The Role of Music in Rousseau’s Non-Ideal Domination Contract–Or, why you should read my book

I’ve been reading Carole Pateman’s and Charles Mills’s Contract & Domination, prepping it to teach later this term in my graduate Feminist Theory class. Here, I want to talk about Mills’s discussion of the early, Discourses-era Rousseau, because I think the analysis of Rousseau’s early musical writings that I do in chapter 2 of The Conjectural Body helps explain how and why Rousseau arrived at this (non-ideal) version of the contract, and how and why he will later overlook it in The Social Contract.
Mills reads, as I do, two Rousseaus: an early, more politically radical one, and a later, more classically liberal one. Mills argues that the early Rousseau is the only instance, in classical contract theory, of a non-ideal theorization of contract as domination. He explains:
Rousseau’s famous contract is of course the second one, the agreement described in The Social Contract…in Rousseau’s earlier Discourse on Inequality, he also describes, albeit very briefly, a fraudulent contract imposed on the poor by the rich under the pretext of guaranteeing the rights of all. Thus he is the only theorist in the classical tradition to expressly use the contract idea to map and theorize injustice…It is clearly an exercise in non-ideal theory. (115).
What causes Rousseau to “see” and account for domination in his early writings, but gloss over them later on? As I argue in the book, when he’s thinking about politics alongside and through music, he pays attention to those non-ideal details that would lead one to conclude that the “state of nature” is neither natural, nor a “neutral” starting point free of inequality. When he stops thinking about music, and just theorizes about politics, he forgets his ties to non-ideal histories and materialities. So, the difference between non-ideal, domination-contract recognizing Rousseau and ideal-theorizing, domination-contract making Rousseau is music. His understanding of music is really deep, thorough, and careful. It is his rigorous understanding of the cultural specificity of musical practices—arrived at through his infamous and furiously heated debates with composer/theorist Jean-Phillipe Rameau—that forces him to recognize the fact that “nature” or “the original position” or whatever you want to call it is always-already structured by social values, assumptions, etc. He knows that in music, there is no neutral, universal starting-point.
Rousseau’s always fairly “ideal” about politics; it’s his understanding of music that is non-ideal. He only modifies his politics when he has music on the brain. Or, he’s a more responsible political theorist when he’s working on/through music. Because I’ve already made this argument in my book, I”ve decided to paste some selected passages—that you can and should read in context!—to give you all a preview of how and why music is so important for understanding Rousseau’s “non-ideal” domination contract. These are excerpts, so they’re somewhat disjointed.
(1): When thinking about music, Rousseau is aware of Eurocentrism, and tries to avoid it:
Rousseau asserts that
[i]f the major impact of our sensations upon us is not due to moral causes, then why are we so sensitive to impressions which are meaningless to barbarians? Why is music that moves us but an empty noise to the ear of a Carib? Are his nerves of a different nature from ours? Why are they not excited in the same way, or why do the same excitations affect some people so strongly and others hardly at all? (EOL, 289).
Interestingly—and perhaps even astonishingly given the Eurocentrism that pervades even this short quotation—Rousseau does not use the perceived inability of non-Europeans to fully appreciate European art music as music as evidence of their physical difference and justification for their subordination. Instead, he assumes that every human shares a relatively similar physiological composition, and that differences in sound perception arise from varying social norms and cultural contexts. Anatomically, at birth our ears are all more or less identical. However, insofar as these ears are trainedto recognize specific sounds, timbres, and pitches as significant, each society produces radically different organs. For example, the European ear, cultivated to a system which divides the octave into twelve semitones, recognizes only twelve different pitches; the South Asian ear, however, shaped by ragas which utilize a variety of quartertones, hears perfect pitches where the European ear hears only out-of-tune squawking.17
(2) When talking about music, Rousseau recognizes that Europeans’ accounts of “the State of Nature” are really just insidious attempts to naturalize/normalize/universalize European cultural assumptions, values, etc. Or, Rousseau understands that what Europeans say is the “original position” is not at all “original,” but deeply structured by pre-existing discourses and relationships.
Making an observation that will not arise again until the 1920s with the Second Viennese School, Rousseau calls Rameau’s bluff: drawing on ancient Greek and non-Western musical conventions and practices, Rousseau demonstrates that Rameau’s theories are far more normative than they are simply descriptive. Noting Western music’s arbitrary privileging of certain pitches, or ways of identifying intervals and pitches, Rousseau argues that the “peculiar prerogative” given to the intervals which make up the major triad, their supposed “naturalness,” is “only a property of calculation” (ETP, 273), that is, a privilege which does not arise from nature, but from convention. Rousseau explains, “It is, therefore, neither because the sounds that make up the perfect chord resonate with the fundamental sound, nor because they correspond to the aliquots of the entire String,…that they have been exclusively chosen to make up the perfect chord” (ETP, 273). More simply, Western music theory privileges the octave, major third, and fifth not because they are “inherent” within or natural to frequencies we recognize as sound, but because these are the most obvious to us, given our methods and instruments of analysis and their predispositions and limitations. ..
