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Postmodern Musicology and the Subjectivity of Value

Markos Tsetsos
juillet 2011



This article includes three sections. Part I attempts an assessment or reconstruction of musicology in terms of philosophical axiology and argues that modern musicology responds to the premises of value objectivism while postmodern musicology clearly sustains value subjectivism. Part II focuses critically on issues associated with value subjectivism, such as relativism, constructivism and value reductionism, highlighting antinomies of theory in major branches of postmodern musicology (including feminist and homosexual musicology) and contesting the populist argument. Part III examines the claim that postmodern musicology is a critical discipline, demonstrating its self-exception from the mainly deconstructive “critical” argument, the impasses of its instrumental understanding of aesthetic value and the latent connection of this understanding with the legitimizing rhetoric of the contemporary music industry. To complement this view and by way of returning to Adorno’s philosophy, the essay gives a hint of a critically rational objectivist axiology of music, in which the subject functions not as an arbitrary constructor and projector of values but as their necessary condition of possibility.


Texte intégral   

1Values lie in the very heart of human life. They determine the individual and collective attitudes, actions, and aspirations, they are on the source of ideologies being an object of constant negotiation, confrontation, affirmation or refutation, they represent the very nucleus of political, aesthetic and scientific programs. Values and hierarchies of values distinguish cultures, historical periods, ethical and religious systems, worldviews, social groups and personalities. All this is apparent. Less apparent though is the role our conception of value itself plays in the formation of value-systems and even more so our conception of the objectivity or subjectivity of value1. If we consider postmodern musicology as a system of values confronting another one, let’s name it a “modern”, system of values, then it is worth examining the principal position of these two musicological value-systems to the previous fundamental axiological distinction, and the possibility these two musicologies to be actually constituted in terms of just this distinction. On that purpose we could, preliminarily and heuristically, attempt to construct, in reference to the premises of both axiological objectivism and subjectivism, two different musicologies, establishing to what degree the findings of this construction correspond to the normative orientations of both modern and postmodern musicology. A critique of postmodern musicology could come about in terms of philosophical axiology, acquiring thus a broader theoretical relevance.


2To endorse axiological objectivism means to affirm the objectivity of values in various ways. From the viewpoint significant to art, values are objective as properties of objects (things, states of affairs, artifacts, works of art, persons, relations of persons, acts, institutions, theories etc), either as properties ontologically autonomous and distinct from other (physical) properties of objects, or as ontologically heteronomous, emergent, apparent etc, i.e. depended on ontologically autonomous properties of objects, though not reducible to these properties2. As objective, the existence of values is either independent from the existence of subjects and therefore not reducible to states of mind or cognitive acts of subjects (values and their material bearers maintain their validity and value respectively regardless of being recognized, desired, preferred, enjoyed and valued and regardless of the fluctuations of desire, preference, enjoyment and evaluation, i.e. they have absolute autonomy)3, or it is dependent on the existence of subjects, although this dependence does not affect their validity, the subjects being only the condition of their actualization, manifestation, recognition (relative autonomy of values)4. Regardless, however, of how the situation of the subject in the axiological relation can be understood, the object has always the priority in this relation. Axiological objectivism enables the verification of the rightness and validity of value judgments through reference to the value-properties of objects, and consequently it makes possible the rational public negotiation of their value. The fact of the differentiation and divergence of value judgments does not have to lead to the conclusion of their contingency and to relativism, but it is explained as a deficient apprehension of values on behalf of the valuing subjects, as a total or partial axiological “blindness”.

3A musicology based on the principles of axiological objectivism would choose as privileged focus of research musical objects (sound-structures, works and/or their notational texts) rather than musical subjects (performers, composers, listeners) or their musical activities (performing, composing, listening). Among the different kinds of musical objects it would choose the one with the most fixed structure, which means the scored work of music. The value of musical works would be considered as intrinsic, assured by the stability of their structure and invariable in time, despite the eventual fluctuation of their instrumental value, i.e. the value they eventually have for individuals and social or cultural groups at the same or different points of history5. The immutability of a musical work’s intrinsic value would enable the critique of their eventual instrumental (ab)uses, but also the comparison between them, resulting in the constitution of a more or less stable repertoire comprising of the works with the greatest intrinsic value, i.e. of a “canon”, the existence of which would determine the orientations of research and the priorities of musical historiography6. The canonical works would thus function as a measure for estimating the worth of other works and the values that they incarnate would stand as universal criteria of appraisal. Value judgments could be subjected to scrutiny not only regarding their truth-value (for example in the case of ascribing negative value to a work with a positive one) but also regarding the reasons of the evaluation, i.e. the chosen criteria7. The structural analyses of the works would bring to light new aspects of their structure associated with values which have been latent up to that point8. Comparison and hierarchization could be realized not only between individual works, but also between periods of music history, genres, styles and forms. Axiological objectivism in musicology would render possible the distinction between “high(er)” and “low(er)” music, the instrumental value of which would be inversely analogous to its intrinsic value ; the musicological community would conclude that works with the greatest intrinsic value resist more efficiently to their instrumental uses, which should be denounced as unjust and unacceptable. Autonomy would be the goal and the object at stake of both musical creation and reception. It becomes now obvious that we are referring to some of the central postulations of modern (and we could add “objectivistic”) musicology.

4Axiological subjectivism9 on the other side credits values exclusively to individual or collective subjects (i.e. social groups of gender, race, class, ethnicity), or considers values as always relative to them (value relativism). Subjects actually project values to objects, which, in reality, are completely deprived of any value. In their turn values, being not real or ideal entities independent from subjects, are reducible either to emotional or volitional states, attitudes or reactions of subjects to objects (content / discontent, desire / repulsion, preference / rejection), to behaviors determined by gender and character, or to other systems of value (for instance, aesthetic values could be reduced to ethic-political ones). Generally, axiological subjectivism endorses that values are always relative to or contingent on gender, idiosyncrasy, race, social class, cultural community and so on. Ontologically, values are not but social, cultural, ideological constructs or conventions, products of social practices with variable validity, with their existence absolutely dependent on those practices and therefore absolutely heteronomous10. Such preconditions invalidate every claim to rational negotiation of value(s) and consequently every possibility of rational commitment or consensus in matters of truth, moral good and beauty11 : every such commitment or consensus must be denounced as concealed aggression. Value in this context is a purely irrational affair.

5A musicology based on the principles of axiological subjectivism, would maintain that there are not inter-subjective and diachronic, that is universally valid criteria for evaluating not only individual works but also musical genres, styles and forms, historical periods and musical cultures, given that the axiological frame of any music is relative to subjects and contingent on their gender, race, class, ethnicity, ideology, projected to sound-structures (notated or not) themselves deprived of any intrinsic value12. The only possible value musical objects could have could be either extrinsic (for instance historical) or instrumental, in the sense that music satisfies (or fails to satisfy) possible needs or purposes of individuals or collectivities. Grounded on the principles of axiological subjectivism, musicology would refute the validity of every hierarchy of musical works, genres, styles and forms, it would reject the constitution of the canon as ideologically burdened and would denounce as unacceptable and undemocratic the divide of music into “high(er)” and “low(er)”, pointing out that it does not express immanent axiological differences (given that such a thing doesn’t exist) but hegemonic attitudes of the more powerful social groups toward the weaker13. Restoring the injustice, subjectivist musicology would bring to the epicenter of inquiry not only the music of the social margin and of the global cultural periphery, but also the various kinds of the formerly “low(er)” popular music culture. It would support that it is absolutely wrong and unjust to judge the latter according to the normative terms of a completely different musical practice (in this case the absolute instrumental western art music)14. It would refute not only the postulate of musical autonomy, but also the validity of a universal concept of music ; it would claim rather that there are so many concepts of music (or so many “musics”) as there are cultures, social groups and musical practices. It would shift the principal focus of research from musical objects (works, scores, musical notations) to musical subjects (composers, performers15, listeners) their activities (composing, performing, listening) and the multiple meanings music has for them16, to the musical practices these subjects actively participate in17, and even to their gender, sexual, social and ideological preferences and attitudes which determine different orientations in the production and reproduction of music and different priorities in its reception. Besides, it would treat music itself as a social agent, a moral subject. Regarding musical texts, a subjectivist musicology would deconstruct the validity of the aspired unique true and absolute interpretation of them and defend the claim of the equivalence of a plethora of possible meanings and interpretations, constructed within a plethora of always shifting contexts18. Relativism and pluralism would become the leitmotivs and credos of such musicology. It becomes now obvious that we are referring to some central assumptions of the postmodern (and we could add “subjectivist”) musicology. In the words of Lawrence Kramer

