On the feminine in Jankelevitch’s “Music & the Ineffable” & what this has to do with Levinas’s “Totality and Infinity”

I’m working on a piece about the relationship between Vladimir Jankelevitch’s Music and the Ineffable and Levinas’s Totality and Infinity, which were both published the same year; Jankelevitch was an evaluator for the dissertation that later became Totality & Infinity. This is the first section of that piece.

Jankelevitch’s Concept of Musical Ineffability

Jankelevitch argues that music is ineffable to philosophy. He thinks we understand it just fine, but such understanding requires tools other than the one philosophers are trained to use, such as propositional speech, logical implication or development, and the (very Hegelian) ability to distinguish ever-more-determinate properties. In Music and the Ineffable, each of these three philosophical tools appears repeatedly in various negative definitions of what music is (not).

First, Jankelevitch doesn’t think music expresses beliefs or truths, like the idea that the sky is blue or the belief that Coldplay’s music is awful. Analytic philosophers would call these sorts of expressions “propositions.” Arguing that “allocution–the communication of meaning and the transmission of intentions–is out of a job where music is concerned” (20), Jankelevitch states that music expresses neither truths nor beliefs. In fact, it expresses no object: “music does not signify anything other than what it is: music is not an expose, revealing some nontemporal truth” (67); it does not “transmit thoughts” (67). Music is not propositional because it does not convey or represent a content that listeners must decode from the sounds. Abbate describes Jankelevitch as rejecting the view that music is hermeneutic, that it “signifies” (Abbate 510) or “corresponds” (Abbate 523) to an encoded content that the listener must approach in the mode of entender (listening-understanding) rather than ecouter (listening-hearing), to use Jean-Luc Nancy’s terms. Just as he rejects the idea that music expresses propositional content, Jankelevitch also rejects the idea that it follows a logical and teleological form. These are both techniques for creating a unified, coherent whole. Unlike “the philosopher who…aspires at the very least to cohere in attempting to resolve contradictions…music ignores such concerns since it does not have ideas to line up logically with one another” (18). Here Jankelevitch claims that music doesn’t follow the rules of philosophical logic, such as the principle of non-contradiction. Moreover, musical works do not develop in the way arguments or syllogisms do, premises building upon one another toward a conclusion. As Jankelevitch explains, “music is certainly no system of ideas to be developed discursively, no truth that one must advance toward degree by degree, or whose implications must be explained, or whose import extracted, or whose far-reaching consequences must be made explicit” (69). Though Western art music aesthetics tend to privilege such development (e.g., the development of a motive across the movements of a symphony) as a measure of compositional maturity and success, Jankelevitch argues that music is “incapable of developing in the true sense” (25). Music progresses through time, but, “fluid and without itinerary” (93), it does so ateleologically; a “regime of continuous mutation” (93), music progresses forward, but lacks both telos and logical implication. Lacking both propositional content and logical form, music does not express philosophical claims or ideas.

Jankelevitch thinks music is philosophically ineffable because it lacks propositional content, logical form, and, above all, determinateness. According to Hegel, determinations are specifiable features, qualities, or properties, such as the property of being concrete or abstract, hot or cold, particular or universal. As these examples suggest, each determinate property is the negative or opposite of another specific determinate property. The tension between these opposing determinations–called “determinate negation”–drives dialectical development. Arguing that “music does not express this determined state of joy or that particular sadness” (58), that “music—unsuited to express precise sentiments, defined sentiments–…situates itself beyond discrete categories” (65), and that “music signifies something in general without ever wanting to say anything in particular” (57), Jankelevitch attributes music’s ineffability to its non-determinateness. Music isn’t indeterminate, because indetermination is the complete absence of particular properties. Though “it does not express this or that privileged landscape, this or that setting to the exclusion of all others,” music is not indeterminate in the Hegelian sense because it “implies innumerable possibilities of interpretation…These possibilities co-penetrate one another instead of precluding one another” (74). For Jankelevitch, music’s non-determinateness results from the infinite number of potential specific but non-exclusive (and thus non-determinate) properties one can ascribe to it. [1] Lacking determinate properties and relations of determinate negation, music can’t develop in any dialectical sense. Jankelevitch probably went to the trouble of clarifying exactly how music is ineffable to Hegelian logic and Hegelian dialectics because these are the conceptual and methodological foundations of Adorno’s work on music, and Adorno was the most prominent philosopher of music at the time.

