin 1963, Derrida 1977a, 1977b and 1979, and Searle 1977). Just as Kant ends up by unwittingly subverting his own elaborate system of binary pairs – among them ‘free’ and ‘adherent’ beauty, aesthetic form and instrumental function, or the artwork itself and its various framing, ornamental, or extraneous features – so Austin ends up by providing all manner of problematic instances and arguments that cast doubt on whether he can really hold the line between constative and performative modes of utterance (Derrida 1987). Where the cases differ is in Kant’s deep attachment to the virtues of large-scale system and method – requiring that his doctrine of the faculties be deconstructed in a likewise systematic way – as compared with Austin’s gamy readiness to junk the system (or his current version of the system) if it looks like getting in the way of some particularly choice example. It is just such instances of speech-act anomaly (‘misfires’, as Austin called them) that Searle considers marginal by very definition since they fall short of straightforward performative success while Derrida counts them especially revealing since they demonstrate the inbuilt possibility that speech-acts might always turn out to function or signify in various non-standard, unpredictable, or non-speaker-intended ways.
As hardly needs saying this is also the predicament of political songs, destined as they are – if they succeed in ‘catching on’ – to undergo a history of changing contexts and varied applications which may result in their becoming very largely detached from any meaning or motive plausibly imputed to the original writer, singer, or group of performers. In this respect our thinking about political song – especially with regard to its elusive ontological status – can profit from Derrida’s meticulous tracing of the fault-lines that run through Kant’s various attempted demarcations between art and non-art or pure and impure modes of aesthetic response, as likewise through the various terms and distinctions by which Austin seeks to hold a normative line between proper and improper, valid and invalid, or ‘felicitous’ and ‘infelicitous’ modes of speech-act utterance (Austin 1963 and Felman 1983). Indeed there is something markedly anomalous about the very genre of song, existing as it does across such a range of forms, types, musical-verbal structures, cultural traditions, social contexts, communicative roles, performance locales, and so forth, as almost to constitute an anti-genre or a nominal kind identified only by its meeting certain far from precise or exacting criteria. Thus the minimal requirements would be roughly (1) its being sung or involving the combination of words and music; (2) its relative brevity compared with other, more extended or structurally complex genres such as those of the cantata, oratorio, or opera; (3) its predominantly lyrical nature, that is, the focus on expressive elements – again jointly verbal and musical – that give particular songs their distinctive character; and (4) the way that it tends to focus attention on the singer, who is often the song-writer, as source and in some sense subjective guarantor of the feelings thereby expressed. Yet of course one could take each of the above desiderata and come up with a song, or several, that failed to satisfy the supposed requirement and thus raise doubts as to whether this is really a genre even in the proposed minimalist sense. (Consider point-for-point Mendelssohn’s ‘Songs Without Words’, Mahler’s symphonic Song of the Earth, didactic or primarily political songs (like those of Hanns Eisler or Kurt Weill), or the numerous songs – often parts of some larger dramatic or narrative work – that crucially depend for their meaning and effect on our grasping the disparity between what’s expressed and what we are intended to make of it.) And if song in general exhibits such a highly elusive ontological character – such extreme resistance to categorization in clear-cut generic terms – then this is even more strikingly the case with regard to political song. For we are here confronted with a genre, or quasi-genre, that goes yet further toward raising large questions with regard to its own status as a verbal-musical kind or as a token of anything – any definite or trans-context specifiable type – that could serve to fix its generic identity.
This is not to suggest that in switching focus from ‘classical’ song, i.e., concert-hall Lieder of whatever period or style, to instances of political street-song we are lowering our sights in musical-evaluative terms or electing to consider a sub-genre with no pretensions to high artistic, cultural, or aesthetic worth. Hanns Eisler’s songs, in particular his settings of Brecht, are equal to the finest of the twentieth or any century if heard without prejudice regarding their strongly marked didactic intent and with an ear to those features typically prized by devotees of the highLieder tradition. Thus they are no less accomplished – dramatically powerful, melodically striking, harmonically resourceful, and structurally complex – for the fact of their overt political content or, on occasion, their activist concern to discourage the listener from taking refuge in a purely aesthetic or contemplative mode of response. All the same their very success in so doing comes about through their constant supply of reminders, musical and verbal, that there is a world beyond the concert-hall and that events in that world – like those that befell the twice-over émigréEisler, driven out first by the Nazis and then by the watchdogs of US anti-communism – cannot be kept at bay by any amount of artistic creativity or degree of formal inventiveness. Indeed it is one of the most distinctive things about Eisler’s music, not only his songs but also his larger-scale choral and orchestral works, that it maintains this perpetual sense of a nervous sensitivity to ‘outside’ events or the impact of ‘extra-musical’ promptings. This is probably why he seems most at ease, even in large-scale compositions like his epic yet intensely personal Deutsche Sinfonie, when writing in a long-breathed melodic style with song-like contours and a strong sense that only by such means can he combine the pressure of subjective feelings with an adequate response to the pressure of (mostly dire) historical or political occurrences.