“[…] It should be possible to recast musicology as the rigorous and contestable study, theory, and practice of musical subjectivities. This would be a musicology in which the results of archival and analytical work, formerly prized in their own right, would become significant only in relation to subjective values –which is not to say the values of an atomized private inwardness, but those of a historically situated type of human agency”19.


On relativism (and its related notions)

6In the notions of relativism20, contingency21 and reductionism we distinguish three important aspects of the subjectivist undermining of the objectivity of value: relativism undermines the ontological independence, the realist or idealist transcendence of value, contingency its claim to universality or universal validity, reductionism its very existence which, in final analysis, is always reducible to facts22. Having a priori rejected the idea of a universal, transcendental reason, the subjectivist cannot but defend her claims in reference to facts. Everywhere and at every time of history we observe conflicts about what is cognitively, ethic-practically and aesthetically good. These conflicts betray a plethora of different and incompatible value perspectives, which could only be sufficiently explained in reference to the biological, idiosyncratic, cultural, social difference of people. Inside such a segregated reality, each attempt to handle and resolve cognitive, ethic and aesthetic controversies in reference to universal truths and principles, is not only logically unattainable but also morally unacceptable, signifying the violent enforcement of one perspective on the rest. A cautious observation moreover persuades that values do not exist as distinct entities (substances or properties), a fact that obligates their reduction to existing entities. If they exist, values exist either as lingual (de)formations of mental states deprived of stringent descriptive function23, or as constructions and/or conventions with exclusively social and historical validity.

7In the case of musicology, it has become a commonplace that the empirical researches of ethnomusicology, anthropology and sociology of music have strongly contributed to the establishment and domination of the postmodern relativistic conception of music, a contribution many of the main representatives of postmodern musicology readily acknowledge. If one, for example, takes the inferences of ethnomusicology seriously into consideration, he will be obliged to relativize the validity of some older (and still latent in traditional musicology) conceptions concerning not only the alleged superiority of western music to the music(s) of non-western people, but also the supposed unique and universal definition of music, which in fact does not express but a locally, historically, socially, and ideologically determined and thus partial musical perspective. Following in ethnomusicology’s footsteps, the study of popular music endeavors to demonstrate that the negative evaluation of the latter by traditional musicology is due to the erroneous application of criteria valid only for the historically and socially restricted kind of absolute instrumental art music (emphasis on the complexity of structure rather than the authenticity of style, in structural listening rather than in contextual understanding, in scores rather than in musical gesture and so forth). The “injustice” toward popular music can be redeemed only if musicology refutes its absolutist and universalistic arguments, accepting a “democratic” pluralism of criteria, this time not only aesthetic but also functional (for example the contribution of music to the constitution and representation of individual and collective identity)24.

8Although extremely seductive and apparently democratic, relativism nevertheless has been proved theoretically vulnerable. Since the time of Plato and Aristotle, philosophical critique detected its logical self-refutation : if the truth of every statement is relative, then there is at least one statement the truth of which is not relative, i.e. that the truth of every statement is relative. In other words, in order to be consistent relativism can not but always relativize itself25. The most important philosophical deficiency though is, in our opinion, that the relativist does not reflect on the condition(s) enabling the departure from the immanence of her relative position toward that transcendent viewpoint from which the very relativity of her position can be first realized. In the case of music, the ethnomusicological research not only brings to light a variety of incompatible musical practices around the world, but it moreover represents them as being themselves deprived of exactly that postulated relativist critical self-reflection : most musical cultures seem enclosed in a static cultural substantiality that makes difficult, if not impossible, not only historical change and renewal26, but also the exit toward meeting their “other”, the musical culture of their western (or other) observer(s)27. Behind the cultural relativist reluctance to postulate the universalization of the relativist attitude hides possibly the awareness -even the fear- that a universalized relativism could dialectically turn to its opposite, i.e. to a universal “fusion of horizons” (Gadamer) which would practically invalidate all relativist perspective-segregations. Claiming solely for itself the privilege of critical self-refutation, the westerner cultural relativist reproduces negatively the imperialist discriminations28. (The same can be said for the relativist of musical reception and practices within western music). The relativist conception of music, deterministically, even “genetically”, attaching music to subjects (whites and blacks, men and women, high and low class etc) is (descriptively) blind to and suspends (normatively) the social mobility of music.

9The theory, now, of the reduction of aesthetic values to non-musical factors faces two dangers : first, the danger of their identification with ethic-practical values and, second, the danger of a strict limitation of the social and cultural validity of any system of aesthetic values. In particular, the negative value of the moral system of a particular social group (lets say white European imperialists) could affect the value of their aesthetic system, as long as one disregards the (at least relative) autonomy of the latter from the former affirming decisively their full heteronomy (aesthetic values aren’t but masked moral ones : the music of those that support negative moral values is “bad”, while the music of the people supporting positive moral values, or at least not realizing negative ones, is “good”). In this way however, the logic of the denounced moral polarization between the dominants and the dominated, the oppressors and the oppressed, the elite and the people is transported from the realm of the social to the realm of the aesthetic and thus reproduced in terms of art29. Unfortunately for the relativists, only the postulate of the (at least relative) autonomy of the aesthetic from the ethic can protect from such a blunder.

10The stringent, deterministic delineation of the social and cultural validity of each system of musical values, suspending musical mobility, advances eventually the social “ghettization” or “insulation” of music and the alienation between musicians (and musicologists !) or, in any case, it can not provide arguments against such a prospect. The counter-argument could be formulated like this:

“The fact that some groups in society have historically enjoyed greater power to make their perspective on aesthetic value dominate over other groups’ perspectives does not entail that works of art cannot be shown to possess aesthetic value in themselves. It does not entail that all historically received valuations of works of art are nothing but reflections of the power of the most dominant agents in history. It does not entail that the arguments put forward by a white upper-class man for the aesthetic value of a particular work could never conceivably be endorsed by a black working-class woman, and it does not entail that the arguments put forward by a black working-class woman for the aesthetic value of another work could never conceivably be endorsed by a white upper-class man. Questions of social power are relevant to questions of aesthetic value ; but questions of aesthetic value are not reducible to questions of social power. To deny this would be to adopt a position of relativism in aesthetic appraisal, which has self-contradictory consequences”30.

On feminist musicology

11Endeavoring to undermine the universality of the values both of modern musicology and of its privileged music, postmodern musicology mobilizes one of its most powerful instruments, feminism, understood not only as a significant social current, but also as one of the contemporary forms of ethical-political, aesthetic and epistemic relativism: if values are relative, amongst others, to sex or gender, then the prevailing ethic-political, aesthetic and epistemic values of modernity actually express the dominant gender, which happens to be men. Feminism must condemn as unfair and politically incorrect the fact of value androcracy in most realms of public life, one of which is music and its institutions. In a second phase, feminism in the realm of musicology has to activate a discussion concerning the conditions of constitution of an alternative model of feminine musicality, in reference to a different normative frame responding to exclusively feminine abilities and merits31.

