Peter, Paul, and Mary at the Washington Monument
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Edited by Annie J. Randall Music, Power, and Politics


Who's Listening?

Bennett Hogg

Chapter Excerpt

Audio technology is both a medium and a form of mediation. Its significance as a principal constituent element of our contemporary musical life has not been achieved through some immanent force of its own, but rather by the ways in which it has interacted with, and participated in, relations of power. In this it is not exceptional; all cultural phenomena depend on their interactions with power in order to become meaningful. According to Foucault, power, running continuously through society and occurring in every aspect of a society’s activities, “is everywhere, not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere” (Foucault 1984, 93). This chapter on music and power starts from this position that power is not something that belongs to some and not to others; rather than something applied to it, power is produced by society. One of the most explicit uses of media technologies in the service of power is surveillance. That surveillance is a concern of power would not be generally contested; that surveillance can provide models for a hermeneutics exploring power in recorded music might be. However, such a speculative, interdisciplinary account is precisely what I concern myself with in this chapter.Where “traditional” musicology has dealt with issues of power, it has usually been figured as the power that music has over us, the bodily or emotional effects of music acting directly upon the human subject. Those positivist historical discourses concerned with the ways in which music per se is used in the service of the state or the dominant class only engage the surface of this topic; they tend to operate at the register of empirically observable, explicit “uses” of music, a frequently deterministic discourse of “cause and effect.” There is a strong sense in which “traditional” musicology, in its reliance on the ideology of musical autonomy, has tended to distance (and even isolate) music from the social, and thereby from concerns of power.

Causality, if it is allowed as the only meaningful paradigm of discourse, can be a notoriously unreliable mechanism.  It is not especially revealing to think about the relations of music and power quite so deterministically. If Foucault’s account of power is concerned with more polymorphous operations of power, some of them entangled with other power relations, some of them more embedded or concealed in what we might call the “cultural imagination.” If power does come “from everywhere,” then we might reasonably expect to encounter it “everywhere,” in which case we might also expect it to be manifest in a multiplicity of guises whose interrelationships, in keeping with the Foucauldian terminology, we can figure as “constellations.” My account takes the form of a speculative cartography (perhaps astronomy would be a more apt   term) of a (constructed and selective, admittedly) constellation of power relations within whose ambit recorded music, surveillance, ideologies about authenticity and authoriality, notions of property, territory, and ownership, and certain culturally embedded ambiguities of the status of the subject located in the “grey area” between listening and being listened to, between observing and being observed, can be positioned.

Perhaps it goes without saying that in such an account, the various relations with power cannot be expected to map neatly or directly onto one another, but I believe that the process of attempting such a remapping points toward places where the production practices and public use of music mediated by technology can be revealed as constitutive participants in the constellation of power relations with which this essay is concerned.

Sitting somewhere near the center of all of this are two stories from the war in Bosnia and Hercegovina (1992–1995); it is through trying to arrive at a theoretical interpretation of these stories that I was initially lead to formulate and research the main ideas in this essay. It should be clear that I tend toward an understanding of theory as an investigative tool rather than as an post facto rationalization of positivistically determined patternings, although I doubt whether anyone could ever claim to be able to be entirely consistent in this. To put it another way, this is written in the acknowledgement of the fact that insofar as theory can proceed from data, it is also frequently responsible for the generation of the same.

Music, Power, and Politics Copyright 2004 Routledge Contact email