Political song is the genre that most effectively unites these otherwise conflicting imperatives and which makes it possible for music to express both the passionate force of individual commitment and the historical or socio-political context within which it finds a larger significance. Ontologically speaking, it is that which (in certain cases) has the capacity to maintain its distinctive character while undergoing sometimes drastic changes of context, motivating purpose, or performative intent. Songs that started life as protests against British government policy during the miners’ strike of 1983 have since done service in a great many other campaigns, sometimes very largely unaltered – except in so far as the shift of context changed their perceived character – and sometimes with verbal modification so as to update their content or enhance their specific relevance. On a larger time-scale, songs that had their origin in the suffering or revolt of black slaves in the American Deep South are nowadays revived – not just recycled – in the name of anti-poverty campaigns, anti-war protests, and calls for the re-scheduling or outright cancellation of third-world debt. What gives the songs in question this remarkable staying power – beyond some vague appeal to ‘the test of time’ – is a complex amalgam of musical and verbal features that is likely to elude the best efforts of formal analysis but which is recognisable to anyone who has sung them and registered their continuing impact when performed on any such politically charged occasion. Here again one might aptly recall what Derrida has to say about that minimal trait of ‘iterability’ that enables speech-acts to function, i.e., to retain a certain recognisable (ethically and socially requisite) performative force despite their occurring across a potentially limitless range of contexts and their involving the ever-present possibility of deviant (or devious) motives on the utterer’s part (Derrida 1977a). Just as this ‘iterable’ property of speech-acts is such as to resist any systematic formalisation of the kind attempted by theorists like Searle, so likewise the ‘classic’ quality of certain political songs – those that have retained their radical force – is none the less real for its holding out against methods and techniques of analysis trained up on masterworks of the mainstream classical repertoire.
If I placed some queasy scare-quotes around the word ‘classic’ in that last sentence then it is no doubt a sign of my unease about dragging these songs into the orbit of a high-cultural or academic discourse where they are likely to suffer a gross misprision of their musical, verbal, and political character. All the same, as Terry Eagleton has argued, it is just as mistaken for left cultural theorists to let go the whole kit and caboodle of ‘bourgeois’ aesthetics – especially its talk of arch-bourgeois values such as beauty, sublimity, or aesthetic disinterest – on account of its being so deeply bound up with the hegemonic interests of a once dominant, though now declining, cultural and socio-political class (Eagleton 1990). The fact that those values have largely been monopolised by that particular power-bloc doesn’t mean that they cannot or should not be recovered – won back through a concerted effort – by those among the marginalised and dispossessed who have most to gain from their redefinition in left-activist terms. This is why the label ‘classic’ may justifiably be used to describe those songs that have shown a special capacity to renew their impact from one situation to the next and have thus come to manifest a singular strength of jointly musical, political, and socio-cultural appeal. Indeed, as Kermode very deftly brings out, if there is one perennial feature of the classic then it is the absence of just those reference-fixing indices that would otherwise place certain clearly marked limits on the range of options for anyone seeking authenticity or wishing to remain true to the song’s original context and motivation.
Of course ‘authenticity’ is a notion widely challenged among left cultural theorists – often taking their lead from Adorno – since it is thought to harbour an appeal to supposedly ‘timeless’ or ‘transcendent’ values such as those invested in the high tradition of accredited musical or literary masterworks (Adorno 1973, Goehr 2007, and McClary 2001). However, so it is argued, values of this kind, even when adduced as the upshot of a lengthy and detailed formal analysis, always have a local habitation in the time and place – that is to say, the formative ideological conditions – of their particular socio-politico-cultural setting. Such criticism of the Western musical and literary canons has been carried to a high point of technical refinement by various schools of thought – New Musicologists, New Historicists, deconstructionists, cultural materialists, feminists, the more analytically-minded postmodernists – well practised in revealing the various sleights of hand by which promoters of a high formalist doctrine manage to occlude what is in fact a highly specific set of class-based or gender-related ideological commitments (See Bergeron and Bohlman 1992, Burnham 1996, Cook and Everist 1999, Kerman 1980, 1983 and 1985, Korsyn 1993, Kramer 1995, Lochhead and Auner 2002, Solie 1993, Treitler 1989). From their point of view Kermode could only be selling out when he argues for a stance of mitigated scepticism vis-à-visthe classic, that is, an approach that would balance the claims of intrinsic literary – or musical – worth against the claims of an anti-canonical case for regarding ‘the classic’ as one of those ideas that have served as a useful means of upholding the cultural and socio-political status quo. If anyone thought to extend Kermode’s argument to the case of political song then they would surely invite the charge of misrepresenting what is by its very nature a context-specific, historically located, resolutely non-transcendent mode of expression. That is to say, they would be seen as deludedly seeking to boost its status by hooking it up to an aesthetic ideology that no longer possesses the least credibility even when applied to works in the mainstream classical repertoire (on aesthetic ideology see de Man 1996, Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy 1988, Norris 1988).
