And by a prudent flight and cunning save A life which valour could not, from the grave. A better buckler I can soon regain, But who can get another life again? Archilochus

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Opera Buffa

Roger Mathew Grant, "Peculiar Attunements: Comic Opera and Enlightenment Mimesis"
“They’re laughing at the opera, they’re splitting their sides with laughter!”1 Or at least so claimed Paul H. D. d’Holbach, whose words would have been no small matter when they were penned in 1752. The Paris Opéra had been “profaned,” he satirically wrote, by “senseless laughter and indecent gaiety.”2 As the home of sung French tragedy, or tragédie en musique, the Paris Opéra was a most unusual place for comedy.3 A space for gods and heroes, for love and death and classical ideals, the opera treasured there was nothing to laugh about. But that summer a small traveling group of Italian opera buffa performers took up residency at the Opéra, bringing to Paris for the first time a new form of comic opera that was slowly spreading across Europe from its origins in Neapolitan theatres. This new form of comic opera lampooned the traditions of its tragic counterpart. Its stories concerned aspirational servants and hapless old misers, bumbling, pretentious losers and the tricksters who could hoodwink them with outrageous disguises. Though smaller in cast and in duration, it specialized in the overblown. Everything about it was exaggerated: the stage action and gesture, the inappropriate sentiments, the antics of the plot, and, most of all, the music.

Comic opera presented a challenge to the Enlightenment aesthetic doctrine of mimesis. Until the mid-eighteenth century, critics had seen opera as a union of poetry with music on the stage. Each moment in the drama employed these forces together to create a coherent image and action, using stock musical figures and procedures to amplify the intended affect of the drama. Especially in the case of French criticism, music was understood to be subservient to the poetry of the libretto; even in passages without singing, the music of the opera was tied to the expression of its text.4 Using these procedures, opera fell into accord with the neoclassical doctrine of mimesis, in which the goal of art was the imitation of the natural world. Comic opera originated, in part, as a parodic, metatheatrical critique of this operatic aesthetic.5 Composers of comic opera adopted several new mimetic techniques that mocked the ossified musical procedures of serious opera and, further, the neoclassical mimetic doctrine itself. These composers employed mimesis in exaggerated, excessive, and rapidly changing forms; they also began to use poetry and music as autonomous signifying systems, engaging in musical mimesis to suggest something other than what was expressed in the opera’s poetry and thereby subverting the meaning of the text. These practices bolstered the relatively new notion that music had the power to act as a sign independent of poetry.

The growing awareness of comic opera’s peculiar use of mimesis and of its distinctive musical style facilitated a transformation in operatic aesthetics. Curiously, instead of creating a more expansive mimetic theory to accommodate the new Italian style, critics explicitly turned away from this neoclassical doctrine in favor of a new view in which music, independently, was said to attune its audience to an affective state. In the domain of aesthetic theory, then, the extreme mimesis in this music was no longer mimetic. It was instead affective.

Precisely because the historiography of comic opera is tightly associated with the aesthetics of mimesis, the important role that this musical idiom played in catalyzing a reassessment of the mimetic doctrine has not always been apparent. Instead, historians and theorists of this repertoire have traditionally emphasized its contributions to the development of mimetic techniques in music.6 But one result of the critical quarrel on comic opera was the theoretical displacement of mimetic representation by affective attunement. Seen from this perspective, the twenty-first century’s turn to affect is only the most recent motion of an ongoing dialectic concerning affect and signification that has been in place since early modernity. Comic opera and the debates that it incited have much to teach us about this crucial moment in intellectual history.

Mimesis Exploded: Three Comic Opera

To be sure, there was something immediately appealing, new, and funny about Italian opera buffa for Parisian audiences. Recalling Giuseppe Maria Orlandini’s Il marito giocatore (which had its Paris premier in August of that infamous 1752 summer), the conservative critic Élie-Catherine Fréron noted with some disdain that the opera provoked “convulsions” and “extravagant movements” in the parterre. “It couldn’t better resemble the sort of delirium that always follows the excessive exaggeration caused by strong alcohol.”7 But what Fréron describes as immoderate behavior in the audience could also have aptly characterized the action on stage in any one of the works that the troupe of bouffons brought to Paris. Part of what made this type of comic opera so fresh and so controversial was the way in which it used music to mock serious opera, creating the hyperbolic exploits Fréron describes.

Perhaps the best known of the works performed during the bouffons’ three-year tenure in Paris is Pergolesi’s La serva padrona, an opera about the plucky servant Serpina who convinces her employer Uberto to marry her. The life of a housemaid doesn’t suit her; she wants to be “revered like a mistress. Arch-mistress! Mega-mistress!”8 In order to pull off this caper, she disguises her fellow servant Vespone as her new potential husband: a mean-spirited ruffian soldier she calls Captain Tempesta. In a brilliantly manipulative aria, “A Serpina penserete,” she asks Uberto to think of her from time to time when she’s gone and to remember how good she was to him. Of course, she reasons, Uberto will marry her to avoid losing her, and also to avoid the dowry he would have to pay Tempesta.

“A Serpina penserete” explodes the mimetic conventions of the serious opera aria with an overload of mimesis. The aria begins in a stately, slow tempo with a corresponding 4/4 meter; Seprina’s lines of entreaty are smooth and sweet, and on their own they could even sound earnestly saccharine. But accompanying them we hear a passage of quickly repeated, detached, staccato pitches in the orchestra that undercuts the sincerity of her text. This orchestral commentary begins just before Serpina sings her lines directed toward Uberto, and it returns as she is finishing them. It employs mimesis in the form of an orchestral agitation in order to deliver more information than is offered in the text of the aria, suggesting an anxiety in Serpina’s bluffing performance within the performance. Suddenly, just as soon as she concludes her words to Uberto, Serpina launches into her own solipsistic world, singing to herself and the audience in a brisk allegro tempo and in 3/8, a meter associated with peasant dances and frivolity. The effect is a dramatic, unanticipated change of character. “It seems to me that he’s already slowly beginning to soften!” she exclaims.9 Then the slow tempo and the 4/4 meter return just as abruptly as they had left, and Seprina repeats her original sentiment, again directed toward Uberto and again agitated by the staccato figure in the orchestra. Twice more the aria rapidly changes character, with Serpina asking Uberto to please forget any of her bad behavior and remarking, again to herself, that the squeeze of his hand is a sign that her plot is working.

The entire scene is exaggeration, with Serpina’s insincere serenade accompanied by the anxious violins and placed directly back-to-back with her joyous and energetic interior monologue. Serpina effectively listens to herself perform the aria; the music she sings as an aside comments on the song she directs to Uberto. Although eighteenth-century arias often contained a single contrasting emotion expressed in the interior of their form, the many abrupt changes in meter, tempo, and character of “A Serpina penserete” were far more drastic than what was typically heard in the Paris Opéra.10 This aria attempted to outdo mimesis with emotional portrayal that was simultaneously more exacting—altering the entire musical fabric with each rapidly encountered emotion—and also more formally complex, with each different affective disposition commenting metatheatrically on those around it. The result was a style of performance that was aware of itself as performance in its formal shifts of perspective.

La serva padrona was not the only one of Pergolesi’s works to arrive in Paris with the bouffons. The less well-known but equally adventurous Livietta e Tracollo had its Paris premiere in May of 1753. This is another work that doubles mimetic procedures through performances within performances; the opera begins with every character in disguise. Livietta, dressed as a French country boy, and her friend Fulvia, wearing false jewels, are attempting to seek revenge against the thief Tracollo, who is himself disguised as an old Polish woman (the disguise is musically complete with an entrance aria that sounds like a traditional Polish Mazurka dance in 3/8 meter with emphases on the second beat of each measure). After a tussle in which both parties pretend to be incompetent in the Italian language, Livietta reveals her identity and calls for Tracollo’s imprisonment. The second act begins with Tracollo in a new disguise. This time he has dressed himself up as an old, insane astronomer in a bid to win Livietta over. Here again, Pergolesi’s score clothes the character in appropriate costume. The libretto indicates that Tracollo should gesticulate and “laugh indecently” (sconciamente ride), and we hear the orchestra perform this task for him.11 Just before his first lines, the violins rip upward in two iterations of a rapidly ascending scale, descending from their height at half the pace in staccato pulses. The result is something that sounds like an arching of the back and filling of the chest followed by a bursting cackle in a high register. “I seem to be doing this well,” Tracollo says of his new-found character. “But in pretending, I really don’t want to go, as they say, off my rocker” (L, p. 11; trans. mod.).12 The orchestra concludes each of his lines with more instrumental laughter.

Tracollo is constantly transforming. A character that is always playing a character, his troped mimetic representations destabilize traditional mimetic technique. In this scene his exaggerated peculiarity is emphasized in the orchestral cackling, which lends the otherwise inconsistent and elastic Tracollo a temporary mechanical rigidity.13 Later in the opera, as he watches what he thinks is Livietta’s death (she is faking it), he is overtaken by her body’s flailing, dying motions and begins to act them out with his own body while punctuating each one with a sung “ha” (L, p. 14).14 Tracollo, like many comic opera characters, is an empty vessel ready to receive any distinct persona or action.15 He is in some ways like the malleable tones of music itself, adaptable to the presentation of a broad palate of affects.

