Daniel Barenboim and music’s emancipatory symbolic violence

Daniel Barenboim has, for the second year in succession, provided the most life-enhancing musical experiences of the London summer. Last year it was his conducting of the Beethoven symphonies (intercut with Boulez) with his West-Eastern Divan orchestra. This year is was Wagner’s Ring with the Staatskapelle Berlin, which concluded last night with a Götterdämmerung of exceptional power.

Power, strength – violence, even, though not in the most immediate meaning of the word – are markers of both his style of conducting and of much of the music of which he is a most celebrated interpreter. He is a fascinating conductor to watch. Sometimes – sufficiently often for it to be striking – he seems not to conduct at all, standing motionless and letting the orchestra get on with it. At other times, he simply gives a very clear beat with his baton, leaving his left hand free to rest in his pocket, on his heart, or to wipe his forehead. When he presses his left hand to service there is the usual panoply of sweeping and coaxing gestures, but some of his motions are quite obscene: he seems at times to be stabbing, punching, choking, swatting, pulling with both hands into his groin (the video above, from last year’s Beethoven cycle, allows glimpses of this, though I strongly urge watching him live). Critics of classical music, and particularly composers such as Beethoven and Wagner, might be quick to snipe: ‘well, that kind of violent gesture suits very well this fascist, patriarchal, imperialist music’. Such people are right about the violence, but wrong about everything else.

In a useful little book on violence (Violence: Six Sideways Reflections), Slavoj Žižek invites us to reflect on three quite different forms that it takes. The first form, subjective violence, is the kind of violence that most people mean, most of the time, when they describes things as ‘violent’: kicking a dog, breaking a window, killing people with drones. A second form, systemic violence, is the kind of violence that a political, economic, or social system does in order to maintain itself in a position of strength. This is the violence of a system that drives people to food banks because it wishes to shrink the level of state support for low earners, or which makes people a pariah for not marrying or subscribing to one particular religion or other, and so on. The third kind, symbolic violence, is seen in statements such as St Paul’s ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female’, or Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’. Such use of language does symbolic violence to societies which seek to limit human potential to the arbitrary labels their culture supplies. Symbolic violence inverts the logic of the playground taunt, ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’: no, words really do hurt, whether the symbolic violence is upholding a particular social order (by labelling you a ‘scrounger’, ‘gay’, ‘unAmerican’…) or working against it (‘I will not leave this bus seat, even though I am black’, ‘we’re here, we’re queer, we will not disappear’). Symbolic violence is an important tool of both repressive and emancipatory actors in any society.

Daniel Barenboim
Daniel Barenboim

There is ample symbolic violence in Barenboim’s music-making, which I think his conducting style partly makes visible. Like his idol, Furtwängler, but arguably even more insistently, Barenboim establishes a firm, immovable, strongly articulated pulse with those clear beats of his right hand – but then changes the pulse, entirely without warning, and often very drastically. His performances are at the same time the slowest and the fastest, the softest and loudest, and the most homogenous and instrumentally distinct (since his control of dynamics and orchestral balance are also hugely surprising and original), that audiences are likely to encounter anywhere except on Furtwängler recordings. Within the symbolic structure of music, they are doing symbolic violence, but for neither conductor is this simply a matter of exaggeration for effect.

The symbolic violence in Barenboim’s performances is not generated by him, but only revealed by him: it is in the music already. When Wagner refuses to resolve the ‘Tristan chord’ at the opening of Tristan und Isolde, and instead gives us the same upwards-striving motion twice more on successively higher pitches, he does symbolic violence to the expectation, into which we are conditioned from when we first hear a lullaby or nursery rhyme sung to us, that the dominant chord will resolve onto the tonic; conversely, when Beethoven dramatizes precisely such conventional resolutions with an excessive rhythmic and timbral vigour that no composer before or since has ever approached, he does symbolic violence to a system which seeks to conceal – to naturalize, to make transparent – the extent to which it is shaping our desire for certain kinds of fulfilment.

Conventional wisdom – the commonly used euphemism for ‘the hegemonic ideology of a society’ – has it that classical music is, by its very nature, a problematic thing. Governments and media outlets which call it ‘elitist’, and academic ethnomusicologists who implicate it – and sometimes even its present enthusiasts – in centuries of Western imperialism all share this logic. They claim that it is an expensive pleasure (though this is pretty unconvincing: I have already blogged about how much cheaper it is to attend the opera than to see a live football match), imply that it requires a private-school education to appreciate it, that it sustains a social elite by cultivating ‘cultural capital’ (see my posts on the Great British Class Survey for more on this), or that, as what we might today call ‘soft power’, it is a tool of imperialist oppression. There is no question either that capitalist class hegemony or imperialism depend on an adaptable combination of symbolic, systemic, and subjective violence, or that cultural artefacts can be bent to repressive political ends, but the assumption that the ‘meaning’ or ‘function’ of classical music is always and forever limited by the meanings or functions it has had or served in the past is ludicrous. Classical music is, like every symbolic system, what its users make it; and in any case it is, within the terms of its own symbolic language, perpetually in a state of resistance to regulation. As anyone who goes to an opera or classical concert will know, the accusation that the majority of the audience, even in the ‘expensive’ seats, are representatives of the nation’s elite is difficult to credit. But even if it were true, that would not be because the music is somehow, fundamentally, ‘elitist’. Floating signifiers, the signs and language we use in every moment of our lives, and classical music not least, change their meaning whenever the context for their presentation is changed. Consider the radically different meanings of the word ‘gay’ in the early twentieth or early twenty-first century (or, going in another direction, of ‘queer’). Something which was once used to perform repressive symbolic violence can be re-quilted to perform emancipatory symbolic violence. Anyone who thinks that classical music is always a tool of economic or imperialist oppression, to be judged sombrely wherever it is encountered, is, for reasons I don’t fully understand, mistaking classical music for capitalism and Maxim guns.