Such is at any rate the sort of claim nowadays put forward by zealous deconstructors of the Western musical canon. This project they pursue partly by engaging those works in a heterodox or counter-canonical way and partly by challenging the discourse of post-Schenkerian music analysis with its deep attachment to (supposedly) conservative notions like organic form, thematic development, harmonic complexity, structural integration, progressive tonality, voice-leading, long-range reconciliation of conflicting key-centres, and so forth (Schenker 1979. See also Blasius 1996, Narmour 1977, Siegel 1990, Treitler 1989, Yeston 1977). To think, and to listen, in accordance with these notions is to signal one’s complicity – so the argument goes – with a formalist mystique of the unified artwork which mistakes the culturally constructed character of all such aesthetic notions for natural properties somehow inherent in ‘the work itself’, or else in the musical language, most often that of the high Austro-German line of descent from Bach to Brahms or Wagner, that made such achievements possible. And if this line of thought has a certain plausibility with regard to the dominant values of ‘high’ musical culture and their modes of propagation through the arcane discourse of academic musicology then it seems even nearer the mark when applied to any claim for this or that political song as a veritable ‘classic’ of its kind. After all, what could be plainer as a matter of straightforward response to words and music alike than the fact that such ‘works’ constitute a standing affront to that whole classical-romantic aesthetic of timeless, transcendent, ahistorical, and hence apolitical values?
It is the latter idea – along with its rootedly nationalist or chauvinist overtones – that finds oblique yet highly effective since technically geared-up expression in the various methods of formal analysis bequeathed by German music theorists of the nineteenth century to their present-day academic heirs. Such a notion is maximally remote from the ethos of direct activist engagement that typifies the best, most powerful instances of political song like those that have emerged from various situations of racial oppression, social injustice, and class or gender inequality. To this extent the methods of musical analysis as widely practised nowadays are the result of combining a Kantian emphasis on the formal or structural features of the artwork with a marked devaluation of anything describable as programmatic content. Hence the formalist veto on any music that has some palpable design on the listener, or that seeks to put its message across to best advantage by exerting the maximum persuasive or exhortatory force. It is here that political songs are most likely to offend the arbiters of good taste, or those who equate any admixture of ‘extraneous’, i.e., non-formal, elements – such as, most egregiously, political propaganda – with a failure to respect the cardinal requirement of aesthetic disinterest. However, there is no reason to accept this purist attitude, or to go along with the decidedly conservative outlook in philosophical aesthetics which aims to drive a wedge between works of art and the contexts – including the socio-political contexts – of their production and reception.
Again it is Kermode, in his book History and Value, who has given us by far the most subtle and perceptive treatment of this issue by examining the mainly left-wing English poetry and fiction of the 1930s and tracing the complex patterns of relationship between value as a matter of historical-political ‘relevance’ and value as a matter of critical esteem or canonical status (Kermode 1978 and 1988, and Norris 2011). What emerges from Kermode’s scrupulously nuanced yet far from apolitical reflections is the sheer impossibility of imposing any such divorce, or coming up with a plausible account of literary value that would somehow exclude any reference to the way that literary – or musical – works have fared under certain specific yet historically changing conditions. It is here – at the elusive point of intersection between aesthetic, hermeneutic, and socio-political modes of response – that Kermode locates his idea of ‘the classic’ and along with it his answer, albeit couched in suitably qualified and tentative terms, to the ancient question of just what enables some and not other works to enjoy a long, culturally varied, and sometimes unpredictable afterlife. This is an approach that on the one hand keeps its distance from old-style notions of the artwork as possessed of a timeless and altogether context-transcendent value, while on the other hand rejecting the opposite (reactive) tendency to find nothing more in literature or music than an ideological sounding-board or a means of imposing this or that set of hegemonic beliefs. It is also, I would argue, a conception well suited to explain why it is that political songs – a few of them – have precisely this phoenix-like capacity to renew their force or to acquire new dimensions of relevance and motivational power from one protest-movement to the next. That is to say, their longevity is not so much a matter of some deep-laid, essential, or intrinsic quality of words and music that preserves them intact against the ravages of time and chance, but rather a matter of their exceptional adaptability to changes of social and political circumstance.
It is perhaps now time to recapitulate the main points of my argument so far in order to firm up the basis for what I have to say in the rest of this essay. Thus: (1) if the term ‘ontology’ makes any kind of sense as applied to works of art then it had better be applicable to musical works, in which case (2) it had better be applicable to those works falling under the generic description ‘song’, and moreover (3) it had best apply convincingly to political song as a litmus-test, since this places the maximal strain on received notions of generic character or identity. Hence the particular problem it poses for any formal ontology of art based on the presumed existence of certain distinctive traits with which to recognise and specify what counts as a genuine instance of the kind. After all, ‘political song’ is a pretty elastic label and one that is apt to find itself stretched around some dubious candidate items if taken to denote any relatively short and self-contained vocal work with a text that makes either overt or covert reference to certain themes of a political character. Thus the British national anthem would have to qualify under this definition, although there seems good reason to withhold the title on account of its patently belonging to a genre that endorses rather than challenges the institutional status quo, and whose stolid combination of flag-waving words and foursquare music is very much deployed to that end. Yet there are other national anthems – most strikingly those, like ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’ (Republic of Ireland) or ‘ Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’ (post-Apartheid South Africa, originally ANC) – which, although in very different ways, continue to communicate something of the oppositional spirit or the strength of concerted popular resistance that went into their making and the often strife-torn history of their early performances. Indeed the very fact of this stress-induced and to that extent historically indexed character has a lot to do with their staying-power as classics of the genre.
