Wagner, Sex, and Capitalism

Richard Wagner

The next issue of The Wagner Journal will carry my review-article on Laurence Dreyfus’s Wagner and the Erotic Impulse. The full text PDF is available here; the full text may also be read as a web page. Dreyfus’s discussion of the erotics in Wagner’s music is based on an attentiveness to historical voices, including Wagner’s own. I find the decision to sidestep more than a century of later thought problematic and the decision to offer a personal reading of the erotic in Wagner’s music, rather than broadening out into cultural criticism, something of a missed opportunity.

The central idea I develop in this article is that Wagner’s erotics are closely related to his revolutionary politics and what I see as a critique of capitalism in the Ring (and an accompanying vision of something like a communist utopia at its end): altogether a much bolder aim than simple titillation. Although the impulse to respond to erotic stimuli is universal, the construction of what counts as erotic is conditioned by historical and material factors – and for Wagner as well as for us, that means the particular relations of production that obtain in (late) capitalism. Because of this close relation between particular times and places and particular presentations of what is sexy, Wagner’s erotics can perform an ideology critique.

The specific function of women as a mode of currency (in the Ring, almost literally a money form) and their figuring in relation to structures of power is given brutal exposure by Wagner in a way that draws attention to an ordinarily repressed function of our political economy (and, via Badiou’s reading of the capitalist basis of the French hijab ban, our mediated interaction with different cultures). In this, Wagner comes close to his contemporary, Marx. Just as interesting is the closeness of fit between modern forms of pornography (which, following Nina Power, I suggest is only the current form of a cultural expression that has a potentially more emancipatory and radical political potential) and the very language of Wagner’s music. What Žižek identifies as modern pornography’s reduction of human bodies to partial objects meant to satisfy certain mechanistic sexual urges (mouth, anus, vagina, penis, …) can be read illuminatingly beside Wagner’s reduction of the complex function of tonal music to the simple function of a dominant chord whose resolution, or more often its denial, produces a confrontation with both the torturing intensity of desire and, ultimately, the impossibility that it can ever be satisfied: in a strict sense Wagner’s music, even when the events on stage are not ‘erotic’, is functioning as pornography, with all the political potential (subversive or quiescent) that entails. A third line of critique opens up against musicology and the broader context of Western liberal democratic-capitalist ideology that it reflects, and I spend some time examining the complicity between late capitalism and the intellectual positions espoused by modern musicology – an argument that is substantially elaborated in my current book, The Quilting Points of Musical Modernism. Wagner’s erotics turn out to be more philosophically, politically, and musically radical than Dreyfus acknowledges.


Link to full-text PDF

One thought on “Wagner, Sex, and Capitalism

  1. Really enjoying your posts on this and your personal blog. Great to read someone in musicology articulating these positions! Have you read Agamben’s take on porn?You can imagine my frustrations when I sat through Larry’s MMus seminar on this and what happened when I launched into some Lacanian critique in the very first session…

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