Parisians heard many kinds of orchestral laughter during the tenure of the bouffons. Rinaldo di Capua’s La zingara, which received its premiere at the Paris Opéra in June of 1753, contains several experimental scenes that employ this effect. Nisa, our female protagonist, has contrived to simultaneously rob and also marry the elderly miser Calcante. She enlists the help of her brother, Tagliaborsi, who is disguised as a bear. The opera begins with the two siblings on stage, and in his first aria Tagliaborsi complains that Nisa is laughing at him in the bear suit while he suffers its constraints. Immediately after he sings “you laugh” (that is, “you’re laughing at me”), Taglioborsi halts for a moment, and we hear the orchestra perform a high, rapid, descending figure in the violins—just long enough for a short chuckle. This device—which is traditionally mimetic, using orchestral sound during a break in Tagliaborsi’s singing—is repeated fourteen times in the short aria to solidify its effect.

Later, Nisa convinces Calcante that the bear in her company is in fact a famous and talented animal, and she sells it to him for twenty ducats. Calcante is quite pleased with his purchase, imagining that this famous bear will fetch more than a thousand when he offers it for sale. While he is celebrating his good fortune, Tagliaborsi quickly slips away. Calcante, now shocked and horrified, laments his financial ruin in an accompanied recitative that is particularly innovative. He begins to sing haltingly—“Where, where could the bear have gone?”—and the orchestra fills in his pauses with high, rapid turning figures reminiscent of the orchestral chuckles in Tagliaborsi’s aria.16 The music settles for a moment in G major, and its quick, light giddiness taunts Calcante as he searches hopelessly for the bear. “My poor ducats! They’ve gone to hell!” he exclaims.17 Any seriousness with which we could possibly take this old Scrooge is undercut by the lighthearted orchestral accompaniment.18

In Rinaldo’s ingenious writing, we hear one sentiment expressed in the text with a contrasting feeling provided in the musical design. The opera’s music gives us a way to regard comically what is otherwise expressed in serious words. Although this method of using music against the text eventually became common in opera composition, it was unprecedented in the mid-eighteenth century, when Parisian audiences attempted to make sense of the new Italian style. Music, it seemed, was being employed as an independent aesthetic force, not limited to the expression or enhancement of the opera’s poetry.19

It was bad enough that people in the parterre were laughing indecently, but Pergolesi and Rinaldo put laughter, impropriety, and bad behavior on center stage, using orchestral devices to inflate, surpass, and comment on the text. In so doing they parodied the very notion of mimesis, ridiculing the formulaic ceremony of serious opera in which sung tragedy used stock musical gestures to support its poetry. Serious opera worked to depict a unified image in each scene, while comic opera changed them out even more frequently than its casts changed disguises. The characters we meet in these early comic operas are the prototypes for those more famous comic opera characters from the late eighteenth century, like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Leporello (from Don Giovanni, an Italian opera buffa) or the Queen of the Night (from Die Zauberflöte, a German Singspiel). Leporello runs his mouth on an unbelievable list at breakneck speed, and the Queen (who has no proper name; she is pure role) sings an aria requiring robotic pyrotechnics with popped high notes in the stratosphere of the soprano range. Their depictions are at once evocative of “something mechanical encrusted upon the living”—Bergson’s formula for the comic—but also metatheatrically critical of the typical mimetic conventions of the opera.20 The unexpected consequence was that this excess of mimesis destabilized the entire discourse surrounding music, an art whose purchase on mimesis was already tenuous.

Critical Quarrel

With performances like these, it was no wonder that everyone was talking about the opera. The arrival of the bouffons in Paris provoked a massive pamphlet war on the nature of opera and on musical aesthetics more generally. More than sixty pamphlets on the topic were printed and exchanged between 1752 and 1754, as defenders and detractors alike attempted to formulate what, exactly, was so thrilling or so objectionable about the comic Italian music.21 Now known as the querelle des bouffons, the debate reignited the issues of an older French controversy: a musical version of the early modern quarrel between the ancients and the moderns, which had already included within it an interrogation of the limits of music’s capacity to express outside of or beyond the operatic text.22 The new quarrel placed increasing pressure on this question in particular.

There has been an understandable tendency in studies of the querelle des bouffons to see a polarization of opinions divided sharply between the supporters of serious, French opera (the coin du roi, or king’s corner) and supporters of comic, Italian opera (the coin de la reine, or queen’s corner). Typically, those in favor of the new Italian style are seen as the forward-thinking progressives; this group includes the Parisian encyclopedists Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert, and Denis Diderot, among others. The supporters of French opera are seen, by contrast, as a conservative group clinging to an older notion of operatic propriety; the members of this group are less well-known, as are their writings.23

Apart from the clear duality organized around the two different repertoires, there was in fact a great deal of consensus among critics in the quarrel. Contributors agreed that something very different was at work in the music of the comic Italian operas—whether they enjoyed it or reviled it—and that this musical difference required new theoretical tools or language for musical style itself. In this sense, both sides of the debate worked to stabilize the notion that music was an aesthetic force independent of language.24 Up until this point, writers on music and aesthetics had generally understood musical tones to convey and supplement the meaning of a text. Music without words was considered something of a form without a content, like random splashes of paint thrown against a canvas (as Charles Batteaux had it)25 or, in the words of Noël-Antoine Pluche, like “a fine suit separated from a body and hung from a peg.”26 Music without a text lacked a certain essence. It was the costume without the actor. It failed to communicate anything with specificity.

Because critics felt compelled to account for the musical differences between the French and Italian styles, they stumbled onto a new set of questions about music’s capacity for mimesis. Since art was supposed to be mimetic, the question had to be asked: what, if anything, was the basis of music’s mimetic power—what was it that the sound of music itself displayed? If music could be said to work mimetically, was it successful in its task? Answers to these questions were far from uniform along party lines in the debate, with both sides drawing on different aspects of the history of aesthetics in order to account for the new and provocative situation before them. While some authors insisted on grounding their account of the new style in mimetic theory, others doubted that this was even possible.

Among those who theorized the new Italian style along mimetic lines was a critic writing under the name Rousselet, who pointed out that in its reproductions of the world Italian opera had managed to depict all of the “little things” of mundane existence. The objects of its comic depiction were always “the petty and the low.” French opera, by contrast, “does not debase itself to these puerilities.”27 Another, anonymous critic voiced the same objection in the form of a dialogue between a supporter of the new Italian style and a conservative Lullyste—a supporter of traditional French opera and its seventeenth-century master, Jean-Baptiste Lully.
Paintings! Replied the [pro-Italian] musician, eh! This is where we shine. What richness! What profusions in our Italian opera! Everything is painted from tears, to laughter, to sneezes…. Your Lully had only one color for each image, which was sometimes tinged but basically dominant throughout. He never knew the science of details. We have varied designs for almost every modulation of the phrase; one also sometimes sees a single syllable artistically decorated and delicately fluttered over one or two octaves presenting four different images at the same time.

Eh! It is this piling up of designs, replied the Lullyste, it is this clever decorating which is a hundred thousand miles from nature.28
For this anonymous critic, the varied and exaggerated use of music as a mimetic medium actually detracted from the often-repeated goal of the eighteenth-century neoclassical mimetic doctrine: the imitation of the beautiful in nature. Rather than working to supplement the clear images of the text, the music of the Italians was all distraction, filigree, and falseness, attempting to depict far more than it was able.

Jean-Baptiste Jourdan was even more skeptical, wondering how it was that musical tones could really depict anything substantial. He equated the folly of the Italian opera’s comic characters with the semantic imprecision of music as a medium, wondering what on earth something like a musical flourish could possibly represent. Discussing the musical decoration at the conclusion of a melodic line (a cadenza), Jourdan wrote, “I would very much like for your philosophers of the Coin de la Reine … who have read in Aristotle that the arts are an imitation of nature, to tell me honestly what one paints with a cadenza. Would it not be a drunk who, weak in the legs, wavers, beats the walls, comes, goes, slides to the ground, gets up, and finally falls to be applauded?”29 Turning a musical figure into a comic opera character—a clumsy lush—Jourdan reversed comic opera’s mimickry. Rather than using musical tones for ridicule, instead he ridiculed musical tones by drawing them into an equation with sloppy bodily gestures, making an embarrassment of their materiality. Just as some subjects were deemed unfit for depiction on the stage, Jourdan intended a disqualification of music from the power of signification.

Among the most outspoken of the Italian opera’s champions was Rousseau, whose scathing Lettre sur la musique françoise was a thoroughgoing condemnation of the French operatic style. For Rousseau the advantage of Italian opera was clear. The Italian language, with its sonorous, bright vowels, was more suited to song, and Italian composers were more adept at choosing the precise moments for modulations of the harmony and changes of meter. Most of all, though, Italian opera was primarily structured around its melodies. Its accompaniments, sometimes thin, existed only to support the voice and to reinforce what Rousseau called the “unity of melody” (a concept with classical roots).30 Melody, Rousseau believed, possessed the power to imitate humanity’s natural, passionate utterances. It was an echo of the antediluvian cries of primitive man, which were simultaneously speech and song. “Italian melody,” he explained, “finds in every movement the expressions for every character and paintings for every object.”31 Through the power of the voice, Italian opera was supreme in musical mimesis.

