On Poptimism, Race, & Biopolitics in the Nietzsche/Wagner Beef

In my Theories of Sound & Music class we studied the Nietzsche/Wagner beef, and there are two themes I want to mark here so we can return to them later when we talk about poptimism, on the one hand, and neoliberalism/Attali/Foucault on the other. For y’all not in the class, this provides some useful 19th c context for phenomena we generally locate in the late 20th c.


Poptimism and race

Nietzsche’s rejection of Wagner came down to Wagner’s view that art could reveal hidden metaphysical Truth, a “what” behind the “how” of technique. In his essay “On Judaism in Music,” Wagner uses racist descriptions of Yiddish to draw what Jennifer Stoever has called (in reference to 19th and 20th century US contexts) a “sonic color line”: “this mode of speaking acquires at once the character of an intolerably jumbled blabber (eines unertraglich verwirrten Geplappers); so that when we hear this Jewish talk, our attention dwells involuntarily on its repulsive how, rather than on any meaning of its intrinsic what.” This “how” vs “what” distinction is key; here, Wagner marks a hierarchical distinction between outer surface and inner content. It’s the artist’s job to present that true inner content to audiences, and that content is precisely what Wagner argues Jewish artists aren’t capable of conveying:

he merely listens to the barest surface of our art, but not to its life-bestowing inner organism; and through this apathetic listening alone, can he trace external similarities with the only thing intelligible to his power of view, peculiar to his special nature. To him, therefore, the most external accidents on our domain of musical life and art must pass for its very essence.

Nietzsche, on the other hand, argues that because existence itself has no deep, metaphysical reality behind it, the best and truest art doesn’t pretend to posit a “what” behind its “how.” He concludes “Nietzsche Contra Wagner” with this paragraph:

“Oh, those Greeks! They knew how to live. What is required for that is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, words, in the whole Olympus of appearance. Those Greeks were superficial–out of profundity. And is not this precisely what we are again coming back to, we daredevils of the spirit who have climbed the highest and most dangerous peak of present thought and looked around from up there–we who have looked down from there? Are we not, precisely in this respect, Greeks? Adorers of forms, tones, of words? And therefore–artists?” (683).

Forms, tones, words, surfaces–Nietzsche’s directing us to the “how” and arguing that this is the best and most important part of art. This is also what all the “music is a woman” (NCW 668) stuff is about. I talk about this extensively in this article and the last chapter of this book. In The Gay Science (and elswhere), Nietzsche argues that Italian opera is superior to German/Wagner’s opera because it doesn’t pretend to be about anything beyond aesthetic pleasure…And if you know anything about the history of white people, then you know that in Nietzsche’s time Italians weren’t really or fully “white” (I talk about this extensively in that previously cited article). So here we have Nietzsche leveraging femininity and racial non-whiteness to argue for the value of superficial, spectacular aesthetic pleasure over and above art with serious and/or deep representational content…Sounds a lot like the poptimism/rockism debate about 100 years later in the English-language music press, no? My point here is to show that the philosophical roots of that debate are long.


Health and Rhythm (i.e., biopolitics)

Both in the Genealogy of Morals and in “Nietzsche Contra Wagner,” Nietzsche advocates the rejection of traditional normative categories–ethics and aesthetics–in favor of “health” (NCW 664). For example, he argues that “My objections to the music of Wagner are physiological objections: why should I trouble to dress them up in aesthetic formulas? After all, aesthetics is nothing but a kind of applied physiology” (NCW 664). The use of health as a normative category is one of the features that Foucault argues defines biopolitics–it governs and manages life and health, not subjects or rights or whatever. For Foucault, statistics are the tool that neoliberal biopolitics uses to do that: “the mechanisms introduced by biopolitics include forecasts, statistical estimates, and overall measures” (SMBD 246). Biopolitics measures rates–death rates, birth rates, morbidity rates…the frequency of a trait across a population.

For Nietzsche, health is also a matter of rate. He just frames it as one of musical rhythm rather than statistical distribution. Immediately following the quote in the previous paragraph, Nietzsche states that his physiological objections are rhythmic, related to both the rhythms of cardiopulminory circulation and the pace of bodily movement: “I no longer breathe easily when this music begins to affect me; that my foot soon resents it and rebels: my foot feels the need for rhythm, dance, march–to Wagner’s ‘Kaiser-marsch’ not even the young German Kaiser could march–it demands of music first of all those delights which are found in good walking, striding, dancing” (664). So, for Nietzsche, healthy music is defined by its rate, pace, or rhythm. But what makes a healthy rate, pace, or rhythm? “Easy, bold, exuberant, self-assured rhythms” (NCS 664) are preferable. Nietzsche further explains what he means by this in his contrast between “swimming” as a characterization of Wagnerian infinite melody and the older, dance-based instrumental music of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The intention pursued by recent music with what is now vigorously, but not at all clearly, called ‘infinite melody,’ can be clarified by an illustration. One walks into the sea, gradually loses one’s secure footing, and finally surrenders oneself to the elements without reservation: one must SWIM. In older music, what one had to do in the dainty, or solemn, or fiery back and forth, quicker and slower, was something quite different, namely, to DANCE. The measure required for this, the maintenance of certain equally balanced units of time and force, demanded continual wariness of the listener’s soul–and on the counterplay of this cooler breeze that came from wariness and the warm breath of enthusiasm rested the magic of all GOOD music. Richard Wagner wanted a different kind of movement; he overthrew the physiological presupposition of previous music. Swimming, floating–no longer walking and dancing” (NCW 666).

Think, for example, of quantized regularity of even, say Mozart as compared to, say, the Overture to Tristan & Isolde: the former has far clearer “equally balanced units of time and force” as compared to the latter, where that is harder to discern. For Nietzsche, health is a matter of rational, quantized flow…just as it is in biopolitical normalization. Recognizing that Nietzsche thinks health is a matter of rational, quantized rhythm significantly impacts how we understand his normative work: he’s arguing for what his best(?) interpreter will later identify as biopolitics.