This helps to explain why a classic of the 1983 British miners’ strike like ‘We are Women, we are Strong’ should thereafter have turned up as a highly effective rallying call at numerous sites and in numerous seemingly disparate socio-political contexts over the past quarter-century of popular anti-government protest (See, for example, Sheffield Women Against Pit Closures 1987). It can best be put down to that song’s having so perfectly captured the quiet determination, resilience and un-self-conscious heroism not only of the miners’ wives and partners but of a great many others whose livelihoods and lives were under threat from government economic and social policy. The case is rather different with those hardy perennials like ‘We Shall Not be Moved’ where the sentiments expressed, like the melody and harmonies, are so broadly generic – so capable of being adapted to just about any political context – as to offer a kind of Rorschach-blot for those in search of all-purpose emotional uplift. It seems to me that, in order to count as a genuine classic of political song, the piece in question must exhibit something more than this smoothly accommodating power to absorb a great range of otherwise diverse feelings, values, beliefs, and commitments. This ‘something more’ can, I think, best be specified in ontological terms, even though the terms involved are sure to be somewhat fugitive given that political songs exist very largely in and through their reception-history and thus exhibit a peculiar degree of dependence on contextual cues and the vagaries of historically situated listener-response. All the same, as I have said, it would be wrong to conclude from this that they fall short of classic status in so far as they fail to meet to certain formal standards – at any rate certain widely agreed-upon and clearly specifiable criteria – that alone make it possible for judgement to transcend the shifting tides of social change or cultural fashion.
One might take a lead in thinking about this question from the title of Alain Badiou’s essayBriefings on Existence: a Short Treatise on Transitory Ontology, as indeed from Badiou’s entire project to date. That project has to do with the relationship between being and event, or the way that certain unpredictable and yet (as it turns out) epochal or world-changing events – certain breakthrough discoveries whether in mathematics, science, the arts, or politics – can lead to a radical transformation in our powers of ontological grasp and hence to a shift in the relationship between currently-existing knowledge and objective (recognition-transcendent) truth (Badiou 2005a, also 2003 and 2004). What is most remarkable about Badiou’s work is its emphasis on truth as always exceeding our utmost powers of cognitive, epistemic, or rational grasp and yet as that which constantly exerts a truth-conducive pressure through its absence – its way of creating problems, lacunae, unresolved dilemmas – in our present-best state of understanding. This is not the place for a detailed exposition of Badiou’s masterwork Being and Event (see instead Norris 2009). Sufficient to say that he makes this case not only in relation to mathematics – very much Badiou’s disciplinary home-ground – but also to the physical sciences, politics, and art. More specifically: in each case it is a matter of truths that are opened up for discovery at a certain stage in the process of knowledge-acquisition or cultural-political advance, yet which may require a more or less extended process of further working-out at the hands of those faithful exponents – ‘militants of truth’ – whose office it is to explore their as yet obscure or unrecognisable implications.
However, the main point I wish to make for present purposes is that Badiou offers a distinctive, and distinctly promising, line of enquiry for anyone pondering the ontology of political song and its status vis-à-vis conceptions of art or aesthetic value on the one hand and conceptions of politics or political engagement on the other. Thus on his account there is no choice to be made, as orthodox (e.g., Kantian) approaches would have it, between the value-sphere of artistic creativity or inventiveness and the action-oriented practical sphere of incentives to political change. In each case it is a matter of truth-claims – whether claims with respect to an as yet unachieved state of political justice or claims for the integrity of certain as yet unrecognised artistic practices – that exert a potentially transformative pressure on current ideas but which cannot be realised (carried into practice or brought to the point of adequate conceptualisation) under presently existing conditions. Moreover it is with respect to ontology – to the question ‘What exists?’ as distinct from ‘What counts as existing within some given mathematical, scientific, artistic, or political conception?’ – that those conditions are brought into question or subject to standards of truth that transcend the criteria of presently existing knowledge. Above all, this enables an extension of truth-values beyond the realms of mathematics, science and the factual (e.g., historical) disciplines to other areas – such as politics and art – where they have rarely if ever been invoked in so emphatic and rigorously argued a manner.