Rousseau’s assessment draws on a long history of theorizing musical mimesis with reference to the voice. Especially in French neoclassical criticism—precisely of the variety typically used to uphold the values of serious French opera—the power of musical mimesis belonged to song. As Jean-Baptiste Dubos had put it as early as 1719, “just as the painter imitates the features and colors of nature, so too the musician imitates the tones, accents, sighs, inflections of the voice, and, in short, all of those sounds with which nature exudes the sentiments and passions. These, as we have already seen, hold a marvelous power to move us, because they are the signs of the passions instituted by nature, whence they receive their energy.”32 Traditionally taken as a component of the conservative view that would have subordinated the power of musical tones to that of the text they expressed, Rousseau repurposed this neoclassical understanding of musical mimesis such that it supported a kind of music that did no such thing. With attention to the ways in which critics interpreted and employed various understandings of mimesis to their own ends, it becomes clear that the debate over comic opera only intensified the need for clarification on how, exactly, music was a mimetic art.

It wasn’t long after Rousseau issued his missive that Fréron responded with a lengthy, multipart defense of French opera.33 Point by point, he took on Rousseau’s provocations. Quoting a passage in which Rousseau extols the ability of the Italian style to depict “all characters imaginable,” Fréron had occasion to instruct Rousseau on music’s mimetic capabilities. Music, Fréron insisted, appeals to the ear. Therefore, it can only imitate things which are themselves sounds or which produce sounds. Fréron anticipated the objections; if music can only imitate things which are themselves sounded, it would seem to be a very limited art. How then, ought we to account for the fact that music moves us? In response, Fréron elaborated an alternative way of thinking through the problem:
Experience demonstrates that music inspires sentiments and passions, but it neither expresses them nor paints them. Please do not to lose sight of this distinction. In order to make myself understood, I am obliged to enter into a mechanical examination of the effects of music on the human body.

It is a proven experience that if you pluck one of two strings tuned in unison, the other will experience a very sensible vibration, and will create a sound. The human body contains a multitude of nerves of different lengths and of different thicknesses, stretched to differing degrees. It is through them, as you know, that the soul receives its impressions. The chords of harmony that the musician passes over find themselves—regardless of the key—in unison with a more or less large number of nerves; these are then made to sound, they feel the vibrations and, by the inviolable laws of nature, allow the soul to experience sensations which, always more or less strong, are relative to the number of respective unisons.34
Operating neither mimetically nor expressively, music in Fréron’s view attuned its audience to various sensations through its physical vibrations. Musicians were not simply supplying the live soundtrack to a series of representations; in his model they were said to create affect itself. Fréron removed the problematic responsibility of mimetic depiction from music altogether, replacing it instead with an affective attunement predicated on the basis of music’s material reality in sound vibrations. To be sure, his account of music’s affective force was a limited one; the chief goal of music, he went on to say, is to “render more sensible the situation that the poet describes.”35 Nevertheless, in his effort to defend serious French opera he completely reoriented the traditional formula connecting mimetic depiction with affect.

The concept of mimesis—with its long intellectual heritage—is expansive enough to include Fréron’s theory of attunement. But to understand it in this way is to miss the explicit rejection of the mimetic framework that he and other period critics proposed.36 On the one hand, Fréron was drawing on the Neoplatonic notion of musica humana, in which the human body is described as an instrument and its parts tuned in harmonious ratios. Musica humana is a microcosmography of the harmony of the spheres—or musica mundana—and an analog of human music making, musica instrumentalis. Transmitted through medieval music theory, the musica humana tradition had also found its way into theories of the affects by the eighteenth century. Shaftesbury, for instance, had equated the affective disposition of the human as a kind of attunement in his 1711 Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times. “Upon the whole,” he wrote, “it may be said properly to be the same with the affections or passions in an animal constitution, as with the cords or strings of a musical instrument…. It might be agreeable, one would think, to inquire thus into the different tunings of the passions, the various mixtures and allays by which men become so different from one another.”37 For Shaftesbury, affective dispositions were dictated by the tuning in which the instrument of the body was set. Fréron extended this notion to include sensations passed on to the soul through the vibrations of music’s sounds.

On the other hand, Fréron was responding to the growing consensus that musical tones constituted their own signifying system, which was a view he shared with Rousseau and with other proponents of the Italian style. Among these strange bedfellows was Friedrich Melchoir Grimm, the author of several pamphlets supporting Italian comic opera in the querelle. In his article “Poeme lyrique” for Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, Grimm describes music as an independent, universally accessible semiotic system; “Music is a language,” he writes plainly.38 Not only this, music for Grimm has a metalinguistic function, since as a “universal language” it “speaks the language of all nations and all ages.”39 Rather than simply duplicating the power of language, music operates on our faculties directly; it “strikes our senses and our imagination immediately. It is also by its very nature the language of passion and feeling. Its expressions, going straight to the heart without passing, so to speak through the mind, must produce effects known in no other idiom.”40 The view of music as a nondiscursive, corporeal, and affective medium crystalized the period’s twin goals of explaining how music could act as a sign and also how it managed to move its audiences successfully without access to the mimetic capabilities of the other arts.41

The clearest parallel to Fréron’s account of affective attunement is in the work of Diderot. An early translator of Shaftesbury, Diderot had already begun to sketch an account of musical attunement in his Lettre sur les sourds et muets, published just a year before the arrival of the bouffons in Paris.42 One of the preoccupations of the text is to distinguish the signifying systems of the various arts. To Diderot, music seems less precise than poetry in its ability to signify. Nevertheless, he observes, “even if sounds do not paint our thoughts as clearly as discourse, still they say something.”43 In an additional letter included in the volume, Diderot specifies the operation of music’s affective power:
In music, the pleasure of sensation depends on a particular disposition not only of the ear, but of the whole nervous system. If there are resonant heads there are also bodies that I would gladly call harmonic: people whose fibers oscillate with so much swiftness and vivacity that upon experiencing the violent movements that harmony provokes in them, they sense the possibility of movements even more violent and reach the idea of a sort of music that could make them die of pleasure.44
Diderot elaborates Shaftesbury’s theory on the different affective dispositions of individuals, figuring these differently tuned individuals as the subjects of music reception. Though not as detailed as Fréron’s account, this scenario informed Diderot’s fully elaborated response to the querelle: his celebrated work Le Neveu de Rameau.

Comic Labor for Sale

It is a late afternoon in Paris, in the Café de la Régence—known for attracting the best chess players—when we meet the two central characters of Diderot’s Le Neveu de Rameau:Moi, the philosopher who would seem to approximate Diderot himself, and Lui, the ostensible nephew of the French opera composer and music theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau. The nephew is an excellent example of both a comic opera character and also a precarious laborer—roles that are thematized in Diderot’s text. On their meeting, the philosopher describes the nephew as someone who is always appearing as different characters: on certain days he is a hungry pauper in ragged clothing while on others he is stylish, plump, and debonair. He does not have a conventional job but supports himself through a number of informal arrangements such as teaching music lessons (really, gossiping with the mothers of his pupils) and attaching himself to wealthy patrons.

The dialogue that takes place between the philosopher and the nephew covers a great many topics, but the new Italian musical style runs consistently through it. In the words of Daniel Heartz, the querelle des bouffons is “the setting for [Diderot’s] great satire.”45 If comic opera was often a mocking imitation of serious opera’s mimetic doctrine, Le Neveu de Rameau was a metamockery; borrowing the forms and procedures of comic opera for the dialogue, Diderot playfully repeated on that idiom the very same parody that it had performed on serious opera. In yet further doublings, the nephew both explicitly discusses the issues of the querelle and also performs them, enacting Diderot’s theoretical contribution to the debate.

The nephew, despite being the descendant of an esteemed composer of traditional French opera, agrees with the philosopher that this older music is “rather flat.”46 The nephew’s enthusiasm for the new Italian style manifests in a number of lengthy pantomime performances in which he shows off his musical abilities for the philosopher (hoping, perhaps, to win a student referral). He is not stopped by the fact that he has no instruments with him. Instead he plays air-violin, sings all of the parts, and runs up and down imaginary keyboards, working up a sweat and attracting the attention of the entire café. These pantomimes are small performances within the drama in which the nephew takes on temporary roles—a formal conceit borrowed from comic opera. But the climax of the dialogue—and one of the most frequently quoted portions of the text—is a performance in which the nephew pushes his pantomime into overdrive, mixing together arias of the comic opera composers Giovanni Pergolesi and Egidio Duni with music in a wide variety of other styles.
He piled up and mixed together thirty tunes, Italian, French, tragic, comic, with lots of different characters; at points, he would descend to the depths of the underworld in a low baritone, at others, he would go right up high in a glass-shattering fake falsetto, mimicking the different singing roles in the way he walked, held himself, and gestured; by turns furious, soothed, imperious, sneering. Now he’s a young girl weeping, and he acts out her every simpering move; now he’s a priest, he’s a king, he’s a tyrant, he threatens, he commands, he loses his temper; he’s a slave, he obeys. He calms down, he is sorry, he complains, he laughs; never a false note, never out of time, always capturing the meaning of the words and the character of the music.