12The feminist repudiation of the men-dominated musical establishment can take various forms. One of these concerns the refutation of the arguments against the alleged musical inability of women, which takes as given either the inferiority of their sex or, in the best case, their otherness. Opposing this peculiar (ideologically racist) musical biologism, musicological feminism reveals the socially prescribed exclusion of women from particular musical practices and their institutions, and especially from the central institution of the musical production (i.e. composition). This sole fact suffices to explain the evident deficient representation of the female sex in the canon32.

13Nevertheless, an even more radical form of fighting musical androcracy on behalf of feminist musicology represents the attempt to undercut the validity of the very canon itself (or to save only some of its works utilizing their feminine interpretation). If men constitute the canon and the relativist validity principle is true, then the canon articulates only masculine values ; which means, further, that being valid only for men or for a men-dominated society their postulated universality becomes spurious33. If this is true, then feminist musicology should welcome as positive, or at least indifferent, the exclusion of women from the canon and the practices that support and reproduce it. Freed from guilt and inferiority complexes, the new feminist musicologists could proceed not only to the discussion of the principles legitimizing a new musical and musicological policy different from the masculine one, but also to the rehabilitation of the excluded from the canon women composers in line with just these principles.

14This second feminist musicological project answers to an essential weakness of the first, i.e. to the fact that, restricted mainly to the explanation of women’s exclusion from the canon, the first project has tacitly accepted its validity, taking thus involuntarily an apologetic attitude. The second feminist musicological project itself seems nevertheless entrapped in a latent essentialism contradicting the general relativist conception of the social construction of gender. If gender is socially constructed and this construction legitimizes the unjust social discrimination of the genders, then a consistent theory can not but demand the annulment of this unjust cultural discrimination34 in reference to a new universal value frame ; which of course relativizes social relativism itself. As regards musicology, the repudiation of gender essentialism denies in fact the biologist foundation of human behavior, relegating the alleged “masculine” qualities of, let’s say, Beethoven’s music to just socially constructed gender conceptions of a particular historical period and culture. But the sole suggestion of the fact nullifies the essentialist validity of these same “masculine” qualities Beethoven’s music allegedly exemplifies. In simple words : if there are no masculine and feminine qualities or merits in nature, then essentialist feminism is as much one-sided and dogmatic as essentialist androcracy.

On homosexual musicology

15In the case of homosexuals their (cultural) “gender” is clearly separated from their (natural) sex and the roles of domination and subjection become the object of a liberal playful treatment or even abrogation. This structural peculiarity itself makes homosexual musicology especially significant within the postmodern cultural frame. In opposition to feminist musicology, the musicology of men homosexuality can find representation within the canon. The intense preoccupation of some gay musicologists especially with -the supposedly homosexual- Schubert, was initiated, in our opinion, from the urgent need to construct a historic anti-paradigm confronting the hegemony of the “despot” heterosexual Beethoven. Indeed, Schubert’s music subverts the Beethovenian model of teleologically dynamic organicism in form and the offensive heroism of the dominant modern bourgeois subjectivity in expression, maintaining at the same time a very high niveau of artistic performance. Schubert’s music becomes the norm of a power that does not subjugate and a constrained sensibility avoiding sentimentalism, thus becoming the sign of a personality, which, apparently, has internalized the violence of social exclusion35.

16The most interesting suggestion of the lesbian musicology, on the other hand, is the one in which the lesbian reciprocity in giving and taking sexual pleasure becomes the model for a subversion of the standard relationship with art music, as it has been constituted and established during the Enlightenment modernity, namely the passive subjection to the “objectivity” of the musical work deprived from the pleasure derived from the play of its constant reinterpretation by the subject36. In the new model of musical relationship, both the work and the listener are able to alternate their “roles” according to the lesbian sexual act : the work maintains its relative autonomy in order to be able to give pleasure, to be “on top”37, offering at the same time to the listener the opportunity to be likewise “on top” through the playful listening treatment of both structure and meaning. In this “dialectic” aesthetical relationship, the formerly fixed object-subject polarity becomes fluid, contesting thus both the (modern) primacy of the object and the (postmodern) primacy of the subject.

17Lesbian musicology nevertheless does not clarify the preconditions of this “dialectic”. The liberal playful treatment of structure and meaning does not take place immediately and unconditionally, but presupposes a hard educational process leading to the acquisition of a very efficient structural listening38, during which the priority is necessarily granted to the musical object. From this point on the instrumental treatment of the work should be realized in terms of the work itself, if one doesn’t want the listening subject to hold an absolutely dominant position in accordance with the model of the heterosexual relationship. The element of pleasure though, considered as the ultimate thing looked for in this “lesbian” relationship between the listener and the musical work, betrays the subjectivist interest of this relationship : the treatment of the musical work as a sex-mate, which means as a moral agent or person, takes place nevertheless in the immanence of only one of the members of this relationship, this member being of course the listening subject. She alone plays self-contentedly in her fantasy by turns the roles of “on bottom” and “on top”, forgetting deliberately that her “sex-mate”, the musical work, remains that which it has always been, a soulless thing unable to take pleasure, predestined though to give pleasure ; and the sole condition enabling this pleasure is the unconditioned and without deconstructionist interventions surrender to the ordered play of its expressively fluid structure. Only persons can subjugate, not things.

18Besides, if gender is socially constructed, then the lesbian claim on privileged authority over the described liberal music relationship is considerably jeopardized, or, to put it differently, if we adopt an anti-essentialist perspective then the biological sex ought to be completely irrelevant in the formation of human relationships and consequently the various models of human relationships (like the model of dominance-subjugation or the model of the liberal negotiation of roles) could in principle be reproducible regardless of the sex of the agents. Both the feminist and the homosexual musicology could consider that a good way out from the antinomies resulting from their positions could perhaps be the adoption of the Enlightenment postulates of mutual understanding, respect and commitment in the inter-individual relationships rather than an egoistic relativism possibly masking resentment or superiority complexes (difference-as-exception-as-privilege), and thus reproducing social discriminations in the aesthetic realm of music.

On populism

19By its nature axiological subjectivism tends to populism: if the value of an object cannot be decided in reference to its intrinsic merits, i.e. according to quality criteria, then it can not be decided otherwise than in reference to the evaluations of most subjects, that is according to quantity criteria. Valuable is necessarily what the many regard as valuable ; and a change in the evaluation of the many entails a change in the value of the object. For instance, if the many decide that art music is not valuable, then de facto it is not. In this case, every attempt to impose art music to the many (let’s say through education) means simply exertion of anti-democratic aggression by the few, the elite(s), on the many. Thus, a musicology which democratically respects the will of the many has not only to render the music of the many the privileged object of research, but also the values of just this music the normative terminus a quo of its critique to the music of the few, the elite(s)39. If the latter is constituted according to the principle of the primacy of structure, claims structural listening, and demands from musicology the structural approach to music, then the music of the many should be constituted in reference to the primacy of subjective experience, it should claim experience-listening, and demand from musicology an empirical approach to music40.