Thus it is worth thinking some more about Badiou’s seemingly oxymoronic or at any rate odd conjunction of terms in the phrase ‘transitory ontology’. What it signifies – in short – is a conception of ontological enquiry as none the less objective, rigorous or truth-oriented for the fact that its scope and limits are subject to a constant process of transformation through advances in the range of available forms, techniques, investigative methods, hypotheses, theorems, or proof-procedures. Badiou’s paradigm case is that of mathematics and, more specifically, post-Cantorian set theory since it is here that thinking can be seen to engage with an order of truths that always necessarily exceeds or transcends any given state of knowledge (Badiou 2003, 2004, 2005a). It is in consequence of the ‘count-as-one’ – that is to say, through some schema or selective device for including certain multiples and excluding certain others – that thought is enabled to establish a range of operational concepts and categories within the otherwise featureless domain of ‘inconsistent multiplicity’. Most important is Cantor’s famous demonstration that there exist manifold ‘sizes’ or orders of infinity, such as those of the integers and the even numbers, and moreover – contrary to the verdict of most philosophers and many mathematicians from the ancient Greeks down – that thought is quite capable of working productively, framing hypotheses for proof or refutation, in this paradox-prone region of transfinite set theory (see Badiou 2008 and Potter 2004). Indeed, it is through the process of ‘turning paradox into concept’ – a process most strikingly exemplified by Cantor’s conceptual breakthrough – that intellectual advances typically come about, whether in mathematics, the physical sciences, politics or art. Hence the main thesis of Badiou’s work: that in each case the truth of any given situation (scientific paradigm, political order, artistic stage of advance) will exceed any current state of knowledge even among specialists or expert practitioners and yet be contained within that situation in the form of so far unrecognised problems, dilemmas, paradoxes, or elements (multiples) that lack any means of representation in the currently accredited count-as-one.
Politically speaking, this claim works out in a strikingly literal way since it applies to those marginal, stateless, or disenfranchised minorities – prototypically, for Badiou, the sans-papiersor migrant workers of mainly North African origin – who find themselves excluded from the count-as-one since their lack of official documentation effectively deprives them of civic status or acknowledged social identity (Badiou 2005b, 2006b, 2007). All the same the very fact of their occluded existence on the fringes of a soi-disant ‘democratic’ social order is such as potentially to call that order into question or to constitute a challenge to the self-image projected by its state-sponsored apologists. At certain times – during periods of crisis or rising communal tension – those minorities may well turn out to occupy an ‘evental site’ which then becomes the focus of wider social unrest and potentially the flash-point for some larger-scale challenge to the dominant structures of socio-political power. In the physical sciences revolutions come about most often at a stage of conceptual crisis in this or that particular region when the anomalies, failed predictions, or conflicts of evidence with theory have become simply unignorable and when something – some crucial load-bearing part of the old paradigm – collapses under the strain. In the arts likewise such transformations typically occur at times of imminent breakdown: in music, say, with the stretching of resources and extreme intensification of affect that overtook the tonal system in the late nineteenth century, or in literature with the advent of modernist poetic and fictional genres that signalled a decisive rupture with previous realist or naturalistic modes of representation.
For Badiou it is not, most emphatically, a question of following thinkers like Quine and Kuhn – or for that matter Wittgenstein and Foucault – by adopting a full-blown ontological-relativist approach that would, in effect, sink the difference between ontology and epistemology, along with that between epistemology and the history of shifting paradigms, discourses, conceptual schemes, belief-systems, language-games, cultural ‘forms of life’, or whatever (see Foucault 1973, Kuhn 1970, Quine 1961, Wittgenstein 1953). Indeed he never misses a chance to denounce the linguistic-cultural turn across a wide range of twentieth-century philosophical movements, ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ alike, as merely an update of the age-old sophistical device that evades any challenge on grounds of knowledge or truth by resorting to language, or the suasive arts of rhetoric, as a substitute for reasoned argument. Rather it is a question, as with the set-theoretical (Cantor) event, of real advances – not merely shifts – in the scope of human cognitive, epistemic or intellectual grasp that involve the discovery of hitherto unknown truths located in hitherto unexplored reaches of the ontological terrain, even though those truths and that terrain pre-exist the fact and the means of their discovery. They are properly to be understood in objectivist terms, i.e., as ‘recognition-transcendent’ or ‘epistemically unconstrained’ despite their belonging to a history of investigative thought wherein the various operative notions of ontology – of what is objectively there to be discovered – have undergone manifold and sometimes drastic transformations (see Norris 2002). Thus Badiou very pointedly avoids the blatant normative deficit, or the problem of rational under-determination, that afflicts ontological-relativist accounts according to which (as in Quine) to exist just is to be the value of a bound variable, or (as in Kuhn) scientists living before and after some major paradigm-change just do in a literal sense of the phrase inhabit ‘different worlds’ (see Foucault 1973, Kuhn 1970, Quine 1961, Wittgenstein 1953).
Clearly there is much more needed by way of introduction to Badiou’s work if the reader is to be in any strong position to assess these claims. However my purpose here is to suggest that his thinking offers some useful guidance for our enquiry into the ontology of political song. More specifically, it may bring us closer to defining the mode of existence of songs whose comparative longevity and power to energise protest across a great range of political movements and causes is such as to merit their being accorded ‘classic’ status even though – for reasons that I have essayed above – that term seems rather out of place in this context. Badiou’s idea of ‘transitory ontology’ best catches what I have in mind, namely the elusive combination of extreme adaptability or context-sensitivity with the singular power to retain a distinctive musical and verbal-ideational character throughout those (seemingly) protean guises. On his account the marks of a genuine event, as distinct from an episode falsely so deemed, are first that it make room for the discovery of a truth beyond any present-best state of knowledge, and second that it henceforth demand the allegiance – the intellectual, scientific, or political fidelity – of those committed to its working-out or the following-through of its implications. False claimants may fill up the history-books and make the headlines on a regular basis but are none the less false for that since their occurrence, although unforeseen at the time, is retrospectively explainable as the outcome of various anterior happenings and in-place or ongoing developments (see Badiou 2005b, 2006b, and 2007). Genuine events may pass largely unnoticed at the time or, like abortive revolutions, go down only in the annals of failure and yet linger on in the memories of those attuned to their so-far unrealised potential and thereby hold in reserve the potential to spark some future transformation.