[RN, pp. 68–69]
Here the nephew is no longer emulating a single comic opera character; instead he has become an entire operatic cast in a single, zany metarole that folds various characters together.47 Like the genre of comic opera, the nephew parodies styles by placing them in conversation with each other, rapidly adopting one and leaving it for the next. The scene continues:
But you would have roared with laughter at the way he impersonated the different instruments. The horns and bassoons, he did puffing his cheeks up like balloons, and making hoarse, low sounds; he made a piercing, nasal noise for the oboes; his voice catapulting up and down at incredible speed, he did as close an imitation of the strings as he could; he whistled the piccolos and cooed the flutes; shouting, singing, charging about like a madman, single-handedly doing the dancers … a whole orchestra, a whole opera company, dividing himself between twenty different roles … he was an unfortunate man, giving in to despair; he was a temple going up; birds falling silent at sunset; water burbling in a cool and solitary grove, or gushing forth in torrents from the mountain tops; a storm, a tempest, the cries of those about to perish, together with the howling of the wind and crashing of the thunder; he was night in all its darkness, he was shadow and silence, for even silence can be painted in sound.

[RN, pp. 69–70]
While opera uses orchestral instruments to aid in the depiction of character, this passage enacts a chiasmus in which the nephew portrays the characters of the various orchestral instruments. His whistling of the piccolos and cooing of the flutes is a demonstration of one way in which musical tones have the ability to create distinctive significations on their own, outside of language. By the conclusion of the passage the nephew has become affect itself. The philosopher shifts registers in his account of the nephew from concrete descriptions to abstract analogies; the nephew, no longer simply a character, is now a state of darkness, a solitary grove, a tempest.48

The nephew’s performance retraces the effect of Italian comic opera on musical discourse. He is the embodiment of the theory of affect that resulted from the querelle des bouffons; music has the power to offer up affective states directly to its audience.49 Music does not have to rely on the opera’s poetry in order to render affects in its listeners. The nephew is the logical elaboration of the new social roles scripted in this relationship, in which performers—aware of themselves as performers within the performance—are said to be the conduit of affective states rather than simply the creators of mimetic representations. Diderot uses the nephew to show us the human side of this new aesthetic system. The nephew is exceedingly malleable, virtuosic, and energetic, but precisely because he is so amenable to so many roles he is detached from them all and committed to none; he is exacting, even mechanical, “never a false note, never out of time” (RN, p. 69).50

The social role scripted for the nephew within musical aesthetics extends beyond the delimited area of the stage. The rest of his life is spent adopting various temporary jobs and taking on countless functions without having any of them stick to his person. He is a flatterer, seeking always to make others with money and power feel good about themselves and, by extension, him. When he works he does not produce tangible products but rather uses a carefully executed, perfectly harmonized science of feeling in order to put people in affective states. His entire life proceeds according to an aesthetics of affective attunement, in which he as a performer is aware of his own performances. When the philosopher attempts to tell him that “deep down” he must “possess a delicate soul,” the nephew replies: “I’ll be damned if I know what I am, deep down…. never false when it’s in my interest to be true, never true when it’s in my interest to be false” (RN, p. 48). Like the genre of comic opera, he parodies the baselessness of aristocratic convention. He is alienated from his labor in life as he is in art.

At least, this is what G. W. F. Hegel found so remarkable about the nephew and why he chose to feature Diderot’s text so prominently in the Phenomenology of Spirit. As an individual whose life is completely governed by aesthetics to the exclusion of all else, the nephew illustrates for Hegel a crucial turning point in Enlightenment subjectivity.51 The form by which he moves in and out of temporary attachments, momentary postures of flattery, and various affective dispositions does more than just render a caricature of comic opera. It also depicts a new social type: an individual thoroughly absorbed in virtuosic performances of the self who is nothing short of completely modern.

If eighteenth-century music was shaped by the emergence of the notional autonomy of art, it also provided for the history of subjectivity the model of a new aesthetic relationship. Comic opera’s parody of serious opera had the effect of challenging the neoclassical doctrine of mimesis, and musical aesthetics responded with fresh understandings of affect. In this exchange the procedures of comic mimesis undermined mimetic theory, while at the same time criticism doubled art by absorbing its style. That a comic art form should have provoked this is fitting; comedy often trades in doublings in order to mobilize the incongruities that are foundational to its operation.52 The consequences, however, precipitated a pivotal moment in the intellectual legacy of affect theory. As the Enlightenment doctrine of mimesis was fundamentally reoriented, both musical aesthetics and the modern subject were forever changed.

Roger Mathew Grant is assistant professor of music at Wesleyan University. He is the author of Beating Time and Measuring Music in the Early Modern Era (2014). His new book project investigates the relationship between the eighteenth century’s musical “doctrine of the affections” and the twenty-first century’s turn to affect.

Many thanks to David Halperin, Scott De Orio, Gavin Steingo, Michael Meere, Victoria Pitts-Taylor, the New York Seminar on Music and Mimesis, and the participants of the Comedy: An Issue conference at the University of Chicago for their helpful comments on and criticisms of this piece. I owe a special debt of gratitude to both Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai for their transformative guidance and encouragement. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.

1. “On rit à l’Opera, on y rit à gorge déployée!” ([Paul H. D. d’Holbach], Lettre a une dame d’un certain age sur l’etat présent de l’opéra [Paris, 1752], p. 2; rpt. La Querelle des bouffons: Texte des pamphlets, ed. Denise Launay, 3 vols. [Geneva, 1973], 1:122).

2. “Nous avons vû, à la honte de la Nation & de notre siècle, le Théâtre auguste de l’Opera profané par d’indignes Bâteleurs. Oui, Madame, ce spectacle si grave, si vénérable … avoir pris soin d’écarter les ris insensés & la gayeté indécente” ([d’Holbach], Lettre a une dame d’un certain age sur l’etat présent de l’opéra, p. 2; rpt. La Querelle des bouffons, 1:122).

3. The one notable exception that directly anticipated Italian comic opera’s new popularity was Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Platée, first performed in 1745. See Downing A. Thomas, “Rameau’s Platée returns: A Case of Double Identity in the Querelle des bouffons,” Cambridge Opera Journal 18, no. 1 (2006): 1–19.

4. See Catherine Kintzler, Poétique de l’opéra français de Corneille à Rousseau (Paris, 1991), esp. p. 365.

5. See Keith James Johnston, “È caso do intermedio! Comic Theory, Comic Style, and the Early Intermezzo” (PhD diss., University of Toronto, 2011), esp. pp. 178–223.

6. Notable examples include Wye Jamison Allanbrook, The Secular Commedia: Comic Mimesis in Late Eighteenth-Century Music (Berkeley, 2014); Mary Hunter, “Topics and Opera Buffa,” in The Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory, ed. Danuta Mirka (Oxford, 2014), pp. 61–89; and Daniel Heartz, From Garrick to Gluck: Essays on Opera in the Age of Enlightenment, ed. John A. Rice (Hillsdale, N.Y., 2004), esp. pp. 11–51.

7. “C’est le jouer d’Orlandini, ouvrage dans son genre même assez médiocre, qui causa dans le Parterre François de mouvemens extravagans qui ressembloient à des convulsions, des appluadissemens qui tenoient du transport, une joye excessive qui avoit l’air de la folie … Rien n’a mieux ressemblé peut-être à cette sorte de délire qui suit toujours les excès outrés des liqueurs fortes” (Élie-Catherine Fréron, “Les Spectacles de Paris ou calendrier historique et chronologique des théâtres,” in vol. 1 of L’Année littéraire ou suite des lettres sur quelques écrits de ce temps, 8 vols. [Amsterdam, 1756], 1:159–67, esp. 1:161–62). For a skeptical view on the issue of audience laughter in the Paris Opéra, see Dominique Quéro, “Rire et comique à l’Académie Royale de Musique: La Querelle du ‘bouffon’?” in La “Querelle des bouffons” dans la vie culturelle française du XVIIIe siècle, ed. Andrea Fabiano (Paris, 2005), pp. 57–72; but for a contrasting account, see David Charlton, Opera in the Age of Rousseau (Cambridge, 2012), pp. 257–64.

8. “Voglio esser rispettata, voglio esser riverita, come fossi padrona, arci padrona, padronissima” (Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, of La Serva padrona, vol. 3 of Opera Omnia di Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, ed. Francesco Caffarelli [Rome, 1941], p. 10).

9. “Ei mi par che già pian piano s’incomincia a intenerir” (ibid., pp. 37–38).

