February 12, 2011
A Method to Examine Culture: Jacques Attali’s use of music in cultural analysis

     In his 1977 book, Noise: the Political Economy of Music  (trans. 1985), French thinker Jacques Attali attempts to historically situate music within popular philosophy but also as a new mechanism through which to examine culture.  Assessing the validity of Attali’s claim that music “signifies order but prefigures subversion” in relation to American popular music cannot easily be executed.  There is much to problematize in the chapter in which Attali’s claim appears; though there is undoubtedly some relationship between cultural composition, musical norms, and the political economy, Attali’s arguments are far from flawless and the causality he employs is often lackluster. Attempting to apply the author’s argument to American popular music only compounds the effectiveness of his claim.  Is there a relationship between the political economy and music, and if so, can music really be used as a mechanism in critical analysis to investigate history? 
    To investigate Attali’s assertions is to investigate his logic and the reasoning which supports them - in some ways it is to investigate the man himself.  It is worth noting that Attali is a French-Algerian and served ten years as a special advisor to French President Francois Mitterand.  Jacques Attali is undoubtedly entrenched within French political and economic thought (though the authoring of Noise precedes his involvement with Mitterand by 4 years); in short, he is a political economic theorist.  Situating an author’s work within a culture allows for a more situationally aware analysis and, ideally, a more accurate one as well.  Jacques Attali can be seen in some ways as embodying the cumulation of 20th century French thought.  He is younger than the 20th century’s Continental superstars of the theory world, Theodor Adorno, Claude-Levi Strauss, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, and his analysis has benefited from an academic familiarity with each.   Attali’s discussion of linear historical narratives as “illusory” (p.10) cements him well within the world of late 20th century French analysts and post-modernity as a whole.  
    Attali’s analysis is contingent upon his assertion that music prophesizes cultural movements while simultaneously challenging and adhering to musical norms of the day;  “[Music] heralds for it is prophetic. It has always been in its essence a herald of times to come.  Thus, as we shall see, it it is true that the political organization of the twentieth century is rooted in the political thought of the nineteenth, the latter is almost entirely present in embryonic form in the music of the eighteenth century” (p. 4).  Attali attempts to further his point when he writes, “in Europe, during three different periods with three different styles, (the liturgical music of the tenth century, the polyphonic music of the sixteenth century, and the harmony of the eighteenth and twentieth centuries), music found expression within a single, stable code and had stable modes of economic organization; correlatively, these societies were very clearly dominated by a single ideology” (p.10).  There seems here to be a disconnect between what is portrayed in music and that to which historical fact can testify.  Attali’s assertion is that the tonal harmony of the 18th and 20th centuries is reminiscent of the upper class zeitgeist, saying, “Mozart and Bach reflect the bourgeoisie’s dream of harmony better than the whole of nineteenth-century political theory” (p. 5).   However, the claim that the bourgeois desired only “harmony” is farcical. 
    The ideal of the bourgeoisie (a term not limited here to the French) may have been harmonious in that it excluded civil unrest, but it sought to attain its goals through the exploitation of the proletariat; labelling the bourgeoisie’s  desires as harmonious gives a false impression that the bourgeoise sought to work together with the working class.  It was, after all, the distant and exploitive hand of the bourgeoisie ruling class that brought about revolutions during latter years of the 18th century.  That harmony was the dominant, “single ideology” of which Attali speaks, is further troubling because it paints a portrait of an era with no competing ideologies and little strife.  Irrefutably, the final twenty-five years of the 18th century cannot be characterized as historically peaceful and without political unrest.  Wars between Britain and the Colonies, the French Monarchy and the commoner, and the Dutch uprising all occurred in the final years of the 18th century; this is hardly a negligible fact that is easily dismissed.  While the 19th century (“…the intervening periods, times of disorder and disarray” (p.10)) did see more lengthy, world-wide spats of violence (the American Civil War, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, among many others) to say that the 18th century may be characterized as a time of single dominant “ideology” is a misnomer. 
    Jacques Attali is right to find an association between political unrest and the changing sounds in music, however the answer does not lie in the “prophetic” power of music but instead in the economics of a country at a given point in time.  The “classical” era saw patronage as the means by which composers earned a living, such as with Joseph Haydn and the Esterházy family.  As Attali discusses, the relationship between art and those in power is potentially, and perhaps inevitably, one which instills artistic expression necessarily with a political charge.  If an artist is subject to the wishes of his patron, the art may reflect the desires of the bourgeois; it is from this linear thought process that the author draws his problematic conclusion that 18th century harmony of classical music yields to the tumultuous unrest in the 1800’s. 
    As the modern capitalistic market economy took hold, the relationship of music, economics, and culture began to change.  Through technological advances in printing and, later, the advent of recording technologies, music became a readily exchangeable commodity.  Of the relationship between the modern economy and music, Attali writes:

    …after entering the commodity exchange, [music] participated in the growth and     creation of capital and the spectacle.  Fetishsized as a commodity, music is     illustrative of the evolution of our entire society: deritualize a social form, repress     an activity of the body, specialize its practice, sell it as a spectacle, generalize its     consumption, then see to it that it is stockpiled until it loses its meaning (p. 4-5). 