Badiou offers many such examples, chief among them the Paris Commune of 1871 and Cantor’s radical re-thinking of mathematics on the basis of set theory as applied to the multiple orders of infinity (see Norris 2009, and Badiou 2005b, 2006b, and 2007). Thus despite the strong resistance to Cantor’s ideas put up by many well-placed mathematicians at the time, and despite the Commune’s having been suppressed in the most brutal and (apparently) decisive way, both can now be seen as events of the first order since set theory went on to revolutionise mathematical thought while the Commune continues to inspire and motivate successive generations of political activists. This is why I have made the case – an improbable case, so it might be thought – for understanding the ontology of political song in light of Badiou’s writings on mathematics and his extension of set-theoretical concepts to other, seemingly remote contexts of discussion. That case rests partly on the way that he establishes a more-than-analogical relation, via set theory, between the three principal areas – politics, music and poetry – which must enter into any adequate account of what makes a classic instance of the kind. Also it helps to explain how one can speak in ontological terms of an art-form – again, if that is the right term – that depends so much on its contexts or occasions of performance and which therefore seems to elude all the terms and conditions typically proposed by critics and philosophers seeking to define what constitutes a veritable classic. Thus a really effective political song is one that catches the counter-hegemonic spirit of its time and succeeds in communicating that force of resistance to activists in later, politically changed circumstances. By the same token it is one that not only responds to the potential for some future transformative event – whether in the short or the long term – but can itself be heard to constitute such an event on account of its power to express and articulate those pressures of unrest in response to forms of economic, political and social injustice that are building toward a structural crisis point. It is here that Badiou’s radical re-thinking of the relationship between art, politics and truth – in his own heterodox yet clearly defined sense of that term – has the greatest power to illuminate our present enquiry into the ontology of political song. At any rate it goes some way toward explaining the anomalous status of a genre that somehow combines an extreme responsiveness to changes in its historically emergent contexts and conditions of existence with a striking capacity to retain its political as well as its musical-expressive charge despite and across those changes.
The issue is broached most directly in Badiou’s Handbook of Inaesthetics, where he examines the various kinds of relationship that have characterised art in its dealing with philosophy and politics (Badiou 2005c). Among them may be counted its Brechtian ‘didactic’ role as a more or less compliant vehicle for conveying some preconceived political content, even if with the aid of certain formal innovations, its ‘classical’ role as a well-crafted product that satisfies purely aesthetic criteria and lays no claim to any truth beyond that of its own artifactual contriving, and the romantic role in which it aspires to a creative autonomy or self-sufficient power of world-transformative vision that would free art from all such prosaic or quotidian ties. As scarcely needs saying Badiou has little sympathy with the latter conception, denying as it does his cardinal thesis that philosophy has its own special role in providing a more perspicuous account – a conceptual articulation – of truths that must remain implicit in the artwork. That is, they exist in the ‘subtractive’ mode of that which cannot find direct expression but can none the less be shown to haunt the work as a structural absence or symptomatic silence and thereby to indicate the future possibility of some as yet unknown further stage of advance. Romanticism, with its Shelleyan idea of the artist as unacknowledged legislator, effectively sells art short by ignoring its kinship with the likewise subtractive procedures through which mathematicians ‘turn paradox into concept’, or physics undergoes periodic revolutions through coming up against recalcitrant data, or political transformations are seen – albeit after the event – to have been brought about through the existence of ‘uncounted’ or unrecognised multiples at evental sites on the margins of the instituted body politic. Classicism fails yet more grievously since it makes a full-scale aesthetic creed of severing any link between art and truth, or any pretension on the artist’s part to express, convey, or communicate truths beyond the technical aspects of their craft.
Then there is the fourth, distinctively modernist conception of art whereby it breaks with all three of those previous modes – didactic, classic, and romantic – and devotes itself instead to a self-reflexive dealing with issues of language, discourse, or representation that constantly call its own status into question. It is clear from his writings on Mallarmé and Beckett that Badiou is strongly drawn to many works of this kind since for him they constitute one of the ways in which art can create or discover its equivalent to the breakthrough achievements of a formal discipline like set theory. However, he also has strong reservations about the tendency of other such works to become overly hermetic, self-absorbed, or preoccupied with linguistic or formal-technical devices and developments at the cost of renouncing any involvement with ‘extraneous’, i.e., political or socio-historical conditions. After all, this brings them within close range of the turn toward various language-based schools of thought – Wittgensteinian, hermeneutic, post-structuralist, or neo-pragmatist – that Badiou regards as a betrayal of philosophy and moreover as lending support to the status quo by reducing all issues of reason and truth to the question of what makes sense by the lights of this or that discourse, language-game, signifying system, or horizon of intelligibility (Badiou 1999). Thus art, like philosophy, had best avoid being too closely linked – ‘sutured’, in the idiom that Badiou derives from Lacanian psychoanalysis – to any of those conditions (politics among them, but also prevailing ideas of aesthetic value or form) whose function is artistically enabling up to a point but whose effect, if taken beyond that point, is to deprive art of its particular role as an oblique though potentially powerful means of access to truth.