20Leaving aside the historical details of this discussion41, we proceed directly to its critique. The postmodern “democratic” musicology overlooks deliberately the social conditions, policies and mechanisms determining the preferences and listening modes of the many, at the same time being very eager to deconstruct the structural mode of listening by invoking exactly the social conditions, policies and mechanisms that gave normative authority to this particular “elitist” mode of listening. Postmodern musicology thus sanctifies the preferences of the many as if they were “natural”, presenting structural listening as an artificial and ideologically burdened cultural construct. Evoking on the one hand Adorno’s sociological approach of music, postmodern musicology overlooks or misjudges on the other hand the philosophical and ideological preconditions of the central to his thought cultural industry critique :

“The machine of cultural industry vitiates methodically and sacrifices what could be possible, the aesthetic creations, the logic of which would differ from the logic of the social system. It annihilates the activation of people and invalidates their participation rendering them to mere receivers, listeners and spectators (or it creates frames for the canalization and absorption of their spontaneity). It is a part of the whole system of capitalist production and it standardizes, quantifies and differentiates its material adjusting it to the demands of the consumers shaped by the culture industry itself. In techniques like those of the television, as the Dialectic of the Enlightenment (1944 !) says, gets life the Wagnerian Gesammtkunstwerk, in which language, image and music have been amalgamated, incorporating in their alienated unity the whole of society and rendering it thus a participant in the performed”42.


21In its confrontation with musicological modernity, postmodern musicology very often determines itself as “critical”. As such, the position of postmodern musicology against the modern takes a character not only descriptive, but also prescriptive : it does not only say what modern musicology failed to do, but also what a new, “critical” musicology has to do ; and what modern musicology failed (or didn’t even attempt) to do is to recognize the relation of music to the world of man in its historical, social, cultural, ideological, political and economical parameters. Major epistemological hindrance to the appreciation of this relation proves to be an aesthetic objectivism, dogmatic enough not to reflect on its own socio-political and, most of all, ideological preconditions, or on the ideological character of its supposedly self-evident premises. The issue for us now is on the one hand whether the truly critical musicological postulate can be accomplished in terms of relativist subjectivist axiology, and on the other hand whether postmodern musicology is able or prepared to turn self-reflectively toward itself -in order not to collapse into a revert dogmatism- the very critical attitude it holds against the modern musicological conceptual system.

22When objectivism (at least the non-critical one) insists on the absolute, unmediated, and unchangeable nature of value, subjectivism stresses -as we show- on its relativity, contingency, mediation and changeability. A precondition for this is the close dependence of a value’s validity to the historical material conditions of its emergence, i.e. on the practices, institutions, and ideologies that historically enabled this emergence. For example, the reputation of Beethoven’s music, or the totality of values exemplified in his music, are presented as totally dependent on the social practice of its time, which in turn determines the musical practice, its supporting institutions and their legitimating frame of artistic values43. Any possible change of the social practice must carry down together with the validity of its corresponding musical practice the validity of the latter’s legitimizing artistic values (in this case the values on which Beethoven’s reputation is grounded). It is proved thus a posteriori that the condition enabling the supposed absolute validity of the aesthetic value(s) has been the ideological abstraction from the fact of their simply legitimizing function ; or, to put it differently, a “critical” musicology has to denounce the alleged absoluteness of the aesthetic values as an ideology that mystifies real social relations of power, contributing thus to their legitimacy. Without noticing, however, “critical” musicology has exempted itself from ideological critique. In order to be self-consistent and to evade absolutism, a postmodern musicology claiming to be “critical” must turn the same critique to itself and reflect on the social practices supporting particular music practices and legitimating frames of value in the present “late capitalist” (Jameson) period of history44. For, even the postmodernist uncommitted playful negotiation of meaning and artistic norms has not only descriptive but also prescriptive valence and therefore acquires the character of a normative frame legitimizing historically specified artistic practices.

23Prior to this, however, one should wonder in what sense the previously described theory supporting the subjectivist axiology is true, that is, to what extent the dependence of value on the historically changeable material conditions of its possibility affects its validity45. A rigorous adoption of this theory on the public discussion could offer support to extreme views of the kind that there are not enough reasons to maintain monuments such as, for example, Athens’ Acropolis, or serious reasons for not demolishing it under real-estate pressures, given that its value is on the one hand relative to a long non-existing society, i.e. the society of classical Athens, while on the other hand its modern aesthetic evaluation is contingent to meanwhile relativized and deconstructed artistic practices and notions of the modern era ; Or views of the kind that the state funding of art music institutions (and of their supporting musicology) is utterly unjustified for the reason that on the one hand it supports practices historically surpassed and foreign to the present dominant culture, and on the other hand practices concerning only the symbolic reproduction of small social and cultural elites. It is obvious that such social determinism of art leaves little space for the establishment of European art music as a public good that could bind the state in its protection and promotion, independently from the mechanisms and the logic of the market.

24An argument opposed to such extreme prospect should support the non-possibility of explanatory transition from the (social, economic and so on) conditions to the validity of a value or to the value of its bearer(s) : the music, for instance, of Beethoven or Schubert does not have value because it is published, performed, promoted by the media and evaluated by the majority of people, but exactly because it has value, it ought to be published, performed, promoted by the media and positively evaluated (potentially) by all people ; and it has value despite the altering of the social, ideological, and economical conditions of its historical emergence. This means of course that assurance to its value can not offer the contingently modified meanings ascribed to it by its possible audience(s), i.e. the subjective pole of music, but the pregnant with inherent meaning -a meaning often multi-leveled and multivalent- structure. One could even understand “structural listening”, and the music better responding to its requirements, in terms of human achievement requiring universal recognition, regardless of the moral evaluation of its emergence conditions, while at the same time accepting the parallel existence of a huge variety of musical practices and correspondent modes of perception, and discarding claims to monopolist hegemony within a multicultural world. Moreover, structural listening could serve as an instrument for the universal recognition of other musical cultures’ merits, advancing the liberation from the suffocating limits of the relativist cultural determinism of music46.

25The objectivist argument need not be necessarily dogmatic. It becomes dogmatic as long as it tenaciously refuses to offer a rational account for the value of western art music, its corresponding mode of listening and its role in western society. Accepting the primacy of the musical object47 and the right to its non-instrumental evaluation, the critically-oriented objectivist argument reveals interferences by the listening subjects that distort (or even completely disregard) the inherent, non-referential meaning of art music48 and, in general, instrumental values superimposed to works or musical styles, thus obscuring their intrinsic ones. The subject is here understood as the necessary condition for the exposure and recognition of intrinsic value and meaning49 and not as their sole despotic producer and projector. Besides, it establishes itself as the necessary condition for the awareness of the true critical function of modern art music, i.e. of its function as an aesthetic negation of the social practices issued from the instrumental reason (Adorno).

26Despite subjectivist allegations, the comparative evaluation of musical works, styles and genres does not represent an obligation for a critical objectivism sensitive to the reality of the contemporary pluralist condition. Nevertheless, critical objectivism is obliged to employ comparative evaluation as long as the opponent does not content herself with the difference of the various kinds of music, but moreover asserts their artistic equality : the issue here is that while difference does not necessarily entail comparability, equivalence does : two things are proved equal (or unequal) in reference to a comparison term. Two musical objects can be equal (or unequal) either in terms of their intrinsic, i.e. aesthetic, or in terms of their instrumental value (value of pleasure, of representation of individual or collective identity etc). The reason subjectivism degrades the significance of musical structure is exactly because structure makes obvious the real aesthetic inequalities, when a possibly equal instrumental value of different musical objects presents them falsely as equal.