Framed either as the absence of propositional content and syllogistic logic or as the absence of Hegelian determinate negation, Jankelevitch’s claim about music’s ineffability is indexed to philosophy in general, and Adorno’s philosophy in particular.

The Figure Of the Feminine In Music and the Ineffable

Jankelevitch claims music is ineffable to philosophy because he thinks philosophy alienates its practitioners from the receptivity necessary to truly appreciate music. For example, he argues that “the affectation that is technical analysis is simply a means of not sympathizing, not being touched by the Charm” (102). The modes of abstraction involved in music theory and philosophy create emotional, affective, and presumably corporeal distance between theorists and the music they theorize. Like many philosophers before him, Jankelevitch thinks philosophy is a kind of skeptical melancholy that alienates us from our bodies, emotions, and affects. And, like those other philosophers, Jankelevitch frames this skeptical melancholy in gendered terms. For example, he argues that music analysis–which in the early 1960s was closely allied with analytic philosophy–is a “sterile pedanticism” (80). In a thinly-veiled dig at Martin Heidegger’s work, Jankelevitch argues that philosophy focuses on “death’s sterilizing inexplicability” (71); though philosophy may be suited to analyzing the aporia of my own death and the anxiety that produces, this aporia is ultimately unproductive, sterile. Arguing that “death, the black night, is untellable because it is impenetrable shadow and despairing nonbeing [that]…overwhelm[s] reason, transfix[es] human discourse on the point of its Medusa stare” (71), Jankelevitch compares philosophy’s sterility or “untellability” to the emasculating effect of Medusa’s monstrous femininity. Unlike philosophy, music is a “fertile ground for perplexity” (83). Though it is philosophically ineffable, music is not spuriously aporetic: “the mystery transmitted to us by music is not death’s sterilizing inexplicability but the fertile inexplicability of life, freedom, or love” (71). Jankelevitch thus frames the difference between the philosophically “untellable,” which is bad, and the philosophically “ineffable,” which is good, as the difference between threatening and compliant, properly reproductive female sexuality. Claiming that “the ineffable, thanks to its properties of fecundity and inspiration, acts like a form of enchantment: it differs from the untellable as much as enchantment differs from bewitchment” (72), Jankelevitch appeals to a fairly explicit virgin/whore dichotomy–as in The Wizzard of Oz, Jankelevitch’s distinction between the ineffable and the untellable relies on the conflict between good, charming enchantresses and wicked bewitchers.

The virgin/whore dichotomy is central to Jankelevitch’s definition of musical ineffability (and its difference from philosophical skeptical melancholy), and classical stereotypes about ideal white femininity as chaste, modest, and silent saturate the rest of the text. His descriptions of the way music expresses meaning loudly and obviously echo stereotypes about the way good women express sexual desire. These appeals to respectable female sexuality happen constantly throughout the text, so I will list a few of the most glaring here:

  • He argues that music, “through its reticence, it expresses by hinting, obliquely” (66). Most damingly, Jankelevitch describes this reticence as “reveal[ing] while effacing…say[ing] ‘no’ and ‘yes’ at the same time” (117). This “no means yes” language is a longstanding stereotype about women’s sexuality, and a key component of rape culture (because it misrepresents the denial of consent as the granting of consent).
  • Like a woman who refuses to give away the milk before selling the cow, music’s depth appears as “reticence, the spirit that withholds and does not reveal all its resources at first or deliver the meaning of its meaning entirely, all at once (71). Similarly, he argues that “there is a certain beauty in not doing all one can, not revealing one’s worth all at once” (116).
  • His claim that “as an ineffably general language…, music is docile, lending itself to countless associations” (75) echoes Aristotle’s concept of human reproduction in which the active masculine seed gives form to passive feminine matter.
  • Arguing that “innocence, because it is a form of purity, is the sole state capable of this kind of ecstatic objectivity” (89), Jankelevitch compares receptivity to musical ineffability to sexual and white racial purity. His emphasis on sexual purity is most clear in his claim that “music, of all the arts, is in the end the one most alien to eroticism…reticence and chastity, set in opposition to the insufferable erotomania that is one reflection of contemporary cultural moroseness” (89). Unlike kids these days and their explicit sexuality, good music is modest and chaste. His emphasis on racial purity is clearest in his comparison of music’s effect on us to “the efferent force that surrounds gentle Fevroniya with her Flaxen Hair like an aura” (89). As film theorist Richard Dyer has established, early black and white film used backlit shots of white women’s blonde hair to create a diffuse halo-like effect that visually represented white women’s sexual innocence as white racial purity. Jankelevitch’s “flaxen hair aura” metaphor appeals to that cinematographic language.

Music and the Ineffable constantly rehearses the claim that music is like a demure, modest white woman. Music’s ineffability results from its modesty with respect to expression: it refrains from both philosophical or verbal “telling or saying” (140), and from “grandiloquent” musical expression that “resembl[es] angry shrieks” (149). “Shriek” is commonly associated with women’s voices, and Jankelevitch uses it here to describe unruly feminine vocality. Just as society expected white women to be both untouched by and only vaguely solicitious of men, Jankelevitch expects music to be both untouched by and only vaguely solicitous of verbal, philosophical meaning.

Patriarchal stereotypes about women are central to Jankelevitch’s description of musical ineffability. Though these stereotypes most commonly address norms about white women’s sexuality, the last chapter in Music and the Ineffable, the chapter on silence, uses the ancient Greek concept of of feminine sophrosyne, which ties sexual chastity to verbal continence. Sophrosyne was a virtue related to moderation and self-mastery. As Ann Carson explains, sophrosyne was gendered: men exhibited it in different ways than women did. “Female sophrosyne is coextensive with female obedience to male direction and rarely means more than chastity. When it does mean more, the allusion is often to sound. A husband exhorting his wife or concubine to sophrosyne is likely to mean ‘Be quiet!’” (Carson 126). Whereas masculine sophrosyne involved subordinating one’s bodily desires to one’s soul, feminine sophrosyne involves subordinating one’s entire self–body, speech, etc.–to men’s authority and the confines of the patriarchal household. Such confinement results in the lack of sexual and verbal intercourse between unrelated women and men. Jankelevitch’s descriptions of silence pick up on the connection feminine sophrosyne draws between sexual chastity and verbal continence. For example, he argues that “reticence,” a term he uses earlier in the book to describe music’s chaste expressiveness, “is a refusal to go on and on…It says No!” to the temptations of verbosity” (141). [2] “Eschewing verbal expression, which Jankelevitch calls “telling or saying” (140), music follows feminine sophrosyne’s imperative to “be quiet!” “Singing,” he says, is a way of being quiet” (140). Jankelevitch repeatedly identifies feminine sophrosyne, both as sexual chastity and verbal continence, as the best way to attune oneself to the philosophically ineffable aspects of music.

Jankelevitch thinks we should relate to musical meaning or expression the same way European patriarchy has traditionally framed (white) women’s relationship to sexual desire–just as white women are expected to domesticate their desires to the point of illegibility, composers, musicians, and listeners must limit their desire for musical meaning or expression to the kinds that are illegible to philosophy. Patriarchy demands such reticence from women because it considers their sexual desires both appealing and threatening. Jankelevitch uses this stereotype to describe music’s power to overwhelm philosophical thought: in the third paragraph of Music and the Ineffable’s first chapter, he describes music as “a woman” that threatens the integrity and mastery of the “masculine Will” and “masculine Reason” (2). Connecting performers and listeners to their bodies and their powers of receptivity, music prevents one from exercising the disembodied, disinterested objectivity necessary to properly practice philosophy, and from performing the proper contours of white masculine subjectivity. Unlike Kant, who argues that sensory threats to the integrity of the self ought to be overcome by exercising one’s reason, Jankelevitch thinks the threat music poses to the integrity of the (masculine) self is something to be managed the same way women moderate the threat posed by their charm.