10. In Charlton’s words, “A total shift of sensibility was at stake, away from the aria or set-piece as musicalised poetry towards set-piece as musicalised emotion. Italy presented a simulacrum of sentiments expressed in ‘real time’” (Charlton, Opera in the Age of Rousseau, p. 258).

11. Pergolesi, Livietta e Tracollo, trans. and ed. Charles C. Russell, in vol. 6 of Complete Works/Opere Complete, ed. Gordana Lazarevich (Stuyvesant, N.Y., 1991), pp. 47–52; hereafter abbreviated L.

12. “Par che ci pigli gusto. Non vorrei che, fingendo, fingendo da vero poi, siccome dir si suole, avessi a dar di volta alle carriole” (L, p. 11).

13. In this sense, Tracollo embodies the tension between human life and mechanized action that Bergson identified as a hallmark of comedy; see Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell (New York, 1914).

14. In an interesting twist, he seems not to believe her when he sings, “Ah, Livietta, now you’re exaggerating. When are … ? Either hurry up and die or get up and live.” But he returns to miming her movements with the next utterance: “It looks like I’ve got the convulsions too” (L, p. 14). So contagious is the mimicry of mimicry.

15. This is what connects Tracollo—and many other comic opera characters—to the commedia dell’arte figure of the zanni. See in particular Sianne Ngai, “The Zany Science,” Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge, Mass., 2012), pp. 174–232.

16. “E dove, dove l’orso n’andò?” (Rinaldo da Capua, La zingara, ed. Eva Riccioli Orecchia [Florence, 1969], p. 43).

17. “Poveri miei ducati! Alla malora se ne sono andati!” (More precisely: “To hell if they’ve been lost!”) (ibid., pp. 43–44).

18. Although the music eventually moves to E minor before the onset of Calcante’s upcoming aria, the giddy turn figure is developed throughout.

19. Scholars have generally overlooked the early manifestations of this innovation in early opera buffa, associating it instead with opera composition in the final decades of the century. See for instance Gary Tomlinson, Metaphysical Song: An Essay on Opera (Princeton, N.J., 1999), pp. 55–61 and the examples collected in Hunter, “Topics and Opera Buffa,” pp. 83–87.

20. Bergson, Laughter, p. 37.

21. The collected pamphlets are available in facsimile as La Querelle des bouffons.

22. In this sense, the larger eighteenth-century debate on musical aesthetics can be seen as an aspect of the Enlightenment’s ongoing quarrel between the ancients and moderns; see Dan Edelstein, The Enlightenment: A Genealogy (Chicago, 2010).

23. Classic accounts of the quarrel can be found in Alfred Richard Oliver, The Encyclopedists as Critics of Music (New York, 1947), and Heartz, From Garrick to Gluck, pp. 213–54. More recent work includes the essays collected in La “Querelle des bouffons” dans la vie culturelle française du XVIIIe siècle; Thomas, “Rameau’s Platée Returns”; Jed Wentz, “Gaps, Pauses and Expressive Arms: Reconstructing the Link between Stage Gesture and Musical Timing at the Académie Royale de Musique,” Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 32, no. 4 (2009): 607–23; and Charlton, Opera in the Age of Rousseau.

24. On the stabilization of the new aesthetic category of music—as something distinct from song—see Tomlinson, “Early Modern Opera,” Metaphysical Song, pp. 34–72.

25. See [Charles Batteux], Les Beaux Arts reduits a un même principe (Paris, 1747), p. 280.

26. “C’est un bel habit séparé du corps & pendu à une cheville” ([Noël-Antoine Pluche], Le Spectacle de la nature, ou entretiens sur les particularités de l’histoire naturelle, qui ont paru les plus propres à rendre les Jeunes-Gens curieux, et à leur former l’esprit, 8 vols. [Paris, 1747], 7:115).

27. “Dans le genre Italien ne nous a peint que de petites choses…. Elle sons presque toujours dans le petit & dans le bas…. La Musique Françoise ne s’abaisse point à toutes ces puérilités” ([Jean-Baptiste-Claude Meunier, dit Rousselet, or possibly a pseudonym for Élie-Catherine Fréron] Lettres sur la musique françoise en réponse a celle de Jean-Jacques Rousseau [Geneva, 1754], pp. 25–26; rpt. La Querelle des bouffons, 1:787–88).

Des tableaux! reprit le musicien, eh! c’est où nous brillons; quelle richesse! quelle profusion dans nos Opéra Italiens! tout y est peint, jusqu’aux pleurs, aux ris, aux éternuemens; & que ne peindroient-ils pas? Votre Lulli n’avoit qu’un coloris pour chaque image, qu’il nuançoit quelquefois, mais qui y dominoit toujours; il ne connut jamais la science des détails: nous autres, nous avons des desseins variés presqu’à chaque phrase de modulation; on voit même quelquefois une seule sillabe artistement guillochée, & voltigeant legérement sur une ou deux octaves, offrir à la fois quatre images différentes. Eh! c’est cet entassement de desseins, repliqua le Lulliste, c’est ce guillochage savant qui est à cent mille lieues de la nature.

[Lettre ecrite de l’autre monde [1753], p. 25; rpt. La Querelle des bouffons, 1:367]
29. “Mais à propos, je voudrois bien que vos Philosophes du Coin de la Reine (car c’est à eux à qui j’en veux principalement) eux qui ont lû dans Aristote que les Arts sont une imitation de la Nature, qu’ils me dissent de bonne foi ce qu’on veut peindre par un point d’Orgue. Ne seroit-ce pas un yvrogne qui, foible sur les jambes, vacile, bat les murs, va, vient, glisse jusqu’à terre, se releve, & tombe enfin pour être applaudi” ([Jean-Baptiste Jourdan], Le Correcteur des bouffons a l’ecolier de Prague [1753], pp. 8–9; rpt. La Querelle des bouffons, 1:200–201).

30. See Jacqueline Waeber, “Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ‘unité de mélodie’,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 62, no. 1 (2009): 79–143.

31. “Mais la mélodie Italienne trouve dans chaque mouvement des expressions pour tous les caractéres, des tableaux pour tous les objets” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lettre sur la musique Françoise [1753], p. 68; rpt. La Querelle des bouffons, 1:740).

32. “Ainsi que le Peintre imite les traits & les couleurs de la nature, de même le Musicien imite les tons, les accens, les soûpirs, les inflexions de voix, enfin tous ces sons à l’aide desquels la nature même exprime ses sentiments & ses passions. Tous ces sons, commme nous l’avons déja exposé, ont une force merveilleuse pour nous émouvoir, parce qu’ils sont les signes des passions instituez par la nature dont ils ont reçû leur énergie” ([Jean-Baptiste Dubos,] Reflexions critiques sur la poesie et sur la peinture, 2 vols. [Paris, 1719], 1:634–35).

33. See [Fréron], Suite des lettres sur la musique françoise: En réponse a celle de Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Gevena, 1754); rpt. La Querelle des bouffons, 2:1009–39.

Cependant l’expérience nous prouve que la Musique inspire les sentimens & les passions … mais elle ne les exprime ni ne les peint. Je vous prie de vouloir bien ne pas perdre de vûe cette distinction. Je suis obligé, pour me faire entendre, d’entrer dans un examen méchanique des effets de la Musique sur le corps humain. C’est une expérience reconnue que si de deux cordes montées à l’unisson vous pincez l’une, l’autre éprouvera un frémissement très-sensible, & rendra du son. Le corps humain contient une multitude ne nerfs de différentes longueurs & de différentes grosseurs, tendus à différens dégrés. Vous sçavez que c’est par leur moyen que l’ame reçoit ses impressions. Les cordes d’harmonie que le Musicien parcourt soit dans un ton, soit dans un autre, se trouvant à l’unisson d’un nombre de nerfs plus ou moins considérable, leur font rendre ces sons, & leur font ressentir ces frémissemens, loix inviolable de la nature, & font éprouver par conséquent à l’ame des sensations quelconques, toujours plus ou moins fortes, relativement au nombre d’unissons respectifs.

[Ibid., pp. 23–24; 2:1027–28]
35. “Rendre plus sensibles les situation où le Poëte le conduit” (ibid., p. 26; 2:1030).

36. There has been a trend in historical studies of mimesis to read these eighteenth-century texts as representative of a transformation within mimetic theory rather than a move away from mimesis and toward affect. Most notable and direct on this topic is Stepehen Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems (Princeton, N.J., 2002), esp. pp. 344–81; but this interpretation is also represented to a certain degree in Gunter Gebauer and Christoph Wulf, Mimesis: Culture–Art–Society, trans. Don Reneau (Berkeley, 1995), esp. pp. 151–216 (Gunter Gebauer and Christoph Wulf’s coverage of the late eighteenth century is notably thin). Recent musicological accounts of this period in the history of aesthetics follow Halliwell’s historiography, seeing a transformation—but basic continuity—in mimetic theory through the century. Notable examples include Allanbrook, The Secular Commedia, and Emily I. Dolan, The Orchestral Revolution: Haydn and the Technologies of Timbre (Cambridge, 2013). But what these scholars take to be a new theory of mimesis I understand as something different altogether. Drawing on the historiography first suggested in M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (New York, 1953), I see these accounts as representatives of a new and growing theory of affect that provides an important historical counterpoint for the twenty-first century’s affective turn.