27Let’s return now to the issue of the self-presentation of postmodern musicology as “critical” musicology. The final goal of a critical consideration of a state of affairs can not be a merely descriptive empirical demonstration of the totality of its visible or invisible parameters, but its understanding from the perspective of the ought, of the “as-it-should” or the “as-it-should-not” (Psychopedis). In other words, a critical consideration should first of all evaluate, not just describe (for instance how music works within society). The criteria in such case should be anything but relative. For example, the adoption for the western art music of the “unfocused” (Dell’Antonio) mode of listening, derived from the popular music, is possible yet inappropriate, inasmuch as it contributes to the detriment of a kind of music requiring to be understood as a work of art exactly in terms of “focused” listening50. Reversely, the adoption for the popular music of the derived from art music structural mode of listening, though possible, should be judged too as inappropriate, as long as it ignores the constitutive to its understanding moments of contextuality and instrumentality. The priority of the ethic-practical over the aesthetic in the proposed by postmodern musicology reinterpretation of absolute instrumental music, is possible yet problematic, inasmuch as it overlooks the primacy of aesthetic understanding over the accomplishment of the alleged ethic-practical or “illocutionary” intentions of music. In other words, before a musical fact is understood as an ethical gesture it must first be understood as an aesthetically significant gesture51. In a broader sense, only an aesthetically significant music (like that of Beethoven or Schubert for instance) can provoke (our) ethical interest. The sole knowledge of the sexual peculiarity of a composer, the long forgotten or even unperformed music of whom has been recently discovered, can neither attribute not detract aesthetic value ; except, of course, if one adopts as absolutely valid the claims of subjectivist axiology concerning the relative, contingent, and constructed nature of the aesthetic value.

28In contrast to the modern model of critical refutation of practices and perception attitudes undermining the claims of art music to be understood and judged in its own terms, postmodern musicology accepts positivistically enough the present status quo in the realm of music, using it as the starting point of its critical opposition with musical modernity and its supporting institutions52. The identification of the “being” with the “ought”, the almost historic-teleological ratification of musical actuality, annihilates every claim of postmodern musicology on critique. In fact, the total conceptual frame of its opposition to musical modernity is derived from the practices and strategies of the musical industry and commerce, aiming exclusively at the production of economic value. In particular : the postmodern refutation of musical autonomy (primacy of the intrinsic value) and the promotion of heteronomy policies respond to the logic of the dominant commercial instrumentalization of music (primacy of the instrumental value)53 ; the claims and strategies of deconstruction of meaning and contextualization of musical value in art music, reflects the contextualist model of attributing meaning and value to the musical commodity54 ; the postmodern depreciation of the importance of the individual composer in the production of art music and the idea of the composer as a mere agent contributing less or more skillfully to the reproduction of social practices, recurs to the industrialization of musical production in the realm of pop music, where the role of the individual creative personality is minimal or even irrelevant ; the preferment of non-structural modes of listening (like the “unfocused” one) comes explicitly from the realm of commercial popular music ; the reinterpretation of the canon in terms of social and economic strategies of value construction reflects the practices of value acquisition via circulation and accumulation of information within the communication nets of contemporary art55 ; the increased devotion of the musical historiography to non-public aspects of composers’ lives (for instance to their sexual idiosyncrasies) betrays its affinity to the construction of biographic mythology practiced in the realm of music industry in order to provoke or prolong consumers’ interest for particular musical commodities ; the cultivation of a nominalistic mentality, eager for a steady de-substantiation of concepts with constitutive significance for musical modernity (such as work, autonomy, productive primacy of the composer, authenticity, individuality, novelty, Adorno’s “Stimmigkeit”, complexity and so forth), rejecting the “essentialist” relevance of concepts to their objects, gives legitimating support to the fake transport of some of the above notions to the realm of commercial music and to the resulting attribution of prestige (i.e. value) to some of its genres (like rock music, for instance).

29The negation of hierarchies and the high/low division in music, the defense of the equality of a plethora of musics presented as democratically responding to the reality and the demands of our contemporary multicultural society, behind the mask of “justice” hides nevertheless the face of injustice. As previously said, the assumed equality of the various and different kinds of music can only be realized in the element of their instrumental value. The “injustice” performed here concerns, on the one hand, the disregard for or even the negation of intrinsic (aesthetic) value, the recognition of which the works of western art music demand in order to be constituted as such, and on the other hand the violent enforcement of value criteria derived from other (mostly popular) musical practices. The instrumental argument, besides, appears theoretically vulnerable, considering that it disregards the intentionality of this very instrumental value determining and differentiating its content : getting pleasure, yes, but from what music (a song of Madonna or a symphony by Beethoven ?)56 ; constitution or representation of identity, of course, but through what music (punk or art music ?). The conclusion is twofold : either the various kinds of music are non-comparable in terms of the intentional content of their instrumental value, which means that they can not be equal, or they are comparable only in terms of structure and its expressive qualities. The condemnation of structure by the apologists of the postmodern condition in music (and of its commercial instrumentalization) presupposes, in our opinion, just this insight.

30A critique, however, of the “critical” claims of postmodern musicology can not be constrained to pragmatological issues ; it has to penetrate to the very core of theory. It has to demonstrate the correlation between axiological subjectivism and instrumental reason57 : if things (here the products of music activity) do not have value in themselves, and the only value they have is the value attributed to them by subjects in terms of decision or convention (axiological decisionism and conventionalism respectively), then there cease to exist binding criteria for the distinction between proper and improper treatment of things (practical or interpretative treatment in the case of music), or every treatment of things is not only possible but also unconditionally acceptable (or at least not prohibitable) and additionally legitimate, given that nothing can anymore pose axiological resistance to the irrational instrumental demands of the (postmodern) arbitrary, capricious, “unfocused” subject. The de-construction of values and meanings to which it proceeds, sanctions the playful re-construction of values and meanings, always at will and according to its interests. Lacking some “great legitimating narrative” or a binding rational normative frame for public negotiation, and given the nonnegotiable equality of individual or collective perspectives, nothing can inhibit or de-legitimate the enforcement of one of them to the others via (rhetoric or political) aggression. (In the case of art, nothing can hinder, for instance, the postmodern absorption of the aesthetic by the ethic but also of the ethic by the aesthetic). The absolute primacy of subjectivity is not only incompatible with genuine critical thought, but moreover it represents a kind of inverse or negative dogmatism, evincing thus that the deconstructive attack on the principles and values of the Enlightenment doesn’t express but a kind of Nietzschean ressentiment against its truly critical potentialities58.

31The dangerous political implications of the postmodern anti-Enlightenment argument, reveals Baghramian in her work on relativism, in a very important passage59 with which we would like to close our critical observations on postmodern musicology :

“Why should we give preference to the postmodern views of truth as opposed to the Enlightenment position? One answer given by postmodernists is to emphasize the politically progressive nature of their views, but the normative conclusions drawn by them are not borne out by the evidence available. Historically, the intellectual heroes of postmodernism -Nietzsche and Heidegger, and not Voltaire and Diderot- have been associated with and celebrated by the Nazis and other right-wing groups. The postmodern suspicion of science and reason has much in common with the views expressed by reactionary neo-romantic thinkers such as Oswald Spengler […] who had claimed that every truth, including self-evident truths such as those of mathematics, is entirely culture-bound and that ‘Nothing is really ‘true’ in a deeper sense’. Also, the postmodernist discourse of celebrating difference and denying universal human rights and other Enlightenment values has properly been appropriated by reactionary forces, from China to the Islamic Republic of Iran, who use it to justify their abuses of human rights in the name of ‘difference’. Probably the best argument against identifying relativism with progressive political views comes, indirectly, from Benito Mussolini. He argues : “Everything I have said and done in these last years is relativism by intuition […] If relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories and men who claim to be the bearers of an objective, immortal truth […] then there is nothing more relativistic than Fascist attitudes and activity […] From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fiction, the modern relativism infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable” (Mussolini, quoted in Cook 1999, Morality and Cultural Differences, Oxford, Oxford U. P., p. 17)”60.



