Music and Psychoanalysis study day

University of Liverpool, 13th November 2013

This week I presented a paper about music analysis and dream analysis at the excellent Music and Psychoanalysis study day. This event brought together a number of interesting speakers and delegates. There was a sense of a (re)emerging subdiscipline within musicology; the speakers and methodologies encountered were diverse nonetheless. We heard papers that referred to both popular music (and culture more widely) as well as to more traditional repertoires, and both theoretical and clinical work (Rachel Darnley-Smith’s excellent paper on music therapy). Some focused on artist-producers (Henry Zajaczkowski on Tchaikovsky), others the products/artworks, and still others on consumers and listeners.

Lacanian thinking is clearly making its mark within some sectors of musicology. The day ended with a roundtable discussion, the panellists being David Bard-Schwarz (University of North Texas), Bruno de Florence (ICONEA, London), Freya Jarman and Kenneth Smith (both University of Liverpool). All these panellists freely made reference to a host of Lacanian ideas. There was some excellent discussion from the floor with regard to the emergence of “Lacanian musicology”.

However, I shouldn’t give the impression that there was a unified agreement from the attendees on how and what psychoanalysis might bring to studies of music (or, conversely, of music to psychoanalysis). I’ve my own reservations about some (uses of) Lacanian concepts and critical frameworks, for instance. There are three immediate examples I’d like to put forward, some of which were discussed at the study day itself:

–      First, I’d advise caution regarding the privileging and deploying of particular concepts. For example, while the Lacanian concept of ‘The Real’ might be useful on occasion, it’s my impression that it sometimes seems too easy an explanation for the complexities of expression, anxiety and trauma that arise during some aesthetic experiences. (“Why do we feel this way?” – “Because it’s an encounter with the Real!”)

–      Second, the basic functioning and disfunctioning of subjectivity is, for Lacan, linguistic. I wouldn’t posit music in counterposition to language; instead, I’d say that elements of it tend towards the pseudo-linguistic. This tension within music is itself a site that is productive of meaning, or if not “meaning” in its linguistic sense, then of aesthetic significance. Hence, this is not to say that nothing can be said about music from such (Lacanian) perspectives, but it is to underline an awareness of our own methodologies and assumptions about subjects’/language’s (dis)functioning, which have been taken into them.

–      Third, and this is something Freya Jarman raised during the roundtable, we should be aware of the “doing” of subjectivities, not only their “being” in certain forms (Jarman raised this point in relation to Queer Theory and the politics of musicology). This connects with a larger question regarding psychoanalysis and music: should we be cautious about implying the ahistorical nature of subjectivity in certain forms of discussion, especially when we fall back on particular models of how subjectivity “operates”? Sometimes the positing of psychoanalytic frameworks for the discussion of musical subjectivities seems to gloss over the cultural and historical particularities of given situations; these frameworks sometimes seem to assume ahistorical bases and, accordingly, so do the bases of musical identities and aesthetic experiences. This concern is echoed in Judith Butler’s critique in Gender Trouble of Julia Kristeva’s thinking[1] – here I’m gesturing towards caution over the essentialising of “how subjectivity functions” and a new emphasis on performativity and the cultural and historical particularities of given musical and music-aesthetic discourses.


[1] Butler, Judith 2006: Gender Trouble, Abingdon: Routledge. See the section ‘The Body Politics of Julia Kristeva’, pp. 107-126.

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