37. Anthony Ashley Cooper, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, ed. Lawrence E. Klein (1711; Cambridge, 1999), p. 199.

38. “La Musique est une langue” (Friedrich Melchoir Grimm, “Poeme lyrique,” in vol. 12 of Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une société de gens de lettres, ed. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert [Paris, 1765], p. 824; hereafter abbreviated “P”).

39. “La langue du musician … parle la langue de toutes les nations & de tous les siecles” (“P,” p. 824).

40. “Une langue universelle frappant immédiatement nos organes & notre imagination, est aussi par sa nature la langue du sentiment & des passions. Ses expressions allant droit au coeur, sans passer pour ainsi dire par l’esprit, doivent produire des effets inconnus à tout autre idiome” (“P,” p. 824).

41. Similar theories are elaborated later in the century. See [James Usher], Clio: or, a Discourse on Taste (London, 1767); [Michel Paul Guy de Chabanon], Observations sur la musique, et principalement sur la metaphysique de l’art (Paris, 1779); and J. J. Engel, Ueber die musikalische Malerey (Berlin, 1780), among others.

42. See [Diderot], Principes de la philosophie morale; ou Essai de M. S*** sur le merite et la vertu: Avec réflexions (Amsterdam, 1745). Another account that prefigures (and may have influenced) Fréron is found in [Rémond de Saint-Mard], Reflexions sur l’opera (The Hague, 1741), p. 10.

43. “Si on ne parle pas aussi distinctement avec un instrument qu’avec la bouche, & si les sons ne peignent pas aussi nettement la pensée que le discours, encore disent-ils quelque chose” ([Diderot], Lettre sur les sourds et muets, a l’usage de ceux que entendent qui parlent [Paris, 1751], p. 55).

>>En Musique, le plaisir de la sensation dépend d’une disposition particuliere non seulement de l’oreille, mais de tout le sistême des nerfs. S’il y a des têtes sonantes, il y a aussi des corps que j’appellerois volontiers harmoniques ; des hommes, en qui toutes les fibres oscillent avec tant de promptitude & de vivacité, que sur l’expérience des mouvemens violens que l’Harmonie leur cause, ils sentent la possibilité de mouvemens plus violens encore & atteignent à l’idée d’une sort de Musique qui les feroit mourir de plaisir.”

[(Diderot), “Lettre a mademoiselle …,” Lettre sur les sourds et muets, pp. 299–300]
45. Daniel Heartz, “Locatelli and the Pantomime of the Violinist in Le Neveu de Rameau,” Diderot Studies 27 (1998): 119.

46. Diderot, Denis Diderot’s “Rameau’s Nephew”: A Multi-Media Edition, trans. Kate E. Tunstall and Caroline Warman, ed. Marian Hobson (Cambridge, 2014), p. 66, www.openbookpublishers.com/product/216/; hereafter abbreviated RN.

47. See in this connection Ngai’s reading of both Rameau’s Nephew and The Cable Guy (dir. Ben Stiller, 1996) in Our Aesthetic Categories, pp. 189–91, 197–205.

48. As John Hamilton put it, the “doctrines of mimesis are unworked” in Diderot’s text (John T. Hamilton, Music, Madness, and the Unworking of Language [New York, 2008], p. 55). Ultimately for Hamilton this draws music closer to nonmeaning and therefore to madness.

49. Just before the pantomime quoted above, the philosopher poses to the Nephew a rather direct question on musical aesthetics: “All imitative arts have their model in nature. What model does the musician choose when he writes a song?” The nephew’s answer is a parody of the intellectual indecision surrounding this issue during the querelle: “Song is the imitation of a scale, either invented by art or inspired by nature, whichever you prefer, using either vocal or instrumental sound to imitate either physical noises or emotional accents” (RN, pp. 64, 65). The nephew almost manages to provide every position available in the debate in his list of casually tossed-off options—every position, that is, except for Diderot’s own theory of affective attunement, of which he is the embodiment.

50. In this sense the nephew is the type of supreme actor that Diderot describes in the Paradoxe sur le comédien. Indeed, Diderot uses musical harmony as the model for carefully calculated affective portrayal in that text:
Dira-t-on, ces accents si plaintifs, si douloureux, que cette mère arrache du fond de ses entrailles, et dont les miennes sont si violemment secouées, ce n’est pas le sentiment actuel qui les produit, ce n’est pas le désespoir qui les inspire? Nullement; et la preuve, c’est qu’ils sont mesurés; qu’ils font partie d’un système de déclamation; que plus bas ou plus aigus de la vingtième partie d’un quart de ton, ils sont faux; qu’ils sont soumis à une loi d’unité; qu’ils sont, comme dans l’harmonie, préparés et sauvés; qu’ils ne satisfont à toutes les conditions requises que par une longue étude; qu’ils concourent à la solution d’un problème proposé. [Tell me, what about those accents, so plaintive and dolorous, that a mother draws from the bottom of her insides, and that shake her violently—is it not a real feeling that produces them, and is it not despair that inspires them? Not at all. The proof is that they are all measured; they form part of a system of declamation and that, raised or lowered by a twentieth part of a quartertone, they ring false; they are subject to a law of unity; they are, as in harmony, prepared and resolved; and that they can only satisfy all of these required conditions after serious study.]

[Diderot, Paradoxe sur le comédien, ed. Stéphane Lojkine (1773; Paris, 1992), p. 95]
51. See G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford, 1977), §489, p. 298; on the nephew, see esp. §521–§26; pp. 316–21. On this passage in Hegel, see Jean Hyppolite, Genesis and Structure of Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit,” trans. Samuel Cherniak and John Heckman (Evanston, Ill., 1974), pp. 400–17.

52. On the incongruity theory of comedy and its intellectual precursors, see Michael Clark, “Humor and Incongruity,” in The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor, ed. John Morreall (Albany, N.Y., 1987), pp. 139–55. On incongruity theory and comic opera, see Johnston, “È caso do intermedio!” pp. 224–79.


As nouns the difference between anxiety and angst

 is that anxiety is an unpleasant state of mental uneasiness, nervousness, apprehension and obsession or concern about some uncertain event while angst is a feeling of acute but vague anxiety or apprehension often accompanied by depression, especially philosophical anxiety.

As a verb angst is

 (informal) to suffer angst; to fret. 


The term “anxiety” is to be read in the precise Lacanian sense: for Lacan, anxiety does not signal the loss of the object, but, on the contrary, its over-proximity. Anxiety arises when the objet a falls directly into reality, appears in it


One should bear in mind Lacan's lesson here: accepting guilt is a manoeuvre which delivers us of anxiety, and its presence signals that the subject compromised his desire. So when, in a move described by Kierkegaard, one withdraws from the dizziness of freedom by seeking a firm support in the order of finitude, this withdrawal itself is the true Fall. More precisely, this withdrawal is the very withdrawal into the constraints of the externally-imposed prohibitory Law, so that the freedom which then arises is the freedom to violate the Law, the freedom caught into the vicious cycle of Law and its transgression, where Law engenders the desire to "free oneself" by way of violating it, and "sin" is the temptation inherent to the Law-the ambiguity of attraction and repulsion which characterizes anxiety is now exerted not directly by freedom but by sin. The dialectic of Law and its transgression does not reside only in the fact that Law itself solicits its own transgression, that it generates the desire for its own violation; our obedience to the Law itself is not "natural," spontaneous, but always-already mediated by the (repression of the) desire to transgress it. When we obey the Law, we do it as part of a desperate strategy to fight against our desire to transgress it, so the more rigorously we OBEY the Law, the more we bear witness to the fact that, deep in ourselves, we fell the pressure of the desire to indulge in sin. The superego feeling of guilt is therefore right: the more we obey the Law, the more we are guilty, because this obedience effectively IS a defense against our sinful desire.
-Slavoj Zizek, "Anxiety: Kierkegaard with Lacan"

Friday, April 29, 2022

On Breaking Out of the Hyper-Real

Blowing Off Today's Two-Minute Hate
Who Will be Today's #Victim and Who their #Victimizer_Scapegoat?