1  For a comprehensive introduction to the issue, see Risieri Frondizi, What is Value?, La Salle, Open Court Publishing Company, 1971. For a historical presentation of the conflict in the field of aesthetics, see Wladyslaw Tatarkiewitcz, “Objectivity and Subjectivity in the History of Aesthetics”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol 24 n° 2, 1963, pp. 157-173.

2  Ricardo Maliandi, Wertobjektivität und Realitätserfahrung, Bonn, Bouvier Verlag, 1966 ; Roman Ingarden, Erlebnis, Kunstwerk und Wert, Tübingen, Max Nimeyer, 1969 ; Nicolai Hartmann, Ästhetik, Berlin, Walter de Gruyter, 1953 ; Alan H. Goldman, Aethetic Value, Boulder, Westview Press, 1995.

3  Max Scheler, Der Formalismus in der Ethik und die materiale Wertethik, Bonn, Bouvier, 2000.

4  From another point of view, the objectivity of value is synonymous to its inter-subjectivity. For an exhaustive account of the various notions of axiological objectivity, see Roman Ingarden, op. cit., p. 219 ff.

5  On the different kinds of value (intrinsic, extrinsic, instrumental, contributory, inherent), see Ramon M. Lemos, The Nature of Value. Axiological Investigations, Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 1995, pp. 34-58 ; on the distinction between intrinsic and instrumental values in aesthetics, see Malcolm Budd, Values of Art, London, Penguin Books, 1995, pp. 4-8. Budd gives the following definition of instrumental value in art : “By the instrumental value of a work of art I mean the value, from whatever point of view, of the actual effects of the experience of the work on people or the effects that would be produced if people were to experience the work”. On a distinction comprising “Objective Intrinsic Value Theories”, “Subjective Intrinsic Value Theory” and “Instrumental Value Theories”, see George Dickie, Evaluating Art, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1988, pp. 5-6.

6  For a perceptive insight into the problematic, see Carl Dahlhaus, Grundlagen der Musikgeschichte, Köln, Hans Gerig, 1977, pp. 139-172 (“Das Werturteil als Gegenstand und als Prämisse”).

7  George Dickie, op. cit., p. 9-10 : “[…] on this influential view [the objective intrinsic theory], if two persons disagree about whether an object possesses beauty or about the degree of an object’s beauty, one or both of them must be wrong, for beauty is supposed to be an objective property. For this view, the question of relativism does not arise”.

8  Exemplary on this topic remains the book of Carl Dahlhaus, Analysis and Value Judgment, tr. S. Levarie, New York, Pendragon Press, 1983. On the possibility of grounding aesthetic value judgments and the related to it musical analysis, see Hans-Jürgen Feurich, Werte und Normen in der Musik, Wilhelmshaven, Florian Noetzel Verlag, 1999, pp. 47-57.

9  For a systematic account, see James Ward Smith, “Senses of Subjectivism in Value Theory”, The Journal of Philosophy, 45/15 (1948), pp. 393-405.

10  For a representation of this constructivist conception of musical value in musicology, see Tia DeNora, “Musical Practice and Social Structure : A Toolkit”, in Eric Clarke & Nicholas Cook (eds.), Empirical Musicology, New York, Oxford U. P., pp. 43-45 (“The Construction of Musical Value and Reputation”).

11  See Maria Baghramian, Relativism, London, New York, Routledge, 2005, p. 125 : “Subjectivism rules out the possibility of disagreement and the very distinction between correct and incorrect judgments, for it turns all our judgments, as long as we believe in them, into correct or true ones. […] For the subjectivist, then, public disagreement is impossible, but without disagreement there can be no agreement either […]”.

12  See for example Marcia J. Citron, Gender and the Musical Canon, Cambridge, New York, Cambridge U. P., 1993 (1995), p. 3 : “[…] quality is neither immanent nor universal, and therefore one has to inquire into the ideologies behind a given pronouncement of quality”.

13  See for example Tia DeNora, op. cit., p. 43 : “Both an aesthetic movement and an ideology for the furtherance of music as a profession, the fascination with ‘high’ music culture during the nineteenth century”.

14  See Graham Vulliamy, “Music and the Mass Culture Debate”, in John Shepherd, Phil Virden, Graham Vulliamy, Trevor Wishart (eds.), Whose Music ? A Sociology of Musical Languages, London, Latimer, 1977, pp. 179-85.

15  See Nicholas Cook, “Between process and product : music and/as performance”, in Music Theory Online, vol. 7 n° 2, 2001.

16  See for example Christopher Small, Musicking. The Meanings of Performing and Listening, Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1998.

17  Related to this is the claim for understanding music primarily as a social practice. See for example Nicholas Wolterstorff, “The Work of Making a Work of Music” in Philip Alperson (ed.), What is Music ? An introduction to the Philosophy of Music, Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania State U. P., 1995, pp. 101-130.

18  The central values of the objectivist musicology (such as autonomy, individuality, complexity and so on) are supposed to be generated just from a “decontextualization” of music. See Gary Tomlinson, “Musicology, Anthropology, History” in Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert, Richard Middleton (eds.), The Cultural Study of Music, New York and London, Routledge, 2003, p. 37 ff.

19  Lawrence Kramer, Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, University of California Press, 1995, p. 25. See also Richard Middleton, “Music Studies and the Idea of Culture”, introduction to Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert, Richard Middleton (eds.), op. cit., p. 9 : “More visible -and indeed more urgently discussed currently- is an interest in the connection of meaning construction with the production of subjectivity and identity”.

20  In the past a full disjunction of relativism from subjectivism has been supported in aesthetics (see Bernard C. Heyl, “Relativism again”, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 5 n° 1, 1946, pp. 54-61). In some cases even the term “objective relativism” has been employed (see Jerome Stolnitz, “On Objective Relativism in Aesthetics”, The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 57 n° 8, 1960, pp. 261-276). Tatarkiewicz (op. cit., p. 171) claims that “[…] aesthetical relativism […] has often been identified with subjectivism, though it does not really assert that beauty is not a property of things. It maintains that things are not beautiful per se, but for somebody, for some individuals or social groups”. I believe that this proposition is contradictious : if things “are not beautiful per se”, then how can beauty be one of their properties ? On the close affinity between subjectivism and relativism, see J. W. Smith, ibid.

21  See, in literal criticism, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Contingencies of Value : Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1988.

22  Objections have also been raised against the coupling of relativism with reductionism. See Gordon C. F. Bearn, “Relativism as Reductio”, in Mind, New Series, 94/375, 1985, pp. 389-408.

23  A position prevailing in Anglo-Saxon philosophy (Russell, Ayer, Carnap, Stevenson and others).

24  This issue of course does not concern solely music, but it is inscribed in a broader discussion concerning the legitimacy of the high/low art division in general. For a comprehensive account of the related issues, see John A. Fisher, “High Art versus Low Art”, in Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver Lopes (eds), The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, London, New York, Routledge, 2006, pp. 527-540.

25  Maria Baghramian, op. cit., p. 132.

26 Ibid., p. 116 : “If human beings were indeed unable to step outside the conceptual boundaries of their time and place, then it would be impossible to explain the phenomenon of intellectual dissent and innovation. In particular, it would be impossible to explain the status of postmodernism as a critique of the objectivist views of truth”. Compare Paul O’Grady, Relativism, Stocksfield, Acumen, 2002 (2008), p. 155 : “[…] if cultures have their own standards of rationality, one would expect them to be immune to intellectual challenge from without. But in the history of traditional cultures, one can see a pattern of old beliefs dying out in the face of new systems (the prevalence of ghost stories in rural Ireland waned in the aftermath of rural electrification)”.

