The Rain In Spain Falls Mainly On The Plain: On Sound & The Virgin/Whore Dichotomy

Here’s an excerpt from a rough draft of a paper I’m working up for the American Philosophies Forum at Emory in April. The theme of the meeting is “The Ineffable,” so I’m writing on Vladimir Jankelevitch‘s and Carolyn Abbate‘s work on musical ineffability.  This section of the paper is on the philosophical work Jankelevitch accomplishes with a racialized virgin/whore dichotomy. Especially because this is a work in progress that I have to deliver next month, I’d really love any feedback you might have.

In their discussions of musical ineffability, philosophers use gender as a tool to accomplish conceptual work. Philosophers are ambivalent about extra-propositional knowledges. Such knowledges can be a resource, shepherding philosophy beyond its borders; however, this transgression can also be threatening. To disarticulate the threatening aspects from the appealing ones, philosophers have turned to the virgin/whore dichotomy. Some implicit understanding is “ineffable”—ephemeral, distant, a chaste and continent ethical ideal (i.e., domesticated and exploitable)—while some implicit understanding is, indeed, “drastic”—unruly, wild, undomesticated. Music is a metaphor for both virginal/whoreish femininities and for extra-propositional understanding, in particular, temporal/process-based ones (‘drastic’) that exceed objective/content-based epistemologies. “Music” is the delivery system or medium of application for this gendered, racialized instrument through which philosophers process their ambivalence about extra-propositional forms of knowing. This is why “woman” and “music” are often coupled in Western philosophy: there are Plato’s flute-girls, whose departure and re-entry signal the beginning and end of philosophical discussion in Symposium; there’s Nietzsche’s claim that “music is a woman,” and Deleuze & Guattari’s alignment of becoming-woman with becoming-music; even Adorno feminizes commodity music and regressive listening, while rendering autonomous art a sort of stone butch. In each case, “music’s” illegibility and unruliness is expressed in feminized terms.

Arguing that “music, of all the arts, is in the end the one most alien to eroticism” (89; emphasis mine), Jankelevitch also uses music—particularly, the difference between German and Franco-Iberian/Russian national styles—as a way to apply a racialized virgin/whore dichotomy to extra-propositional knowledge. For Jankelevitch, musical meaning is philosophically unruly.[i] This unruliness can either be “death’s sterilizing inexplicability” (which he likens to Medusa’s stare (72)) or “the fertileinexplicability of life” (71; emphasis mine).  Ineffability is infinitely fecund meanings—it is too prolific to reduce to logical coherence and non-contradiction. He thinks this prolific fecundity needs careful “eugenic” management, and puts the same demands on musical composition & performance that patriarchy puts on women’s sexuality: musical ineffability ought to be moderated by “a kind of fierce continence” and “modesty” (18).[ii] Modesty and reticence preserves the “innocence” of musical meaning.[iii] This innocence is the naïve, rather than contrived, evocation of meaning, expressiveness unpenetrated by either propositional inquiry or reflective self-knowledge. Jankelevitch praises ‘virginal’ music in terms similar to those One Direction use to praise virginal women: “the sublime incarnation of this not-knowing, whose secret name is Innocence” (88), sounds a lot like “you don’t know you’re beautiful.”[iv] Music can remain ineffable so long as it does not “give away its secret”—which, as Christina Augilera’s vocals on Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” clearly indicate, is a common metaphor for a woman’s sexual favors.[v]

Drawing parallels between the “affective exhibitionism and musical incontinence” (50) and sexual exhibitionism and incontinence, Jankelevitch equates explicitly communicative music with promiscuously sexual women. Music that gives away its secret, that “conceal[s] meaning in order to reveal it” (46; note also resonances with Heideggerian terms) is a form of “bewitchment” or “coquetry” (72). He uses terms that connote dangerous, unruly, excessive femininity to suggest that music that traffics in explicit, propositional meaning is, like a woman who traffics in sex, indecent.[vi] Because racialized virgin/whore dichotomies effectively exclude racially non-white, sexually promiscuous females from the category “woman,” they function, in Jankelevitch, as evidence that explicitly communicable “music” isn’t really music, but something else entirely.[vii]