Jacques Lacan, Four Discourses
Discourse of the Master

We see a barred subject ($) positioned as master signifier's truth, who's itself positioned as discourse's agent for all other signifiers (S2), that illustrates the structure of the dialectic of the master and the slave. The master, (S1) is the agent that puts the other, (S2) to work: the product is a surplus, objet a, that master struggles to appropriate alone. In a modern society, an example of this discourse can be found within so-called “family-like” work environments that tend to hide direct subordination under the mask of “favorable” submission to master's truth that generates value. The Master's reach for the truth in principle is fulfillment of his/her castratedness through subject's work. Based on Hegel's master–slave dialectic.
Discourse of the University

Knowledge in position of an agent is handed down by the institute which legitimises the master signifier (S1) taking the place of discourse's truth. Impossibility to satisfy one's need with a knowledge (which is a structural thing) produces a barred subject ($) as discourses sustain, and the cycle repeats itself through the primary subject being slavish to the institution values to fulfill the castratedness. The discourse's truth "knowledge " is being positioned aside of this loop and never the direct object of the subject, and the institute controls the subjects's objet a and defines the subject's master signifier's. Pathological symptom of an agent in this discourse is seeking fulfillment of their castratedness through enjoying the castratedness of their subject.
Discourse of the Analyst

The position of an agent — the analyst — is occupied by objet a of the analysand. Analyst's silence leads to reverse hysterization, as such the analyst becomes a mirror of question himself to the analysand, thus embodies barred subject's desire that lets his symptom speak itself through speech and thus be interpreted by the analyst. The master signifier of the analysand emerges as a product of this role. Hidden knowledge, positioned as discourse's truth (S2) stands for both analyst interpretation technique and knowledge acquired from the subject.
Discourse of the Hysteric 
Despite its pathological aura, hysteric's discourse exhibits the most common mode of speech, blurring the line between clinical image and the otherness of social settings. Object a truth is defined by interrogative nature of subject's address (Who am I?) as well as tryst for satisfaction of knowledge. This mutually drives the barred subject and turns on the agent's master signifiers. It leads the agent to produce a new knowledge (discourse's product) in a futile attempt to provide a barred subject with an answer to fulfill subject's castratedness (Lacan in Discourse of the Analyst breaks the pathological cycle of it by purposefully leaving the question unanswered, reversing the discourse and putting an analyst in a place of hysteric's desire). However, object a of the subject is search for the agent's object a, thus without being a subject like in the 'Discourse of the University' the Hysteric ends up gathering knowledge instead of their object a truth.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Zombie Time

Another head hangs lowly
Child is slowly taken
And the violence cause of silence
Who are we mistaken?

But you see, it's not me, it's not my family
In your head, in your head they are fighting
With their tanks and their bombs
And their bombs and their guns
In your head, in your head, they are crying

In your head, in your head
Zombie, zombie, zombie
Hey, hey, hey
What's in your head, in your head
Zombie, zombie, zombie?
Hey, hey, hey, hey
Oh, do, do, dou, do, do, dou, do, do
Dou, do, do, dou, dou, do, do, dou

Another mother's breaking
Heart is taking over
When the violence 'causes silence
We must be mistaken

It's the same old theme since 1916
In your head, in your head they're still fighting
With their tanks and their bombs
And their bombs and their guns
In your head, in your head they are dying

In your head, in your head
Zombie, zombie, zombie
Hey, hey, hey
What's in your head, in your head?
Zombie, zombie, zombie
Hey, hey, hey, hey
Oh, oh, oh oh, oh, oh, oh, hey, oh, yeah, yeah
On Zombie Consumerism

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Future Dislocations

Slavoj Zizek, "Futures of Freedom"
What have we inherited from the West?

Bernard Herrmann’s clarinet quintet “Souvenirs de voyage” (1967) opens up with the same melodic line that he used a decade earlier in the beginning of the most famous piece (scene d’amour) from his score of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). We are dealing here with a nice case of dislocation, of tearing an element (a melodic line, in this case) out from its context and placing it into a different context in which it is subordinated to a space regulated by different logic. In our case, the same melodic line is first (in Vertigo) the opening moment of a movement that inexorably leads towards a Romantic crescendo, heavily relying on Wagner’s Tristan, while its reprisal in the quintet remains firmly within the pre-Wagnerian space of a theme and its variations. The surprising element here is the regressive direction of this shift: first a Romantic push towards a climactic crescendo, then the step back to a more classical space in which such crescendos are excluded.

Such a notion of dislocation is a key dialectical concept whose proper use enables to dispel some key misunderstandings that haunt Hegel’s notion of Aufhebung (sublation). Let’s take a different case from the sphere of decolonization. Rejecting the idea of the Haitian Revolution as the true consummation of the ideals of French Revolution, Jean Casimir argues in his The Haitians: A Decolonial History that “Haiti dislocates rather than consummates the project of modernity.” Casimir’s critique is directed at all those (me including) who see in the Haitian Revolution the universalization and radicalization of the French Revolution: only through its repetition in Haiti does the French Revolution really become a world-historical event with universal meaning. In this sense, Haitian Revolution is the Aufhebung of the French Revolution: the full actualization of its potentials, its repetition at a higher level. From the standpoint of the predominant postcolonial thought, such a view is all too “Eurocentric”: if the Haitian Revolution is reduced to the deployment of the immanent potentials of the French Revolution, then – to put it in Hegelese – the French Revolution, a European phenomenon, is the over-reaching notion and Haitian Revolution remains a subordinate moment of its self-deployment. Even if Haitians were “more French than the French themselves,” even if they went further and were more consequent than the French, they were part of the European dynamic process.

Dislocation, on the contrary, means that elements are thoroughly re-contextualized, integrated into a new symbolic and social space which confers on them a new meaning unrelated to the original meaning – one can in no way “deduce” this new meaning from the original one. Let’s take equality, a notion which originates in modern European thought. Although many advocates of equality worked to expand this notion also to women, other races, etc., such an expansion remains within the scope of the Western notion of equality. When a true other (Black slaves, exemplarily) appropriates equality, this notion is not just expanded but transposed in a different domain which radically affects its functioning – the unease with Black Lives Matter proves this abundantly. Furthermore, is the entire history of Marxism and Communist revolutions not a history of dislocations? In spite of Lenin’s abundant quotes from Marx, Lenin effectively transposes Marx into a radically different historical situation in which the revolution was executed by a narrow party of professionals and won by addressing non-proletarian issues (land and peace). Mao Zedong did something even more radical: against Marx and Engels vision, he moved from workers to farmers in the countryside as the revolutionary force – something unimaginable for Marx and Engels. Again, in each of these two cases, we are not talking about a continuous expansion but about a radical dislocation – no wonder that in both cases, orthodox Marxists opposed the reorientation (the basic reproach of Mensheviks to Lenin was that, in a non-Marxist way, he wants a revolution before the circumstances for it are ripe).
We should also bear in mind that capitalism as such involves a process of continuous dislocation. Capitalism originated in Europe but then gradually expanded into a global economic order, and this expansion was not continuous, it involved radical dislocations. Not only was capitalism from the very beginning linked to colonization and new rise of slavery, but it also changed with the emergence of strong non-European capitalist countries like Japan, India and now China. Incidentally, it is interesting to note how the same postcolonial Leftists who decry every expansion of equality and democracy as a dislocation and not a continuous development always insist that capitalism is “Eurocentric”, attributed to Europe: even if it appears in China, India, etc., capitalism remains European. The underlying premise is clear: when a progressive idea like equality and democracy is expanded into a Third World, it involves a radical dislocation and is no longer European, but the “bad” capitalism remains a foreign (European) intruder… This mistake is serious because it misses the key fact that capitalism is actually universal, trans-cultural, indifferent towards particular cultures: it is not dislocated from one culture and then appropriated by another, it rather stands for a universal dislocation from cultural space as such.

At this point, we can return to the relationship between the Hegelian sublation and dislocation: the approach which opposes the two (as we have seen with Casimir apropos Haiti) misses a key feature of the Hegelian dialectical process, as it reduces subject to a dynamized Substance. The critics dismiss the Hegelian notion of democracy-and-equality as an all-encompassing substantial entity which gradually actualizes its immanent potentials, passing from one to another particular figure but remaining the same ground of the entire process. Say, the state goes through the stages of Asiatic despotic state, Ancient slave-owning democracy, feudal monarchy, modern authoritarian state, etc., but all of these are particular formations which emerge as the immanent deployment of the same notion of State. But is this the case? If we remain at this abstract level, we have to add at least two points. First, for Hegel, the full consummation of an idea (when reality fits its idea) always implies the self-negation of this idea itself; say, the reality of states never fully fit the idea of state – when this happens, we no longer have a state but we pass into a religious community.

Second and more important, in a dialectical process, predicate always passes into subject: what was at the beginning a subordinate particular moment of the process asserts itself as its subject and retroactively posits its presuppositions as its own moments (“predicates”). So, again, it is not the same Subject which goes from one to another particular figure, remaining the same agent which pulls the strings and controls the entire movement: what Hegel calls “Absolute” is the very process in which radical reversals happen and a predicate turns into a new Subject. Every dialectical passage is thus a form of dislocation: the previous Substance is dislocated into a new encompassing universality. It is not the same Universality which passes from one to another particular form – in each passage, Universality itself is dislocated, it is reduced to a subordinate moment of a new Universality. Let’s take the passage from money to capital described by Marx: in pre-capitalist market exchange, money is a mediator of the exchange between producers which disappears in the final result (when I sell what I produced and buy what I need); with capitalism, however, money becomes capital, the subject (active agent) of the entire process. Although, from my individual standpoint, I produce (and sell) things so that I will get (other) things that I need (or desire) for my life, with capitalism, the true goal of the entire process is the expanded self-reproduction of capital itself – my needs and their satisfaction are just subordinated moments of capital’s self-reproduction. In this sense, social production is radically dislocated, reduced to a subordinate moment of the capital’s reproduction.