27  A more attentive consideration of the contemporary global musical actuality commands the revision of some extreme relativist positions in ethnomusicology, as Laurent Aubert claims in his The Music of the Other : New Challenges for Enthnomusicology in a global age, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2007 : “[…] it is obvious that music is not in any sense a genetic given, but that it always follows cultural acquisition. […] Thus, and if we want it to attach to the reality in which we live, we are required to re-evaluate the notion of culture, and notably that of musical culture. The emergence of new cosmopolitan music all over the world is not really related to the beautiful logic of ‘ethnic’ and traditional genres. They are certainly the products of culture, but of a culture undergoing mutation, constantly oscillating between requirements of the local and those of the global. The internationalization of musical languages corresponds not only to the imposition of the global on the local, but above all to the appropriation of the global by the local […]” (p. 8).

28  François-Bernard Mâche writes : “Extreme cultural relativism, through its excessive focus on the specificity of every musical culture, tends to present the common aspects as pure misunderstanding. It claims that no culture has any right to superimpose its categories on any other. Doing so, it tends to favor a kind of inverse racism by isolating every culture from all others, while the ubiquitous blending of musical practice becomes unintelligible” (“The Necessity of and the Problem with a Universal Musicology”, in Nils Lennart Wallin, Steven Brown, Björn Merker (eds.), The Origins of Music, Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2000, p. 474).

29  See Austin Harrington, Art and Social Theory, Cambridge, Polity, 2004, p. 106 : “High culture is not higher in value because it is typically enjoyed by higher classes in society, and low culture is not lower because it is typically enjoyed by lower classes in society. And furthermore : high culture is not lower in value than low culture because it is typically enjoyed by classes who have historically dominated and exploited lower classes in society, and low culture is not higher in value than high culture because it is typically enjoyed by classes who have historically suffered domination and exploitation by higher classes in society. Value hierarchy in categories of culture is not justified by hierarchy in social structure, and neither is inverted value hierarchy justified by hierarchy in social structure. The former assumption is usually known as snobbery or elitism. The latter assumption is often known as inverted snobbery. The latter assumption can be compared with what Nietzsche called ressentiment, or petty resentment of other people’s values”.

30 Ibid., p. 53. It is worth adding at this point a passage from the last book of the very significant Greek political philosopher Kosmas Psychopedis (1944-2004), Oroi, Axies, Praxeis [Conditions, Values, Actions], Athens, Polis, 2005, p. 533 : “The wars and the crises that shattered the 20th century, the rationales of planning but also Keynesianism militated against relativist epistemologies, yet these epistemologies have been proved very tenacious and they return with persistence till our days in theories of multiculturalism, of non comparableness of welfare units, of locality, of otherness, of pluralist distinctiveness etc. It has been proved that theories of this kind perform contradictory functions. For on the one hand they advocate the respect of the particular, its autonomy, its non violent subsumption under the general. On the other hand, they entail the vitiation of the relational, the loss of knowledge concerning relations constituted in a supra-local level, the fragmentation of those relations. This leads to the consolidation of the fragmented units (therefore to the establishment of identity rather that to the search for difference) and thus allows for the greater control of the particular regions supposed to be respected in their autonomy”. See also the excellent study of Martha Craven Nussbawm, “In Defense of Universal Values”, Idaho Law Review, vol. 36 n° 3, 2000, pp. 379-447.

31  For a comprehensive account of these issues, see Susan McClary, “Reshaping a Discipline : Musicology and Feminism in the 1990s”, Feminist Studies, vol. 19 n° 2, 1993, pp. 399-423.

32  Marcia J. Citron, op. cit.

33 Ibid., p. 13 : “[…] canonic works by men need to be subjected to cultural analysis. This will illuminate the social values they represent and highlight their contingency”.

34  Susan A. O’Neil, “Gender and Music”, in David J. Hargreaves & Adrian C. North (eds.), The Social Psychology of Music, New York, Oxford U. P., 1997, pp. 57-59.

35  See for example, Philip Brett, “Piano Four-Hands : Schubert and the Performance of Gay Male Desire”, 19th Century Music, vol. 21 n° 2, 1997, pp. 149-176. Nicholas Cook (Music. A Very Short Introduction, New York, Oxford U. P., 2000, p. 121 ff.) tries to critically restrain the validity of the interpretations of musical works in terms of sexuality, suggesting that they only represent possible language articulations giving “actual meaning” to the “latent meaning” of music, or social metaphors which can not be judged in terms of truth or falsity but in terms of persuasion.

36  Suzanne G. Cusick, “On a lesbian relationship with music. A serious effort not to think straight”, in Philipp Brett, Elizabeth Wood, Gary C. Thomas (eds.), Queering the Pitch : the New Gay and Lesbian Musicology, Routledge, New York, 1994, p. 67-83.

37 Ibid., pp. 76-77 : “In some way, I think, I identify the music as a(nother) woman. And because that means I also in some sense identify with her, I try to treat her analytically as I would be treated : as a subject who may have things to say that are totally different from what listeners expect to hear.”

38  Which besides allows the revelation “[of] hidden relationships […] to the attentive [ !]” (Ibid., p. 77).

39  Rose R. Subotnik, one of the most prominent protagonists of postmodern deconstruction of structural listening, in the introduction to her book Deconstructive Variations. Music and Reason in Western Society (Minneapolis, London, University of Minnesota Press, 1996, pp. xix ff.) refers to the academic conditions that shaped the demand for a shift of research from the autonomous music to the “music of the world”, i.e. the music most of the students were listening. Her project has of course nothing to do with the rejection of all notions of “music itself”’, but with its rapprochement on terms of non structural listening inspired by the listening modes of the musics of the many.

40  For a critique of the empirical position see R. A. Sharpe, “The Empiricist Theory of Artistic Value”, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 58 n° 4, 2000, pp. 321-332. Relating aesthetic empiricism to reductionism, Sharpe underlines : “[…] reductionism here is not innocuous. It is not mere philosophical noughts and crosses ; rather, it registers a common and potentially damaging view of the arts, a view that encourages philistinism”. For a “principle of pleasure” critique, see Gordon Graham, “The Value of Music”, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 53 n° 2, 1995, pp. 139-153 (“By locating the principal value of music in the pleasure it gives, we focus attention upon the listener rather than the music itself”, p. 140).

41  See Andrew Dell’Antonio (ed.), Beyond Structural Listening ? Postmodern Modes of Hearing, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2004.

42  Kosmas Psychopedis, “I dielektiki tou orthou logou kai oi antinomies tis kritikis tou” [The Dialectics of Reason and the Antinomies of its Critique], addendum to the Greek translation of Adorno’s / Horkheimer’s Dialectics of Enlightenment,Athens, Nisos, 1996, pp. 431-432. Compare with what Dell’Antonio writes in his article “Collective Listening. Postmodern Critical Processes and MTV”, (in Andrew Dell’Antonio (ed.), op. cit., p. 203) about his proposed model of listening : “[…] I will explore another alternative to a ‘structural listening’ model, one that appears to emerge from the appraisal of popular music videos, especially as reflected through programming on the Music Television Network (MTV). I will argue that this model rejects the assumptions that allow the critical listening paradigm to operate, and presents an alternative paradigm based on collective rather than individual critical processes, immersion rather than critical distance, and fluidity rather than stability of subject and object positions” (italics mine).

43  See for example Tia DeNora, Beethoven and the Construction of Genius, Barkeley, University of California Press, 1995.