Indeed, Rousseau’s strongest proof against the “naturalness” of Rameau’s system lies in the fact that the more famous theorist cannot account for other conventions like the minor mode (and its lowered third), the Neapolitan chord, voice leading, and various other widely used musical practices. As Rousseau notes, “I have spoken only of the Major Perfect Chord. What shall be done when one must show the generation of the Minor Mode, of the dissonance, and the rules of Modulation? I instantly lose sight of nature, arbitrariness riddles every part, the pleasure of the ear itself is the work of habit” (ETP, 274; emphasis mine). Juxtaposing the ear (a physiological organ) and habit, Rousseau explicitly claims that seemingly “natural” phenomena like hearing are necessarily educated by “habit,” convention, and culture.
To further explain his critique of Rameau’s naturalism, Rousseau turns to Rameau’s argument that every person has an innate sense of the octave, major third, and fifth, and can accurately recognize and produce them at will. “M. Rameau claims that an ignorant person will naturally intone the most perceptible fundamental sounds, as, for example, in the key of a do [the root] a sol [the fifth]” (ETP, 276). It is not so much the results of Rameau’s survey that Rousseau disputes, but his sample. Given Rameau’s Western European subjects, it is probably true that all had a relative sense of do-mi-sol intervallic relationships; even the most rural and poor populations were exposed to and educated by church hymns. Because people in Tokyo, Delhi, and Cairo practice music which does not necessarily utilize this system of harmony, the question remains: “What subjects has he used for this test?” (ETP, 276). Obviously, it is Parisians, or those from the province—that is, Westerners, “[p]eople who, without knowing music, have heard Harmony and Chords a hundred times, so that the impression of the harmonic intervals and the progression corresponding to the Parts in the most frequent passages had stayed in their ears, and were transmitted to their voices without even suspecting it” (ETP, 276). Even though many of us may be able to sing a sol-do interval like it was “second nature”—indeed, most without even knowing what a fifth-relationship even is—this vocal capacity is the culmination of significant, if informal, ear training. As we walk through town and hear the bells toll the hour, as we watch television and listen to an unending glut of advertisements, as we listen to music on our commute to work, as we wander through the grocery store, as we perform even the most mundane tasks of daily life, we are literally bombarded with examples of octaves, thirds, fifths, and chords consisting in their combinations. This “voice,” then, the voice of singing speech (and, notably, the voice that Derrida wrongly puts forth as Rousseau’s index and epitome of “pure presence”) which appears to be “innate” and “natural” to human beings, is in fact the coincidence of various cultural forces, habits, and conventions. Rousseau’s argument here is that music is not a natural phenomenon so much as it is a social product and cultural force. He explains, “[M]ere noise says nothing to the mind, objects have to speak in order to make themselves heard” (EOL, 288).
From a Rousseauian perspective, one could say that nature is not at all found in Rameau’s arguments, for this “nature” is theorizable only in hypothetical terms. What Rameau posits as a factual claim is in fact a moral claim—indeed, as I discussed above, one of Rousseau’s main objections to Rameau’s theory is that it is an inaccurate account of the physics of sound, an “ideal” that obfuscates empirical fact. Rousseau’s point in the Essay and the First Discourse is that it is impossible to make appeals to “nature” that are not already moral; this is why his histories are always emphatically conjectural. Rousseau’s claims about the always-already-social materiality of music set the groundwork for his—and my—notion of conjecture, which I develop in the later sections of this chapter. 
(3) Putting the musical writing in context of the Discourse on Inequality
Even though his first task in investigating the origin of inequality is to understand how humans were in the State of Nature, prior to socially instituted privilege and oppression, Rousseau repeatedly emphasizes that such understanding is impossible. He takes several different approaches to argue this point. First, he returns to a theme of the First Discourse: namely, the misleading and corrupting character of scientific knowledge. In attempting to gain objective, “scientific” evidence about the state of Nature, we actually further remove ourselves from it and, ironically, thwart our own aims. “[I]n a sense,” explains Rousseau, “it is by dint of studying man that we have made it impossible for us to know him” (D2, 124). This irony results from the fact that there is no neutral, objective, unbiased epistemic model with which to approach Nature, a claim which forms Rousseau’s second approach. All forms and means of knowing are possible because habitually-concretized filters allow us to make sense of the infinite data with which we are presented; these filters reflect the biases, presuppositions, limitations, strengths, and idiosyncrasies of their situation. Accordingly, Rousseau claims that there is no view from nowhere, but that “all the scientific books…only teach us to see men as they have made themselves” (D2, 127). Nature is unknowable because reflection upon this state returns our own image—one which we have sketched—to us. If we can never have certain knowledge of Nature, Rousseau acknowledges in his third approach to this problem, we can’t be sure that Nature is “real” and not, in fact, a figment of our imaginations. Nature is “a state which no longer exists, which perhaps never did exist, which probably never will exist” (D2, 125; emphasis mine). Devoting the entirety of the preface to deconstructing his contemporaries’ claims about the state of Nature as one of originary purity and pure presence, Rousseau clearly believes that “nature” is at best a myth. This is why he offers the caveat that, regarding Nature, he “shall form vague and almost imaginary conjectures on this subject” (D2, 134; emphasis mine).