Barenboim has some naive views. One species of them concerns his East-Western Divan Orchestra, ostensibly composed of otherwise warring factions in the Middle East, which is an attempt to show by example how music can heal the world’s wounds. The liberal Left is often quick to sneer at him for this, but I see no reason to. What looks naive from one perspective looks brutal, radical, from another. It is naive to say that black and white people deserve equal civil rights, too, but the ongoing struggle in the US, where legislation to safeguard that state of affairs once again proves to be weak in the face of a bigger systemic violence, shows that such naive vision is always required, especially when the emotional force of the call can have such a powerful effect in uniting people around a cause. And one of the things that music – Wagner’s and Beethoven’s more than most – can do is to stir emotionally.

Wilhelm Furtwängler
Wilhelm Furtwängler

Barenboim’s idolization of Furtwängler is a further indication of his naivety: was not this a conductor who remained in a high-profile musical position in Nazi Germany, rather than fleeing the regime? Furtwängler himself was politically naive, believing, as Barenboim seemingly does, that the music he made had some kind of potential to act as a check on barbarity, on stupidity, on inhumanity. (Barenboim also, not unrelatedly, plays Wagner in Israel, a country which cannot tolerate him and his ‘essential’ anti-Semitism: turning to the audience, he simply says, in Hebrew, ‘leave if you want to’.) Furtwängler was a fool, it seems: his musicking didn’t help. But the subjective violence of Hitler’s war engine was too great to be stopped by anything short of superior subjective violence. Yet symbolic violence can work in different circumstances, such as at the fall of the Berlin Wall (when Leonard Bernstein conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to articulate the reconciliation), or such as today, when the greatest repressive forces in the West are sustained by systemic rather than subjective violence (although protestors who are kettled and charged at by police horses will be aware that, in extremis, the state is not shy of resorting to the good old threat of subjective violence when circumstances dictate it).

The gestures, the ideas, the musical effects: Barenboim is arguably the greatest living conductor (certainly the greatest current conductor of Wagner, and possibly the greatest ever) because, not in spite of, his naivety. He is simple, childlike enough to suggest that, despite the appearance of being a white, middle-class, Western avocation, classical music can easily be an emancipatory political force, an essentially oppositional culture quite distinct from other musical forms (which sit more comfortably with the prerogatives of capital circulation). Bullshit, scream the liberals, and he gives them a cold, implacable stare.

Daniel Barenboim is a fool. And he is right.

3 thoughts on “Daniel Barenboim and music’s emancipatory symbolic violence

  1. I agree with your description of the performance, which I thought was astonishing. I also agree with Zizek’s argument. That said, I have some real difficulty seeing how they relate to one another. It seems that what you’re saying is that the violence Wagner does to conventional tonality is equivalent to the violence that, say, some discursive practices do to state orders, and that Barenboim brings this out. That’s a lot to claim of a non-verbal form of communication, or any one (brilliant, but in lots of ways fairly conventional) conductor. But if even it is true, it seems that your argument would require some portion of the audience to actually understand the process you describe (especially given your emphasis on ‘context and presentation’). From where I was sitting, it seemed like people were experiencing something much closer to pleasure: the pleasure in hearing music that was tremendously loud, or fast, or well played, maybe, but not one that carried any political weight. If you’re looking for models of symbolic violence in this context, surely it would be better to talk about the work of any number of stage directors–who, in seemingly doing violence _to Wagner_, do provoke violent reactions, debates about politics, aesthetics, German national memory, etc. In short, I loved the performance last night, and my political views are probably fairly similar to yours, but–as much as I’d like to–I just don’t see how what happened last night could be described as anything like a political act.

    1. Thanks very much for this. I think we might actually disagree less than you suggest, and it’s probably poor expression on my part to blame. Like you, I don’t think last night’s performance was a political act, though I do think that the existence of the East-Western Divan Orchestra is, however much one may wonder how powerful a political act it is. I also don’t think that the magnitude of the symbolic violence that Wagner does is equivalent to — say — that of the ‘I have a dream’ speech. (I think it’s the magnitude that you have in mine when you say ‘the violence Wagner does to conventional tonality is equivalent…’, isn’t it?) But there’s a family resemblance between the forms of violence, and it’s important to see these bits of potential, even in the littlest things. Of course, at least some small portion of the audience was able to discern the theoretical implications of the performance — they wrote a blog about it, after all. But if what you mean to doubt is that Barenboim’s musicianship, not just last night but throughout his entire career, could ever have the kind of political force that can revolutionize a state, then of course I agree with you wholeheartedly. Conducting Wagner isn’t going to change the world directly. Writing about Wagner will have even less of an effect. But what Wagner, and art generally, and mediations of that art (even criticism), can do, is to bring certain possibilities into focus: it can awaken political consciousness, an intellectual emancipation, which is a vital preliminary, even if it doesn’t result in actual political work, material emancipation, itself. I don’t mean to claim that art does, just that it can, and am sorry if I imply more than that in this post. But by writing and teaching, I do hope to encourage people to think about these sorts of structural relations of power, to become intellectually emancipated, and I think that music is a very useful tool in this (and think it is worth combating the view that music is little more than pleasant noise). The students I teach may go out into the world and do the political acts themselves, perhaps just at the local level of their own lives, perhaps on a bigger level. Writing and talking enables these things to be thought, and music may help to make the thought seem more real, urgent, viscerally felt. But no, it’s not political action. Not yet. It might not even lay the groundwork for it. But it might, even in small ways.

      1. Indeed: ‘Art cannot change the world, but it can contribute to changing the consciousness and drives of the men and women who could change the world.’ Marcuse.

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