Agamben and Schoenberg

I just finished reading Agamben’s Altissima povertà: Regole monastiche e forma di vita [The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form of Life], which is the first part of the long-awaited fourth volume of the Homo Sacer series. In it, Agamben investigates monasticism as an attempt to create a form of life apart from the apparatus of law. He regards the Franciscans, with their “abdication from the law” and their insistence that they do not own but only “use” things, as the most theoretically ambitious of the monastic movements, yet he believes that they ultimately failed to develop their thinking in a way that resists assimilation into the juridical system of the church.

The reason for their failure, in Agamben’s view, is that they developed their concepts too much in dialogue with the law and defined them negatively — yet Agamben’s whole project in the Homo Sacer series has been dedicated to showing that the very structure of Western law presupposes an attempt to “include” the outside, creating a “zone of indistinction” between law and fact (above all in the state of exception). Simply opposing the law isn’t enough to escape it, since it paradoxically includes what’s outside of it as well.

Agamben ends by calling for a positive development of the concepts of form of life and the use of things — and I think a model here might actually be in atonal music. In one of Schoenberg’s lectures on the origin of the twelve-tone system, he said that he came to the realization that the tonal system was increasingly breaking down due to experimentation with dissonance. It had reached the point where the rules were so constantly violated that there seemed to be little point in keeping them — yet when he and his students attempted to compose in a “non-tonal” way, they found that they could not sustain long pieces and that they were constantly falling back into the old tonal patterns. Only once Schoenberg developed his own set of new rules for making use of the raw materials of the tonal system (i.e., the twelve tones of the octave) did the attempt to escape tonality become sustainable.

This comparison may be superficial, but I think the example of Schoenberg does contain one useful warning: when we’re developing our positive alternatives to the existing system, we should expect to be met with incomprehension.

(By the way, if you have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, Alex Ross’s book on 20th century music, The Rest is Noise, is a really great way into the subject.)

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18 Responses to “Agamben and Schoenberg”

  1. Mark William Westmoreland Says:

    The comparison may work. It just seems to me that any form of resistance (a) contains traces of that which is being resisted (b), sometimes even requires the perpetuation of the thing being resisted (b) in order for the resistance (a) to make sense. Genealogically this is certainly the case. Stucturally, maybe not so? I’m curious if you think that the comparison would still hold for later developments in 20th c. music, e.g., Varese, Messiaen, Boulez, and Stockhausen, or even something like AMM?

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I can’t say in detail how the other composers would fit — I’m just “trusting” Schoenberg’s own self-description.

  3. AD Says:

    Two point of concurrence here. First, Alex Ross’s book is an excellent way to jump into 20th c. music (his other book is quite good too — reading that right now). Second, what you say resonates with a wonderful text I have been recently devouring, David Graeber’s Debt: the First 5,000 years. He makes the provocative point that, though the world religions seem to actively resist the marketization of their worlds (which, he claims, holds in India and China as well as the Near East), they also borrow the very language of the market to put forth their own claims (sin as debt, redemption, etc.). Worst of all, they accept the definition of freedom as fundamentally freedom from one’s debts and the society which holds them, as opposed to the understanding that a free life is one that is profoundly plugged into a social context (he briefly suggests that this is actually a common African definition). It seems to me this “critique” of religion is similar to Agamben’s critique of the Franciscans. As an anthropologist Graeber seems to suggest that the best political/economic alternatives might be found in the kind of traditional societies that anthropologists are most familiar with. He may be right, but I would suggest that the religious traditions themselves are probably much more fecund than the “economic” interpretations have made them out to be.