If nature is basically a retroactively constructed fiction used to explain and justify present conditions, then even if harmony is an empirical phenomenon, part of the physical world, it is not for that fact the origin of musical systems, nor is it useful as a normative or regulative standard (for the science of harmony, like any science, reflects the values of its creator and his or her society). It “only teach[es] us to see men as they have made themselves” (D2, 127). Studying harmony—i.e., the purely musical—tells us nothing about music, per se, but only about us, our society, and our socially constructed relations to and ideas about music.
Accordingly, when Rousseau states that “harmony, having its principle in nature, is the same for all Nations” (LFM, 144), he is not claiming harmony is in fact “natural” or universally uniform; rather, his point is that if harmony were in fact universal—governed by consistent laws of physics—and if music were in fact “natural” phenomenon, then every society would recognize the same frequencies, intervals, consonances, and dissonances. Even a quick foray into the work of Pythagoras will demonstrate that this is not, in fact, the case. “If there is a natural melody derived from harmony,” Rousseau argues,
it should be one for all men, since harmony, having its source in nature, is the same in all the countries of the world. But the songs and tunes of each nation have a character that belongs to them, because they all have an imitative melody derived from the accents of the language (ETP, 288).
Repeating his earlier point more succinctly, Rousseau illustrates that the “purely” musical is a fiction, for it is impossible to understand the particularity of music without taking into account its relationship with extra-musical phenomena, namely, words. Music does not exist as a “fact” of nature and the physics of sound, but as a production of a very specific set of social, political, environmental, and economic relations. Because it does not and cannot exist in some rarefied, “pure” form completely unadulterated by language and convention, any account of “harmony” that one might attempt to give is just as conjectural as the genealogy of language Rousseau recounts in the first part of the Essay.
(4) Look, and I even relate it to Mills and Non-Ideal Theory!
This notion of conjecture that I develop from Rousseau and, in the next chapter, from Julia Kristeva, contributes to a non-ideal account of nature and human embodiment. When we speak of the materiality, particularly when the physical materiality under question is the raced, gendered human body, our notion of the material must be robust and complex enough to account for all the social work that makes/has made it possible for us to even perceive what we take to be materiality as such; in Derridian terms, we need a notion of the material that accommodates and acknowledges the work of arche-writing. While racist, sexist, and classist ideologies might encourage abstraction away from the empirical fact of oppression, in order to construct an ideal-as-descriptive-model, there is, particularly in the case of nature/human embodiment, going to have to be a robust and not strictly empirical notion of the material that is being described. As Rousseau has demonstrated, there are some phenomena, such as nature or the body, that, in order “to start with an actual investigation of [phenomenon X’s] properties” (Mills, Ideal Theory, 167; emphasis mine), we are going to have to move somewhat away from the demonstrably actual and toward the ideal or idealizing. In acknowledging that “a simple empiricism will not work as a cognitive strategy” “one has to be self-conscious about the concepts that ‘spontaneously’ occur to one, since many of these concepts will not arise naturally but as the result of social structures and hegemonic ideational patterns” (Mills, Ideal Theory, 175). Mills does suggest that some concepts like nature or the body will need quite a bit of unpacking or genealogical deconstruction in order to be put to effective feminist, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist use. Mills does not, however, inquire further into this claim; this is what my notion of conjecture does. Rather than “abstracting away from realities crucial to our comprehension of the actual workings of injustice in human interactions and social institutions” (Mills, Ideal Theory, 170), my theory of the conjectural body attends to precisely these realities by describing how the material and the social interact to produce empirical actualities that themselves normalize status-quo relations of privilege and power—put simply, to how “nature” and “culture” interact to produce “real stuff” that normalizes social hierarchies. Rousseau’s early musical writings are a productive place to begin thinking about a historicized, non-ideal account of embodiment because, as I have shown, his whole disagreement with Rameau is grounded in Rousseau’s problematization of the way in which Rameau’s concept of nature is “the result of social structures and hegemonic ideational patterns.” Rousseau’s use of conjecture is problematic insofar as he bases his assessment of political actuality on an ideal-as-idealized-model; importantly, when he conjectures about musical “nature,” his understanding of musical actuality is grounded in an ideal-as-descriptive model. Indeed, it is possible to read Rousseau’s critique of Rameau in terms of non-ideal theory: because of Rameau’s Eurocentrism, he abstracts away from important empirical and cultural facts about the ways in which sound waves interact with human sensory faculties.
So, in sum, if we want to mine Rousseau as a source for non-ideal theory, we need to understand his musicalwork. This is also a case for increased attention to music in critical political philosophy.