44  See Timothy D. Taylor, “Music and Musical Practices in Postmodernity”, in Judy Lochhead & Joseph Auner (eds.), Postmodern Music / Postmodern Thought, New York, London, Routledge, 2002, p. 100 : “But the cultural studies explosion -which has done more than anything else to introduce academics previously unfamiliar with various cultural theories, including those of postmodernism- has tended to concentrate on cultural forms, not the economic conditions that produced those forms, or the economic conditions of their sales, marketing, and consumption, or, for that matter, any kind of on-the-ground concerns, such as who consumes these forms and what they make of them. It seems that, today, all the world’s a text, not a place where people live and work and have fun, and make texts and meanings”.

45  Joseph Raz for example (The Practice of Value, New York, Oxford U. P., 2003), suggests that despite the fact that values depend on social practices we can nevertheless understand this dependence without falling back to relativism. See especially pp. 22-25 (“Dependence without Reduction”), and pp. 25-27 (“Dependence without Conventionalism”).

46  See Martin Scherzinger, “The Return of the Aesthetic” in Dell’Antonio (ed.), op. cit., pp. 274-276. Scherzinger generally adopts the argument described by us here (in instrumentalist terms of course) : “Nietzsche’s insight that we continue to hold on to certain truths and values even after they are shown to be based on error or on values that we do not agree with, makes me worry about giving up the compelling territory of structural listening just because some musicologists believe that it is based on values they do not uphold. Rephrased in a more recent parlance, just because the emotional investments and the hopes that people have are the result of what Laclau calls s ‘complex discursive-hegemonic construction’ […], and not the expression of an a prioristic essence, is no argument against their validity” (p. 275).

47  The constant reference of postmoderninsts to Adorno is, to say the least, problematic. They ignore provocatively his critique to philosophical subjectivism both of German idealism and, mainly, irrationalism (Nietzsche, Heidegger) and along with it they overlook the basic postulate of his philosophy that is the priority of the object in the subject-object dialectical relation. See Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialektik, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1997, pp. 184-187 ; Brian O’Conor, Adorno’s Negative Dialektik. Philosophy and the Possibility of Critical Rationality, Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2004. For an example of postmodern misrepresentation of Adorno in musicology, see Lydia Goehr, “Political Music and the Politics of Music”, in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 52 n° 1, 1994, pp. 99-112. According to one of her conclusions, “[…] it could also be that the best music, or the most effective political music, comes not from the domain of classical music at all, but from popular music instead. This conclusion would follow from recent postmodernist thinking which […] takes popular culture as manifesting, much more explicitly than classical music culture, theories of difference and pluralism” (p. 109).

48  Helmuth Plessner (Gesammelte Schiften, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 2003, vol. III, p. 153 ff.), differentiates between “schematic meaning” in science, “syntagmatic meaning” in language and “thematic meaning” in art, appearing especially pure in music. All these kinds of meaning are not reducible to each other (although they can coexist in complex articulations of meaning).

49  In a relational, non relativistic sense.

50  Andrew Dell’Antonio (op. cit., p. 221) attempts to render his views immune to criticism through reduction (again) to the subject : “[…] such a ‘requirement’ of self-isolation may be in no way inherent in the musical work […] but may rather be a construction of a type of subjectivity that requires the ‘performance’ of isolation for its own aesthetic self-validation”.

51  Kramer seems to underestimate this fact in his discussion of the “illocutionary force” of one of Mozart’s works in his Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge (op. cit., pp. 25-32).

52  See for example Derek B. Scott, “Music, Culture, and Society : Changes in Perspective”, in Derek B. Scott (ed.), Music, Culture, and Society, Oxford U. P., New York 2000, p. 11 : “It has taken a long time for a theory of musical relativism to gain ground. A major reason for the delay has been the amount of time consumed in the futile search for an underlying coherent theory by which modernism could be rationally explained and understood when there should be a recognition that modernism had disintegrated into irrationality, failure, and irrelevance. These may seem strong words, but they represent accusations, which are now commonplace in the visual arts and, particularly, architecture. The ambitions of modernist music towards internationalism have been overtaken by rock, which has already become a more widely accepted international musical language. The social history of our time is inseparable from rock […]. Measured in terms of social significance, the twelve-bar blues has been of greater importance to twentieth-century music than twelve-note row”. The last sentence reveals the constant inclination of postmodern musicology to the reduction / identification of artistic value to / with social.

53  Opposing the reproach that the representatives of modern musicology intentionally abstract from economic considerations in the realm of art music (see Ibid., p. 1-2) one could stress that any possible commercial use of art music is possible yet extrinsic to it, it doesn’t represent the final cause of its existence and the determinant factor of its value, as it is surely the case with commercial popular music. Moreover, in this fact alone one can ground a critique of the uses of art music in terms of the commercial one.

54  David Brackett describes how “non-musical factors can determine the popularity of a song” and “how its ‘meaning’ derives at least partially from its similarity to and difference from contemporary styles, as well as from a connection to stylistic precursors” (Interpreting Popular Music, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 1-9).

55  See Anne Cauquelin, L’art contemporain, Paris, P.U.F., Paris 2007.

56  Kendall L. Walton for example (“How Marvelous ! Toward a Theory of Aesthetic Value”, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 51 n° 3, 1993, pp. 504-505), pointing to the “aesthetic dimension of pleasurable admiration”, defines aesthetic pleasure “as pleasure which has, as a component, pleasure taken in one’s admiration or positive evaluation of something ; to be pleased aesthetically is to note something’s value with pleasure. This makes aesthetic pleasure an intensional [sic] state, not just a buzz or a rush caused by experiencing a work of art”

57  See D. A. Lloyd Thomas, “Hume and Intrinsic Value”, Philosophy, 65/254 (1990), p. 420 : “[…] instrumental value is what we may call ‘subject-dependent’”.

58  Adorno’s critique to the Enlightenment was a critique to its possible instrumental implications ; he demanded not the abolition of reason but its self-purification from its instrumental aberrations. See Kosmas Psychopedis, “I dielektiki tou orthou logou kai oi antinomies tis kritikis tou”, op. cit., pp. 418-419 : “It becomes clear that the Dialectic of the Enlightenment seeks a new rational grounding frame (experience), in reference to which it can proceed to the critique of the instrumental element (in thought and agency). […] The Dialectic of the Enlightenment attempts to restitute this rational frame (experience) negatively, in reference to human pain, deprivation, and injustice, through which the contemporary rationalized structures of domination and administration of the societies and of nature have been constituted”.

59  Maria Baghramian, op. cit., pp. 116-17.

60  See also Richard Wolin, The Seduction of Unreason : the intellectual romance with fascism from Nietzsche to postmodernism, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton U. P., 2004 and Zeev Sternhell, Les anti-Lumières. Du XVIII siècle à la guerre froide, Paris, Fayard, 2006.


Markos Tsetsos, «Postmodern Musicology and the Subjectivity of Value», Filigrane. Musique, esthétique, sciences, société. [En ligne], Numéros de la revue, New Musicology. Perspectives critiques, mis à  jour le : 06/07/2011, URL : https://revues.mshparisnord.fr:443/filigrane/index.php?id=286.


Quelques mots à propos de :  Markos Tsetsos

Markos Tsetsos (b. 1968) is assistant professor of the Aesthetics of Music at the Department of Music Studies, Univeristy of Athens. He has published a book on Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of music (Athens 2004) and also the first Greek translations of Hegel’s, Schopenhauer’s and Hanslick’s main texts on music. He also has published, among others, three studies in Hegel-Jahrbuch (2004, 2007 and 2009 coming forth). He is collaborator of the journals Musicologia and Axiologika. At present he is working on a book concerning music in modern philosophy (from Kant to Adorno).