This is one sense of the term ‘inaesthetics’ as deployed in the title of Badiou’s book: the capacity of certain (rather rare and often under-recognised) artistic practices to question or challenge accepted notions of what properly constitutes art, or what counts as aesthetically valid. Another is the sense in which it denotes a strong and principled opposition to any idea that art should occupy a realm of distinctively aesthetic experience removed from all commerce with ‘extra-artistic’ interests or imperatives. Badiou’s great aim is to specify how art can express or give form to truths that ‘inexist’ – that lack as yet any adequate means of conceptual articulation – yet which may none the less be signified obliquely by those gaps, anomalies, or absences of formal closure that art is best able to reveal through its inventive capacity for testing the limits of established – e.g. realist, figurative, or conventional – languages and genres (see Badiou 2009). To this extent art has a purchase on truth that may require the mediating offices of philosophy to spell out its implications but which could not possibly have been achieved except by means of its artistic presentation. I have argued here that political song is a test-case for this thesis since it is a genre, or anti-genre, that confronts the existing political order with a downright challenge to all those values political, social, ethical, and musical which serve to maintain the preferential self-image of a stable and properly functioning liberal democracy.
The starting-point of set-theoretical reasoning is the null set – in Badiou’s terminology the ‘void’ – which, despite its foundational character, eludes any ascription of properties or determinate membership conditions. That is to say, it is included in every multiple as a constituent part or strictly indispensable element, yet cannot be reckoned as properly belonging to the count-as-one by any of the usual admission criteria. So it is, by far from fanciful analogy, that socially excluded or victimized minorities continue to exist at the margins of the body politic and, through the very fact of this marginal status, to exert a potentially transformative pressure on the forms of state-administered surveillance and control. Nor are the arts by any means excluded from this critical role since they also have the capacity to function as reminders of that which cannot be expressed or represented in any language, form, or genre available to artists working within the dominant socio-cultural conditions of their own time and place. If the phrase ‘ontology of political song’ makes any kind of sense – if is not just a bad case of semantic inflation applied to a wholly inappropriate since temporally fleeting and insubstantial (quasi-)artistic cultural phenomenon – then the best means of defending its entitlement to treatment on these terms is by conjoining Badiou’s idea of ‘inaesthetics’ with his notion of ‘transitory ontology’. What we are enabled to think without conceptual embarrassment is the standing possibility of artworks (nothing less) that are very much products of their own historical and cultural-political context yet which also have the power to live on – like the ‘classic’ in other, more elevated terms of address – and renew their inspirational charge across a wide range of historical, geographical, and socio-political situations.
This is mainly in virtue of Badiou’s deploying a ‘subtractive’ conception of truth whereby, as in the history of set-theoretical advances, progress comes about through locating those absences, lacunae, stress-points, anomalies, dilemmas, paradoxes, and so forth, that signal the need for some as yet unknown but obscurely prefigured advance. In set theory there is a known method by which such advances can best be explained, i.e., how it is that mathematical truth can run ahead of present-best mathematical knowledge while exerting a knowledge-transformative power on those who are still operating with the old concepts yet who find themselves uneasily responsive to that which finds no place in current understanding. Such is the procedure of ‘forcing’, devised (or discovered) by the mathematician Paul Cohen who managed to explain its operative conditions in formal, i.e., set-theoretical terms (Cohen 1966). This has been the topic of some highly pertinent commentary by Badiou who takes it to have decisive implications for our grasp of how epochal changes come about in disciplines, fields, or histories of thought far afield from mathematics, at least on the commonplace understanding of what mathematics is or does. Whenever there occurs the kind of major transformation that is loosely described, after Kuhn, as a wholesale ‘paradigm-shift’ then this is sure to involve another instance of the process whereby thought becomes alert to the existence of certain hitherto unrecognised problems, paradoxes, or truth-value gaps.
At these points it is only by way of a ‘generic’ procedure, in Cohen’s mathematically defined sense of that term, that knowledge is enabled to transcend its previous limits and achieve a new stage of conceptual advance. Then it becomes possible to explain – always after the truth-event – how and why those limits had remained in place despite their having always potentially been subject to the forcing effect of such unresolved issues at (or beyond) the margins of intelligibility. My main point here has been to argue that political song occupies that same, intrinsically hard-to-specify since at present not fully realised or recognised ontological domain. That is to say, it gives verbal-musical voice to the standing possibility of a mismatch between that which we are able to know or cognise under currently existing historical, political, or socio-cultural conditions and that which may none the less be prefigured – obliquely expressed or latently contained – within those very conditions. Just as knowledge always falls short of truth in mathematics or the physical sciences so likewise our grasp of what can be achieved in the way of political progress falls short of what might counterfactually be achieved if only thought were able to grasp the possibilities for radical change held out by the failings (e.g., the democratic deficit) that characterise some given social order. Or again, for those who come later and keep faith with the inaugural truth-event, these may be possibilities that they are able to imagine or conceive yet unable to realise – fully comprehend and carry into practice – by any means presently at their disposal.