Within the realm of American popular music, this example is perhaps most appropriately applied toward the evolution of popular jazz and the counterculture of musicians that railed against it. 
    Jazz grew out of the syncopation of New Orleans second line drumming during funeral processions (J. Vidacovich, personal communication, June 2003).  This off-beat sound was incorporated into the ragtime playing of New Orleans musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver’s band.  As the New Orleans sound spread up the Mississippi River, it encountered the influence of white musicians who began to shape and alter the sound of the music.  Post World-War II, black musicians felt jazz had become a spectacle for white audiences, that the forms employed in the music were too artistically restrictive, and that the commercial success the swing era enjoyed was a degradation of the art form.  The tamer sounds of big bands such as Paul Whiteman and Glenn Miller seemed devoid of the meaning that had originally drawn musicians to jazz.  With this mindset, players such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, and others ushered in a more harmonically complex and artistically liberating form of jazz known as be-bop.  Although be-bop and jazz were successful during the 1940’s and 50’s, it did not gain the mainstream attention of the swing era’s dance music. 
    The progression of jazz from its roots in New Orleans, to the sounds of the big band swing era, to the counter-culture of be-bop may be studied within Attali’s notions of music and the commodity exchange.  It would seem that white audiences were drawn to the rhythmic (although perhaps dulled-down in some regards) sounds of the big bands because they were marketed as music from the American negro; the music of Southern African-Americans had a seemingly inherent value to white audiences, leaving the music to be fetishsized as a commodity.  As the commodity was groomed for generalized consumption by white audiences, a counter-culture formed amongst musicians which eventually resulted in the advent of be-bop. 
    Whether the popularity of big-band can be seen as prophetic of social change is another issue.  In some regard, the acceptance of black music may be seen to herald the arrival of social reform; the beginnings of such change began with Brown vs. Board of Education  in 1954.  However, the swing era’s popularity was not in spite of the music being of African-American origin, but rather because it was a “black sound.”  This fascination with black music did not begin in America during the years immediately preceding the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision.  Instead, white fascination with black music has its beginnings in the 19th century. 
    The black-faced minstrel and later “coon songs” enjoyed wide spread popularity during much of the 19th century; while these acts were undoubtedly a racist caricature of an entire segment of the population, Eric Lott (1995) argues that “minstrelsy brought to public form racialized elements of thought and feeling, tone and impulse, residing at the very edge of semantic availability, which Americans only dimly realised they felt, let alone understood.  The minstrel show was less the incarnation of age-old racism than an emergent social semantic figure highly responsive to the emotional demands and troubled fantasies of its audiences” (p. 3).  The appearance of black faced minstrelsy within American theaters certainly placed the black body on stage as a racialized spectacle, but it also served to introduce audiences to a character that reacted thoughtfully and emotionally - a portrayal of the slave in the slightest of human terms.  Lott also contends that “minstrel acts certainly made currency out of the black man himself, that obscure object of exchangeable desire,” (p. 7) in which white men’s fascination with minstrelsy must necessarily take on an inherent homo-erotic charge.  The fascination and fear of black sexuality and identity continued into the 20th century, providing the same erotic charge to black music of the 1950’s. 
    Situating the advent of rock ‘n roll within his analysis of prophetic music and social change, Jacques Attali writes, “…it seems a fourth (and shorter) period was ushered in during the 1950s, with a coherent style forged in the furnace of black American music; it is characterized by stable production based on the tremendous demand generated by the youth of the nations with rapidly expanding economies, and on a new economic organization of distribution made possible by recording” (p. 10).  To Attali, the rise of rock ‘n roll, a music rooted in African-American sounds, is prophetic of the social upheaval of the 1960’s.  However, there was little new about the white fascination with rock music; it was not the first time in the 20th century black music became a popular genre and it was not the first time black sexuality had been associated with music.  Perhaps the most problematic aspect of applying Attali’s analysis to the American civil rights movement is that it negates the role of the black leadership. 
    Attali’s position supposes that the popularity of African-American music amongst white listeners is prophetic of the social change that occurred during the 1960’s.  This stance empowers the white listener, as if white America were the catalyst to social change.  As Cornel West (1984) describes, it was not a glowing endorsement of the civil rights movement by white liberals that allowed the necessary change to succeed, but a delicate balance between (a white) Washington advocacy and acceptance by the black public each of which is largely attributable to the new “petite bourgeoisie” of African-American leaders (p. 55).  The state of the economic organization of the music industry had little to do with the civil rights movement; what was of economic importance was the growing number of middle class African-Americans that were able to garner support for the movement in their communities.
    Attali’s claim also runs into resistance when applied to the music of the 1950’s because the author uses a like methodology to infer conclusions about wildly differing time spans.  To say that 18th century harmony can foretell 19th century turmoil is to examine hundreds of years of musical examples and historical trends with the benefit of one hundred years of historical hindsight; to say the same of the popular music of the 1950’s and the subsequent anti-war and civil rights movement is to look at a phenomenon at a much closer time-scale, with only a few years of hindsight.  The problem of scale is one which cannot be overlooked; macro-level analyses are difficult to accurately replicated in a micro-level sample. 
    Jacques Attali’s view that music is prophetic is problematic. There exists no definite bridge between correlation and causality despite what Attali seems to suggest.  Within the European historical realm, Attali’s claims seem  perhaps shallow and contingent upon a very narrow reading of the historical narrative devoid of such important interpretations as Marxist class struggle.  Within the realm of American popular music, nuances of American history are overlooked to allow for an argument painted with too broad a brush.  Although Attali’s claim may, in instances, seem to be common sense, hindsight bias and teleological analytic errors make for compelling arguments in a great number of instances.  There is certainly some relationship between music and cultural movements, however, the error lies in believing music to be “prophetic” - as if by some divine charge.  Music is a product of intercourse of economics and culture, not a point of each’s origin.  While Attali’s claims prove to be problematic in his historical analysis, the author does succeed in centering his analytic discussion around music.  Rather than use statistics, history, or economics as a base from which to explore his theories, Jacque Attali chooses instead to use music - a notion admirable unto itself. 

  1. jeffersonstone posted this