This dichotomy is the tool Jankelevitch uses to philosophicallydistinguish between productive (fecund) and unruly extra-propositional experience. When properly moderated, music gives philosophers access to what is otherwise inaccessible to propositional understanding. That is, it gives them access to affect and embodiment: “music exalts the faculty of feeling…[and] awakens in us affect per se” (58; emphasis mine). Though these sensorial, affective, and emotive experiences are irreducible to propositional content or form, properly moderated music gives them adequate expression. HOWEVER: Jankelevitch’s concept of musical ineffability gives us access to corporeality, affect, emotion, and sensuousness in a distinctly racialized manner. For Jankelevitch, musical ineffability, like postwar styles of whiteness, is in but not of the body.[viii] He describes musical ineffability as a sort of corporeal quintessence, its homeopathic distillation (or eau d’toilette). It  “exudes carnal presence in general like a perfume” because it is “inherent in the existence of a body in general—and nonetheless…cannot be pinpointed here or there in the body (53).” Like virginal white femininity, the most ideally ineffable music evokes a disembodied, ethereal, diffuse and perfume-like sensuousness uncontaminated by actual squishy, awkward, smelly, sweaty bodies. Jankelevitc explicitly links this disembodied feminine charm to a popular symbol of racial whiteness: radiant “flaxen hair” (89).[ix] The glow of blonde hair is, as film theorist Richard Dyer argues, a visual symbol for whiteness, specifically, ethereal, disembodied white femininity.[x] So, in Jankelevitch’s text, the virgin/whore dichotomy mediates embodiment and affect, translating them into practices white people will understand, and that will benefit whites as such.

Jankelevitch also uses the virgin/whore dichotomy to clarify racial/ethnic/national distinctions between Germans and Franco-Iberio-Italian-Russo-Europeans in a way that reorganizes conventional infra-white racial/ethnic hierarchies. Anglo-Saxons are conventionally “more” white than Franco-Iberico-Italo-Slavic Europeans: this is why the Guidos and Guidettes from Jersey Shore, or Armenian-American Kim Kardashian, read as not-fully-white.[xi] Jankelevitch, however, uses the racialized virgin/whore dicthotomy to argue that “chaste” Franco-Iberico-Italo-Russian national musics are more genuinely musical than German music, and thus that they are more “white” than Anglo-Saxon Germans. For example, he argues that German “Romantic” (30) music’s “intentional expressionism” is a musical “expose” bent on “revealing some nontemporal truth” 66-7). This expressionism is “foreign” to genuinely musical experience (66), because real music uses “the spirit of understatement” to “reign in…extremist temptations” and “contain[n] frenzy” (50-1). Incontinence is linked to foreignness and disassociated with chaste, ethereal, moderate whiteness. Real music, music that best exhibits white bodily and gendered ideals, is not German but French, Italian, Spanish, or maybe even Russian.
The virgin/whore dichotomy separates domesticatable from irreducibly “wild” unruliness, generally along racial lines—white femininity is “husbandable,” femininities of color are not. Like the corporeally restrained but audiologically unrestrained Ulysses, Jankelevitch’s musically moderate subject can transform the siren-like unruliness of musical ineffability into something useful and elevating…for him. Basically, his theorization turns musical ineffability into, as rapper Ludacris puts it, “a lady in the streets but a freak in the sheets.” Which makes him the Henry Higgins to its Eliza Doolittle. An utterly stereotypical and racist-misogynist virgin/whore dichotomy is at the center of Jankelevitch’s concept of musical ineffability.[xii]

Is my attempt to think musical ineffability under the rubric of implicit understanding an attempt to re-domesticate the (feminized, often racially exoticized) “otherness” of the musically ineffable for philosophy? Ultimately, I reject the feminization of unruliness and the perceived unruliness of femininities. I turn to feminist epistemology because it helps me critique the underlying frameworks that equate unruliness, femininity, and ineffability. There are better and worse ways of philosophically apprehending the feminized unruliness of musical ineffability. One way is to “eat” its otherness, instrumentalizing it as a sign of the avant-garde-ness of your philosophical theories. Another way is to treat it as a subjugated knowledge, try to understand it in its own terms…which may mean “disagreement,” aporia, or failure to communicate. But this failure of understanding or communication cannot be romanticized as a sign of exotic/romanticized (philosophical) otherness. In some ways, then, the question “Is music ineffable?” is comparable to the question “Can the Subaltern Speak?”… I’ll leave open for further consideration exactly what this comparison entails (which, btw, is something I’m sort of developing in another project, so thoughts on this comparison is especially welcome). 