If I were writing primarily for a readership of musicologists then I should feel obliged to press further toward an account of just what it is – what specific combination of features melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and of course conjointly musical-verbal – that constitutes the classic status or character of some political songs. My own best guess is one that I would advance with a measure of confidence after singing in a socialist street-choir for many years and in support of many political causes from the 1983 miners’ strike and the Anti-Apartheid campaign to protests in connection with sundry events in Northern Ireland, Chile, Columbia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Iraq, and (most recently) Libya. It has to do with a certain quality, analogous to ‘forcing’ in the set-theoretical domain, whereby such songs are able to communicate – ‘connote’ would be too weak a term – the idea of an as yet unachieved but achievable state of justice that finds voice in their words and their music, and which thereby exerts a potentially transformative pressure on existing (conventionally inculcated) notions of the social good. Musically speaking this involves certain distinctive melodic, harmonic and rhythmic patterns that manage to combine a vigorous sense of shared opposition to regnant structures of authority and power with a contrasting sense of the forces currently ranged against them and the outside chance of those structures giving way in response to any such challenge. I say ‘contrasting’ rather than ‘countervailing’ because protest songs draw much of their expressive and performative power from this readiness to face the possibility or likelihood of imminent defeat, but also this strong intimation of a will to hold out for the long term despite the current odds. Indeed I would suggest that the crucial difference between ‘political song’ in the authentic sense of that phrase and ‘political song’ in the broader, non-qualitative sense that would include, say, ‘Rule Britannia’ or ‘God Save the Queen’ has precisely to do with whether or not some particular song is able to express so complex a range of highly charged and powerfully motivating sentiments.
To explain in detail how these feelings are combined in the best, most potent and moving political songs is no doubt a task for literary criticism and music analysis rather than for someone, like myself, making forays into that region where aesthetics overlaps with politics and where both intersect with the elusive domain of musical ontology. We can take a lead from Badiou’s conception of being and event as forever bound up in an asymptotic process of discovery – an open-ended dialectic of ‘infinite truth’ and approximative states of knowledge – that is driven on from one landmark stage to the next by the powers of creative, inventive, paradigm-transformative, or progressively oriented thought. This conception in its detailed working-out by Badiou is one that very aptly captures the ‘transitory ontology’ of political song. It does so through a bringing-together of art, politics and – improbably enough – those formal procedures that he finds most strongly represented in the history of set-theoretical advances from Cantor to the present day. What this enables us to think is a conception of art that would endorse none of those received ideas – least of all Kantian ideas about aesthetic disinterest or beauty as the product of an ideal harmony between the faculties in a state of perfect disengagement from all aesthetically extraneous matters – that have left such a deep imprint even on philosophies of art which expressly disavow them (Kant 1978). On the other hand Badiou can be seen to offer equally powerful arguments against the radically nominalist or conventionalist approach of a thinker like Nelson Goodman who would press just as far in the opposite direction, i.e., toward a wholesale dissolution of art into the various ‘art’-constitutive languages or modes of representation that properly – that is, by agreed-upon criteria – serve to define it (Goodman 1976). Nothing could be further from Badiou’s passionate defence of the truth-telling power vested in art, along with his justified suspicion of those – especially followers of Kant – who consign artistic truth to a realm of autonomous or ‘purely’ aesthetic values wherein that power would languish unexercised. If any meaning attaches to the phrase ‘ontology of political song’ then Badiou’s is the approach that can best accommodate so potent, resilient and endlessly renewable and yet so protean or context-dependent a genre.
Of course this leaves room for the sceptic to respond by batting my claim right back and asserting that the phrase is indeed meaningless since even granting that such talk makes sense when applied to objects falling under various regional ontologies – such as those of the physical sciences or Austin’s ‘medium-sized dry goods’ – it doesn’t when applied to the kind of ersatz or pseudo-entity in question here. However, if this argument goes through, then the sceptic’s case would extend well beyond items like political song to songs in general, musical works at large, artworks of whatever description (as distinct from their physical tokens or modes of instantiation), and beyond that to abstract entities such as those of mathematics and the formal sciences. Again, the sceptic or the Quinean lover of austere desert landscapes may grasp this nettle without the least compunction and declare – albeit without Quine’s blessing, since oddly enough he counted himself a Platonist in matters mathematical – that we are better off dumping all such commitments beyond the ontological-relativist idea that to be just is to be the value of a variable which in turn should be deemed nothing more than a matter of what happens to play a certain role in this or that going ‘ontological scheme’ (Quine 1961 and 1969). Badiou’s is an ontology which, when applied to political song, holds out against any such wholesale relativist slide while none the less making allowance for the way that its identity-conditions change under shifts in some existing (dominant or emergent) set of socio-political circumstances. In this way it may help us to re-think the character of such works in relation to some of the more restrictive categories of high-cultural or canon-preserving aesthetic discourse. Moreover it offers a litmus-test for issues in musical aesthetics generally since political song is the most extreme instance of that highly elusive ontological status that characterises all musical works.
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