  4. David Says:

    @Mark William Westmoreland: I think thats a really interesting question, especially as it regards Adorno’s analysis of Schoenberg. In terms of the possibility of the “new” in new music, Schoenberg doesn’t actually represent a positive development for Adorno in terms of a liberating sound within the history of western music, but rather a truthful mimesis of modern subjectivity that in its absolute expressionism created the conditions for the the *possibility* of musical novelty. The music of Schoenberg that Adorno champions was composed during his free-atonal period (c.1908-1923), where he thought that the subjective in music had been fully liberated out of the constraints of the history of Western tonality, telling the truth about the world as it headed *towards* oblivion (complete serialization) through the absolute mimesis of the dialectic of enlightenment. Its this “free” period that represents for Adorno the possibility of genuine novelty. Serialism, once it became a system in itself, was turned into an objective form that determined music’s meaning from the *outside* (as opposed to from within the musical material itself as the free atonal period represents.) In this way, Adorno would have been highly critical of Pierre Boulez and the Darmstadt group, who took serialization as a system to its extreme end (in the same sense as he criticizes Stravinsky for taking the idea of musical “primitiveness” to its extreme end). I think Adam’s point about including the “outside” and the inadequacy of simply opposing the law might be really interesting to think about in these terms. A free atonality that isn’t yet serialized, but on its way *towards* serialization, as a way beyond this impasse? Although, as Adam points out, this just ends up being incomprehensible.

  5. Nic D'Alessio Says:

    I think this is a really great post, and a productive analogy. As an avid reader of Agamben, I especially excited to get my hands on this new volume. It might be worthwhile also to point out that, especially in his American period (post-1933), Schoenberg embraced a quasi-returned to tonality. That is, even within his serial structures he made use of triadic elements and tonal implications. Example: Chamber Symphony No. 2 (1939), which manages to be both post-romantic and neo-classical at the same time. He also based several of his quasi-tonal works from this period on Baroque models (especially Handel), a choice which may itself be significant given that what we understand as tonal music (or “common practice era music) doesn’t truly develop until the classical period of the 18th century with such Germano-Austrian composers like Hyden and Mozart (note: the French Baroque tends to linger into the 18th century, while the English Baroque pretty much ends with Purcell’s death in 1695). I think these points may further substantiate the analogy, because the above named “quasi-return to tonality” in no way implies that Schoenberg repudiated his twelve-tone system; rather, he found a new harmonic function for the tonal triad. What is new and what challenges the system, at least partly, takes up the old and for new ends.

    Another good book recommendation (although a bit more technical) is Robert Morgan’s “Twentieth-Century Music: A History of of Musical Style in Modern Europe and America (Norton, 1991).

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    This thread is really revealing my ignorance.

  7. myleswerntz Says:

    Is this one slated for translation yet?

  8. Wilson Says:

    Who meets Shoenberg with incomprehension? Isn’t the subject the key to the possibility of the analogy. If we didn’t have Shoenberg, we wouldn’t have Psycho. His music became completely comprehensible in the transformation of atonality (and near serialism) into suspense scores in Hollywood.

    Thus, perhaps Shoenberg becomes a better example about how new systems are reabsorbed than how they are first seen as being too new to comprehend.

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I find that people tend to view Schoenberg as weird or jarring if you give it to them “raw” (i.e., not as part of a movie soundtrack). The reaction of students in the fine arts class I was auditing — who are if anything even more used to movie music than we are — was near-total befuddlement when the professor played one of his piano pieces. And I don’t think his work is a big draw for orchestras, either.

    The point about its ability to get reabsorbed is valid, though now I’m wondering how we should really understand that — is it really reabsorbing if the innovations in classical music are being taken up by an even newer art form (film)?

  10. Thomas Says:

    Adam, I really think you’re on to something with this comparison with Schoenberg. I’m very interested in Agamben’s form of life book and I’m glad to learn he’s looking at monasticism. I’ve been thinking in terms of religious habits as creating forms of life.

    As I understand it (I’m no expert on Schoenberg) the 12 tone rows has a kind of external rationalism to it that keeps Schoenberg from falling into tonal habits that everyone cannot help but fall into. It’s the externalism that I find fascinating here. We normally think of freedom as some kind of true expression of our inner desire, yet this is a trap. True freedom comes from the outside.