Throughout the book, Jankelevitch repeatedly refers to musical ineffability as “The Charm,” which he defines as “a state of infinite aporia that produces a fruitful perplexity” (96). In this aporia, “this Charm (the musical act)” threatens to carry us away. It can do so in a few different ways: first, because “this charm engenders speculation inexhaustibly” (83), it allows one to get lost down an unending rabbit hole of thought; second, because such speculation causes one to feel “exhiliration” (83), it encourages manic-like behavior; finally, because “the request the musical Charm is making” is that one “abandon oneself spontaneously to grace” (102), it encourages one to turn themselves over entirely to its power. The Charm poses a different threat than the Kantian sublime does: this is not the threat of overwhelming force or size, but the threat of overwhelming passion. This is consistent with Kant’s idea of charm, which he offers as the feminine counterpoint to sublimity. As Christine Battersby argues, Kant treats “charm (Reiz, hence sexual attractiveness)…as integral to female nature” (Sublime Terror Human Difference 65). Unlike the sublime, which is a direct, shocking sensation of fear that, upon reflection, is pleasurable, charm is superficial pleasure that can hide an underlying threat: “Kant thinks that woman’s ‘charm’ is a sham. Woman might appear a tender, delicate, domestic, nurturing–’beautiful’–companion for the male, but there are strong and dominating passions underlying this facade” (Battersby Sublime 53). Whereas the feeling of the sublime arises from masculine reason’s mastery over potentially overwhelming fear, the feeling of the charming arises from feminine beauty’s chastening of potentially overwhelming passion. [3] Jankelevitch frames music’s appeal in exactly these terms. For example, in the beginning of the book he compares music’s potentially disturbing power over the (implicitly masculine) philosopher to women’s unsettling power over (implicitly heterosexual) men:

A woman who persuades solely by means of her presence and its perfumes, that is, by the magical exhalations of her being, the night that envelops us, music, which secures our allegiance solely through the Charm engendered by a trill or an arpeggio, will therefore be the object of a deep suspicion (2).

Like Kant, Jankelevitch takes music’s charm to be a threatening feminine excess that is pleasurable only when adequately chastened. This is why he constantly emphasizes ideals of reticence, moderation, and modesty, and that “innocence is the condition for its [the Charm’s] existence” (87). Jankelevitch’s descriptions of music’s charm could equally well be descriptions of the patriarchal stereotype that women’s direct expressions of sexual desire are turnoffs for men: “if the agent wants too much, then the one acted upon will no longer desire; if the agent begins to work too hard, then the one acted upon withholds his or her consent: and the Charm is broken” (88). Men find music’s feminine charm pleasurable only when it is adequately moderated or chastened by innocence.

Patriarchal stereotypes about (mostly white) femininity are central to Jankelevitch’s concept of musical ineffability. Like Nietzsche long before him and Deleuze and Guattari soon after him, Jankelevitch plays on European philosophy’s tendency connect music’s Otherness to philosophy to women’s status as the Other in patriarchy. Music’s feminine nature is what makes it ineffable to philosophy. And just like women, whom patriarchy perceives as both appealing and threatening, music is fun and pleasurable (to men) only when moderated by norms about respectability, purity, innocence, and silence.