Back to Haiti, what further complicates the picture is that the tension between imitating Europe and breaking out of European modernity is inscribed into the very heart of the revolutionary process. Toussaint Louverture, the first leader of free Haiti, insisted on the equality of all races and rejected any privileging of the Blacks, plus, although he formally abolished slavery, he simultaneously imposed obligatory work (plantation workers had to remain at their post so that production went on). The two leaders who came after him, Dessalines and Christophe, enacted the anti-White turn (all non-Blacks, with the exception of Poles who supported the revolution, were massacred), but mandatory work remained. So, for ex-slaves, things didn’t change a lot. During Christophe’s reign, Haiti was divided into two states: Christophe ruled as the emperor of the northern part and Alexandre Petion governed the republic in the southern part. While the North turned into a half-feudal authoritarian imitation of a European modern state focused on boosting production and wealth (concentrated in the hands of the ruling Black elite), in the republic in the South, land was distributed to small farmers who survived in a self-subsistent economy with low productivity. Although some commentators celebrate the South as an attempt to develop new communal forms of life as an alternative to European modernity, the experiment soon failed. A further paradox to be noted here is that the anti-White shift from equality of races to Black domination, which occurred with Dessalines, coincided with the rise of authoritarian class structure with the Emperor at the top, which imitated the worst of European authoritarian modernity.

Similar paradoxes are already discernible in the case of Paraguay: before it was destroyed by the Spanish-Portuguese intervention, Paraguay under the domination of the Jesuit order which organized indigenous tribes into reducciones (missions) was not only an early form of Communism but was also much closer to cultural independence than Argentina or Brasil. Jesuits were already printing books in the Guarani language (which is even today spoken by the majority in Paraguay), so if Jesuits were not thrown out, the history of Latin America would take a different turn, with the aboriginal language becoming one of the official state languages. Throughout modern history, Jesuits were as a rule much more progressive than Franciscans, although (or precisely because) Jesuits were organized as dogmatic fanatics while Franciscans emphasized poverty and spiritual inner life. Even today, Jesuits are the bastion of the Catholic Left while many Franciscans are neo-Fascists. Brecht was right to copy (“dislocate”) Jesuits sacred propaganda theatrical pieces in his Communist “learning plays.”

The point of these remarks is a very simple one: to complicate the standard binary of Eurocentrism versus postcolonial thought. What if the two are inextricably linked? What if European influence is not only an obstacle to decolonization, what if it can help it? When we dream about a postcolonial future, it is crucial that we take into account such paradoxes.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Ukraine Again


Vladimir Putin’s war engine is being sustained not just by European payments for Russian oil and gas but also by a complicit class of “lumpen-bourgeoisie” motivated solely by the trappings of material wealth. Ukrainians, and everyone else, are learning the hard way how global capitalism trumps democracy and human rights.

LJUBLJANA – The so-called oligarchs in Russia and other ex-communist countries are a bourgeois counterpart to what Marx called the lumpen-proletariat: an unthinking cohort susceptible to political manipulation because its members have no class consciousness or revolutionary potential of their own. Unlike the proletariat, however, the lumpen-bourgeoisie who emerged in these countries from the late 1980s onward control capital – lots of it – thanks to wild “privatization” of state-owned assets.

An exemplary case is Rok Snežič, a collaborator and friend of Slovenia’s right-wing prime minister, Janez Janša. An “independent tax adviser,” Snežič helps Slovene companies redomicile in the lower-tax jurisdiction of Republika Srpska (the Serb part of Bosnia and Herzegovina). He apparently has no private possessions, and he has erased his own past tax bills by declaring bankruptcy.

Yet Snežič also cruises around in new luxury cars and has the means to pay for jumbo billboard ads. He is officially employed by a company owned by his wife, where he receives a monthly salary of €37,362 ($40,346) in cash.

But “normal” capitalism also generates a lumpen-bourgeoisie. Snežič is not so different from Donald Trump, who similarly thrives precisely because he stands for nothing, motivated solely by money and the trappings of material wealth.

Market values have also determined the contours of Russia’s war in Ukraine, whose president, Volodymyr Zelensky, appears to have had a crash course in how global capitalism and democracy really work. Since the start of the war, Europe has sent Russia almost $40 billion in payments for oil and gas, prompting his observation that Western countries are more concerned about rising energy prices than Ukrainian lives. The capitalist market – the one that has been fueling the Russian war engine – has forsaken Ukraine.

Ending this bloody trade would require governments to abandon their reliance on market mechanisms and start organizing energy supply directly, as would addressing the global food crises that Russia’s war is generating. (In addition to being two of the world’s biggest wheat exporters, Russia and Ukraine are also major sources of chemical fertilizers for Europe.) Paradoxically, only measures recalling the newborn Soviet Union’s “war communism” can save Ukraine and preserve Western power. After all, Russia is coordinating with China not only to challenge the West geopolitically but also to depose the US dollar and the euro as global currencies.

Given that Western solidarity is limited by economic interests, the Ukrainians will have to accept that “defending Europe” is not enough. Ukraine is also defending the Russian people from the self-destructiveness of their president, Vladimir Putin, and his lumpen-bourgeoisie.

In a recent commentary published by the Russian state-owned news agency RIA News, Timofey Sergeytsev presents the full scope of the Kremlin’s genocidal project in Ukraine. The basic premise is that Ukraine needs to be “denazified,” and thus de-Europeanized, because “a significant part of the people – most likely the majority – has been mastered and drawn into the Nazi regime in its politics. As such, the hypothesis, ‘the people are good, and the government is bad’ does not work.”

Sergeytsev not only equates Ukrainian politics with Nazism. He also claims that “ukronazism” poses an even greater threat to the world and Russia than Hitlerite Nazism did. Even the name “Ukraine” must be eliminated.

So, Russia plans to do with Ukraine what Bertolt Brecht describes in his 1953 poem “The Solution”: dissolve the people and elect another. By reading Sergeytsev’s mad ravings alongside Putin’s claim that Lenin invented Ukraine, we can discern the current Russian position. Ukraine has two fathers: Lenin, who invented it, and Hitler, who inspired today’s “ukronazis” to actualize Lenin’s invention.

What, then, does this imply for Russia’s geopolitical situation? According to Sergeytsev:

“Russia has a high potential for partnerships and allies with countries that the West has oppressed for centuries, and which are not going to put on its yoke again. Without Russian sacrifice and struggle, these countries would not have been liberated. The denazification of Ukraine is at the same time its decolonization, which the population of Ukraine will have to understand as it begins to free itself from the intoxication, temptation, and dependence of the so-called European choice.”

In other words, Russia must radically reorient, breaking its links with the West to forge new ties with all those countries that were brutally exploited by Western colonial powers. It is Russia that will lead a global process of decolonization.

Western imperial powers’ brutal exploitation of the Global South is a truth that must never be forgotten. But it is strange to hear such talk from Russia, with its long history of such behavior. In the eighteenth century, Catherine the Great conquered southeastern Ukraine and territory from Siberia to Alaska to Northern California. Now, we are told that Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine will be “decolonized” by way of…Russian colonization. Territories will be liberated against the will of their people (who will have to be re-educated or otherwise dissolved).

If a new world war is to be avoided, it will be through a “hot peace,” with massive military investments sustaining a fragile new balance of power. The fragility of the situation stems not just from conflicting economic interests but also from conflicting interpretations of reality, which is not just about settling facts.

But simply trying to prove that Russian claims are false misses the point made by Aleksandr Dugin, Putin’s court philosopher: “Post-modernity shows that every so-called truth is a matter of believing. So we believe in what we do, we believe in what we say. And that is the only way to define the truth. So we have our special Russian truth that you need to accept.”

Faith, it seems, overrides knowledge. According to the “special Russian truth,” Russia’s soldiers left behind no corpses of brutalized civilians in Bucha and other Ukrainian cities and towns; Western propagandists supposedly staged those atrocities.

Given these circumstances, Westerners must stop proposing that Zelensky meet with Putin to negotiate a peace settlement. That is a fool’s errand. Any eventual negotiations will have to be conducted by lower-level bureaucrats. Putin and his inner circle are criminals who must be ignored as much as possible. Ultimately, a significant share of the Russian population must see this.

In the former Yugoslavia, corrupt policemen were the butt of many jokes. In one of them, a policeman returns home unexpectedly and finds his wife alone in bed, half-naked and aroused. Suspecting that her lover is hiding under the bed, he bends down and looks. A few seconds later, he pops back up, mumbles, “Everything’s okay, nobody is there,” and quickly shoves a wad of banknotes into his pocket.

In a way, all of us are that policeman, accepting misery and humiliation as the price of some form of surplus enjoyment. In Russia, the suffering population is compensated not with banknotes but with cheap patriotic pride. And in the West, we allow the market to dictate the strength of our commitment to human rights in Ukraine and elsewhere.

On Interpassivity

A Big "If---"

Rudyard Kipling, "If—"
(‘Brother Square-Toes’—Rewards and Fairies)

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!