[i] “The musical universe, not signifying any particular meaning, is first of all the antipode to any coherent system…since it does not have ideas to line up logically with one another” (18).
[ii] Jankelevitch implies that this modesty is comparable to Platonic notions of moderation: “itis not by saying ‘everything’ that one explains oneself best… Satie’s music, like Socrates in the Phaedo, is careful to avoid all excess” by exemplifying “the sovereign force of reticence, the force of shielded emotion, which owes nothing to wild gesticulation” (48/50; emphasis mine). As Foucault has convincingly argued, this moderation (or “sophrosyne”) is a “virile” virtue, a way of “being a man in relation to oneself’ (HSv2 TKTK). So, Jankelevitch can be read as arguing that one needs to be a man with respect to the feminine ineffability that can either overwhelm the listener/performer, or be cultivated judiciously by the philosopher to give him access to extra-propositional, extra-propositional knowledges.
[iii] “Music has sole possession of…the Charm, and innocence is the condition for its existence” (87).
[iv]One Direction, “What Makes You Beautiful” on Up All Night. Columbia Records 2011.
[v]Maroon 5 feat. Christina Aguiera, “Moves Like Jagger” on Hands All Over. A&M 2011.
[vi] This distinction between virginally naïve and whorshily contrived expression demonstrates that Jankelevitch’s praise of femininity is deeply misogynist: femininity is valuable to the philosophy only insofar as it is dumb (both literally, as “mute” (87), and figuratively, as idiotic): “the virgin Fevroniya…enchants…without knowing either how or why” (88). Knowledge, intention, and self-determination contaminate virginal innocence, so the only ‘good’ woman/femininity is one that remains “docile” and requires direction by male/masculine listeners, performers, and composers. This is why only masculineized musical subjects will be rewarded for exhibiting feminized musical expression. Musicians exist in the feminine mode while performing musical activities (playing, composing, listening). As Jankelevtich argues, performance and composition requires an “innocent” epistemological states: The innocence of the perfomer in re-creating responds to the innocence of the composer in the midst of creation; thus, the performer forgets the onlookers’ stares, so absorbed is he or she in bringing work into being, sustained ecstatically by the labor required to overcome obstacles. While this is happening, how could a performer possibly carve out the free time to allow self-consciousness to engender a split personality, or to strike attitudes for the gallery?” (87). So, male musicians conditionally enter states of epistemic innocence when engaged in genuinely and fully musical activity; once they stop doing music, they can return to self-conscious, intentional, propositional rationality. However, as many feminists have convincingly argued, females are treated as categorically occupying states of epistemic innocence; perhaps women are such good performers because they are never burdened with self-conscious, intentional, propositional rationality in the first place—they’re ‘naturally’ talented (cf. Angela Davis’s discussion of the attribution of Billie Holiday’s musical innovations to her male collaborators.) Masculine subjects are rewarded for performing conditional epistemic innocence, whereas feminine subjects are not. In this way, Jankelevitch can value femininity without critiquing or disturbing patriarchy.
[vii]To the extent that music signifies something other, it is as suspect as painting done by numbers, as didactic poetry or symbolic art: it is no longer music but ideology, a sermon meant to edify” (66)
[viii]For more on white embodiment and the “in but not of” logic, see James, Robin. “In but not of/of but not in: On taste, hipness, and white embodiment” in Contemporary Aesthetics special issue on Aesthetics & Race, ed. Monique Roelofs, 2009.
[ix] “Charm’s innocent transactions…[are] the efferent force that surrounds gentile Fevroniya with her Flaxen Hair like an aura” (89)
[x] For example, glowing blonde tresses whitened (and bourgeoisie-ed) Gladys Marie Smith into Mary Pickford. See, for example, this image, where side- and back-lighting make her curly hair appear to glow from within.
[xi]See Painter.
[xii] The dichotomy manifests overtly and explicitly as a dichotomy in Jankelevitch’s distinction between “allegorical” and “tautegorical” music: the former is “reticen[t],” the latter, “an expose.” (67).