The Ethics of Musical Labor

Evening panel session held at the Annual Meeting of the Americal Musicological Society, San Francisco, 10-13 November 2011. The session was organised by the Music and Philosophy Study Group of the American Musicological Society, in collaboration with the Royal Musical Association Music and Philosophy Study Group.

Thursday 10 November, 8pm
Grand Ballroom C, Hyatt Regency Hotel, San Francisco

The call for papers (closed) is available here.

The Ethics of Musical Labor

Tomas McAuley (King’s College London), Chair

Stephen Decatur Smith (New York University), Introduction

Huw Hallam (King’s College London), Eternal Labor: Arendt, Deola
Trent Leipert (University of Chicago), Lyotard and Music’s Labor(er)s Lost
Stephan Hammel (University of Pennsylvania), Musicological Passion: Ethics and the Precarious Labor of Music History
Martin Scherzinger (New York University), Economic Virtualism , Musical Labor

Nanette Nielsen (University of Nottingham), Response


Eternal Labor: Arendt, Deola
Huw Hallam, King’s College London

In her writings on modern politics, Hannah Arendt pointed to a spectacular confusion between the concepts of labor, fabrication, and action. Karl Marx in particular, Arendt argued, had applied an idea of history to the realm of political action in a way that treated human freedom and the meaningfulness of human intercourse as end products of a process of historical emancipation: things to be made, like chairs or tables, rather than fragile sites of interaction, disclosure and judgment. As labor and the exploitative social relations governing it were posited as the motor of political change, action was deprived of its inherent significance and downgraded to a point to be negated in the passage to utopia.

Central to Arendt’s critique is the idea of a desire for immortalization (Greek: athanatizein). This desire, she argued, flared up with the Modern Age as secularization dissolved certainty in the immortality of the soul and the natural world, driving the emergence of modern historiography and permeating political thought in decisive ways. The idea was also fundamental to Arendt’s meditations on art, which dovetail with her broader political and ethical thought. But here questions about the transience of musical performance and the cultivation of virtuosity through musical labor—a theme that has recently occupied Paolo Virno—expose important aporias in Arendt’s argument.

This paper turns to Luigi Nono’s “scenic action,” Al gran sole carico d’amore (1972-74), to explore those aporias and extend Arendt’s analysis. While her critique of Marx’s conflation of politics with history helps clarify aspects of the Communist composer’s earlier practice, I argue that at this turning-point in his career, Nono offered a counter-model to Arendt’s idea of immortalization, through the figure of Deola. A prostitute drawn from Cesare Pavese’s poetry of the late 1930s, Deola’s presence at the lyrical climax of Nono’s scenic action marks an enigmatic contrast to the struggling revolutionaries otherwise populating the work. Yet as she sings of dawn’s “breath,” she is constructed musically as a figure of immanent potentiality, rather than immortalization, heralding a reconsideration of art, politics, and the ethics of labor in the era of biopower.

Lyotard and Music’s Labor(er)s Lost
Trent Leipert, University of Chicago

In their collaborative work of the last decade, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt describe how “immaterial labor” in knowledge-based societies confounds economic categories as well as Arendt’s division of labour, work, and action. They also emphasize the role that affective labor plays as a counterpart to, or component of, knowledge production. An example is the manipulation of affects by the entertainment and cultural industries, the two being often undifferentiated in their accounts. Drawing on Deleuzian formulations of affect and Foucault’s concept of biopower, they theorize ways in which the inescapability of capital may be subverted. However, in offering few examples from the diversity of possible musical activity, a number of questions arise. Is the critical potential of music neutralized or rendered obsolete? What specific affective operations must music perform in order to mobilize change? What does music communicate when production and communication become inseparable?

Jean-François Lyotard encounters similar theoretical impasses in several writings from the second half of his career which allow us to engage with such questions generated by more recent work on contemporary labor. While most famous as the theorist of the “postmodern condition,” Lyotard’s writings on art and politics offer alternative theories to those of his more influential contemporaries, Deleuze and Foucault, regarding affective production and its possible relationship to music.