    Almost everything I know about Schoenberg I get through Cage who introduced chance and Zen to solve the same problem.

  11. GF Wahlquist Says:

    When I trained as a pianist, the interesting thing is that there was always an expectation that for any exam you would play a piece from each of the following eras: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and “Contemporary.” So you’d be expected to be equally proficient in Bach and Boulez. Granted, this was performance, not composition, but the idea was that to be able to be a well rounded musician, you should understand and be able to fully inhabit the full spectrum. I’m not sure how this plays into your use of Schoenberg as illustration vis a vis Agamben, but I think there’s something there.

  12. The Schizo-Stroller » Plato and Schoenberg Says:

    [...] other is an interesting post by Adam Kotsko at An und fur sich on Agamben and Schoenberg, Adam comments on Agamben’s [...]

  13. schizostroller Says:

    If you fancy diving into the raw theory around the more ‘modern’ forms of music (by ‘raw’ I mean theories by academicians and the composers; by modern I mean, simplistically, all those that have tried to take music in a new direction from romanticism and classicism whether it be futurism or schoenberg or webern) i recommend Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, edited by Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner, I had a masochistic 18 months when i read it cover to cover (when I mentioned it to a guy doing a music PhD who’d had it as core reading for his Masters he gave me a look that said you’re sick in the head in a way that trumps any look I’ve had confessing my mental health history – it is a tough read but very rewarding), it is the core archival stuff that alex Ross draws from, well worth at least dipping into.
    (re: simplistically, at a certain point in twentieth century history, black and eastern musics enter as a significant enough influence to disrupt albeit either the most simplistic or most conservative linear metric musical histories).

  14. Sunday Reading « zunguzungu Says:

    [...] Agamben and Schoenberg [...]

  15. Robert Zimmerman Says:

    Hmmm. I just clicked over here from Aaron Bady’s reading list. As a composer, I can’t help commenting. I’m skeptical that the 12-tone thing is a great model for developing “positive alternatives to [an] existing system.” It’s a facinating model, an instructive one, but maybe not an entirely positive one.

    The system did allow Schoenberg to sustain his atonal style, but that doesn’t mean it allowed him to write better music. Personally I get a lot more out of the stuff he wrote on the cusp — the five pieces for orchestra and Pierot Lunaire, for instance — than I get out of his 12-tone writing. Serialism was perfect for Webern. Berg used it well but he was able to manipulate it in idiosyncratic and retrograde ways (pun intended). And still I’m not sure that he ever surpassed the mind-boggling brilliance of Wozzeck, which is nothing if not a sustained effort in (mostly) atonal composition.

    Schoenberg was steeped in the conviction that he was on the cutting edge of the inevitable historical progression of the worlds most supremely profound music — German music, that is. I believe it was Webern who was convinced the children would soon be whistling 12-tone rows. So there was a kind of naive optimism. But the technique never really shed the arrogance it was born with.

    Ultimately it wasn’t a technique that could sustain the richness and flexibility of the older system. It eclipsed the old system for a while, both because that system really had reached an impasse and because serialism gathered a lot of prestige, first avant-guarde and then academic. It succeeded in pushing a door open that hasn’t been closed, but it wore out its welcome fairly quickly, at least compared to the system it was supposed to replace. The old tonal idioms came back and were joined by new tonal idioms and all sorts of other stuff.

    These days the 12-tone system just another choice. I’ve used serial techniques and I’ve admired a lot of serial music (I’ve also gritted my teeth through a lot of it). The mark it’s made has been as much negative, by way of reaction and rejection, as positive. Is that the kind of model you want?

  16. Yosef Says:

    Thank you for the summary. I hadn’t even realized it had come out in Italian. Any chance you’ll be offering us your notes as per the last two books, which I believe were helpful to many English readers of Giorgio.

  17. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m not planning on writing up detailed reading notes for this one.


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