I have highlighted the role of femininity in Jankelevitch’s Music and the Ineffable to clarify both his central claim about music–that is not ineffable in general, but ineffable to philosophy in particular–and the gender (and racial) politics of his text. Though the anglophone reception of his work on music has been largely overdetermined by a feminist musicologist’s celebration of its prioritizing of the body and performance over text, Music and the Ineffable is absolutely not a feminist text, and writes women out of the picture. It relies on victorian stereotypes about women’s sexuality, and treats femininity as something that men appropriate in order to prove their superiority over other men (in this case, the musician’s superiority over the philosopher). As Christine Battersby has shown, European concepts of artistic genius are grounded in the idea that the male genius appropriates stereotypically feminine attributes such as receptivity or sensitivity, and is superior to other men (and women) because he can domesticate otherwise dangerous femininity into something artistically productive. Music and the Ineffable re-hashes this old idea. Jankelevitch never talks about women composers, musicians, or listeners in the text, and his descriptions of women’s power and desirability presume a heteromasculine subject–music grants men access to the aspects of femininity their white gender performance otherwise alienates them from.

Focusing my reading of Music and the Ineffable on the figure of the feminine also reveals a strong, direct point of commonality between Jankelevitch’s text and Levinas’s Totality and Infinity. They share a common concept of the feminine. As Tina Chanter explains:

Thus the feminine [in Totality and Infinity] is the withdrawal from being: a delightful lapse in being, unthinkable in terms of light, it is modesty and hiding. The face of the feminine is silent, without language; its presence is discreet. The sensibility of enjoyment, over which the feminine presides in the dwelling, cannot be adequately captured in the language of intentionality or phenomena. Structurally consonant with the infinite or the beyond of ethics, insofar as it cannot be contained by the language of thought and representation that nevertheless comes to represent it, the feminine is also that which defies comprehension (Chanter, Time Death & The Feminine 255).

According to Chanter’s read of Levinas, he conceives of the feminine in exactly the same terms Jankelevitch does: it is discreet, inexpressible in the terms of philosophy (such as “the language of thought and representation)–it is, in other words, ineffable in Jankelevitch’s sense of the term.


[1] Jankelevitch’s discussion of silence points directly to the first sections of The Science of Logic, which explain the determinate negation of being, pure being, a state prior to the existence of determinations, and nothing, pure nothing, which nevertheless has the determinate property of being no thing. Jankelevitch rehearses this first move of the dialectic in his explanation that “nothingness, one might say, has no properties. One nothing cannot be distinguished from another nothing. How could they be distinguished without having qualities or a manner of being; that is, without, at least, being something?” (173). He then argues that silence is different from Hegel’s concept of nothing, pure nothing because silence “is not a nonbeing that totally annihilates or contradicts total being…In this instance, nothingness is not the simultaneous negation of all qualities perceptible to the senses; rather, it excludes only a single category of sensation, that of physiological hearing” (137). Silence, in other words, is the absence of a specific property or quality: audibility.

[2] Offering Plato as an example of someone who “recognizes his own sobriety, his own aversion toward verbal excess” (147), Jankelevitch explicitly ties such verbal reticence to ancient Greek concepts of moderation or sophrosyne. Plato, however, would have practiced masculine sophrosyne, which allowed for appropriate amounts of speech in appropriate contexts, and did not demand total public silence.

[3] In one of the few feminist analyses of Jankelevitch’s Music and the Ineffable, Judy Lockhead associates his concept of musical ineffability with ideas of the sublime: “such terms as the sublime, the ineffable, the unpresentable, the uncanny, and immanence mask sedimented gender binaries that will keep the feminine in the ground along with the beautiful” (72). Lockhead reads Jankelevitch as masculinizing music’s ineffability. Because he repeatedly describes musical ineffability as an effect of its “charm,” I think it is more accurate to associate his concept of musical ineffability with Kantian ideas of the charming, which, as Battersby shows, Kant associates with women and femininity. I agree with Lockhead that Jankelevitch’s project still prioritizes a masculine subject, but I think this subject performs his masculinity as the appropriation of traditionally feminized attributes, like charmingness, not as the doing of directly and explicitly masculine things, like experiences of sublimity.