In moving from musical gestures to his concept of the “event,” Lyotard sees a challenge in avoiding recuperation into either utility or transcendence. Bracketing music’s creators and receivers, Lyotard formulates not an autonomous agency for music, but rather a number of new burdens: in his words, music itself must labor to make inaudible desires audible and to make the audible leave a trace on the social canvas without falling back into regimes of representation. Additionally, Lyotard calls for a sort of “active passivity” among the “subjects” of a sensus communis. I examine the implications and difficulties that such a model poses for musical activity. However, I also suggest that in leading us back to the questions posed above, we might recognize in Lyotard a sort of ethical honesty in confronting the limits of the knowable (in a knowledge-based economy) and the obligations (or our mutual implication within global capitalism) that we share and to which we are bound.

Musicological Passion: Ethics and the Precarious Labor of Music History
Stephan Hammel, University of Pennsylvania

In our current academic dispensation, musicological labor reveals itself more and more as such. Increasingly casual and scarce, the job of reproducing scholarly musical culture can no longer keep up a show of disinterested pursuit. The very separation, familiar to us from twentieth-century critiques of modernity, of rational from aesthetic discourse both opened music to study and undermined any importance it might have had in itself. At the moment when music became the kind of thing that necessitated historical self-consciousness to sustain itself, musicology made a bet that its object could persist indefinitely if that self-consciousness could be perpetuated. However, as the third stage of capitalism takes on apocalyptic garb, that wager has gone sour and we are faced with an unavoidable conclusion: neither music nor capitalism appear to require—or have any reason to support—our labor.

Not surprisingly, this material condition (to invoke an old-fashioned term that rings with new-found relevance) has inspired a reflexive discourse within the field that is explicitly ethical. After all, if musicology is merely labor, it is nothing at all. To be successful, ethical discourse must make abstract demands about the meaning of actions that nonetheless can structure the terms of subjective approval. The dominant ethical demand within the field today calls for a “return” to music’s visceral presence and—what is but the subjective manifestation of that presence—a pre-reflective passion for music (Abbate, 2004; Currie, 2009; Cusick, 2011). Aesthetic reflection is traded for a figure of immediate insight. The evacuation of aesthetic thinking, however, is precisely the tendency that both made possible and now renders irrelevant the reproduction of music history. A thematized passion for producing and consuming music is both symptom and result of musicology’s precarious labor.

My paper will demonstrate this interrelation of music history, ethics, and labor in order to argue that the turn to immediacy in the field fails to overcome music history’s inherent contradiction, a contradiction that must be recognized if we are to understand what kind of future, if any, our labor can expect.

Economic Virtualism , Musical Labor
Martin Scherzinger, New York University

Music production in the twenty-first century shifted from a largely commoditized industrial model to a radically decentralized one, facilitated by new efficiencies in search functionality, delivery, and peer-to-peer connectivity. In the older music economy, the media of music (its tangible forms—vinyl, cassette, compact disc, etc.) were fused with its contents (its sounding forms—songs, pieces, etc.), thereby facilitating their efficient circulation as physical commodities (grounded in licensing agreements, copyright protections, and so on). In the newer economy, medium and content are increasingly delinked; the former effectively dematerialized (or, more accurately, micro-materialized as virtualized format), thereby posing new challenges to law and policy governing musical creation, distribution, and consumption. In the context of music’s new technological prostheses (digital recording studios, on-demand streaming services, algorithmic aggregators, and the like) the question of equitable sources of revenue for musical labor has re-surfaced as a central debate in our times.

Viewpoints are divided about the effects new modalities of digital connectivity (the ubiquitous practice of downloading, file sharing, and streaming from music services) have on patterns of musical labor today. For many commentators, internet technologies have ushered in the possibility for economic disintermediation, whereby traditional distribution channels (or intermediaries) have been bypassed, allowing musicians to engage their listeners more directly and diversely. In this paper the promise of disintermediation is assessed in relation to new formations of labor, characterized by increased entrepreneurial reliance on flexible and globalized networks of production and distribution. Premised on the idea that creative content be furnished free, musical production illuminates a kind of prescient vertex for the restructuring of labor practices sustaining the material foundation of capitalism today. Instead of ushering enhanced user-generated digital applications, new technological media bear witness to a gradual process of (online) labor degradation. The semi-automated production cycles facilitated by new media simultaneously reflect increasing dependence by capitalist cycles of accumulation on a kind of “post-workerist” immaterial labor—forms of flexible, part-time work and “self-employment.” This paper maps the way creative labor readily succumbs to the ideology of initiative and individualism undergirding “self-employment” in the context of new models of musical delivery and experience.