Music and Slavoj Žižek: chapter for edited collection

Here’s the opening of my draft chapter for an upcoming edited collection on music and Žižek, edited by Mauro Fosco Bertola.


Cage, Reich, and Morris: Process and Sonic Fetishism

Fetishism is often characterised as the obscuring of the social relations immanent to the processes of production. For the fetishist, power emerges from an autonomous object, not the heterogeneous processes that determine the object. Seemingly at odds with the magical fetish object, much art music and sonic art since (at least) the 1960s onwards foreground processes over objects. Indeed, the processes of production are often explicitly traced sonically: John Cage and others prescribed processes through which performers might enliven and sonically explore a variety of objects, with indeterminate results; Steve Reich conceived of ‘Music as Gradual Process’ (1969), expressing an interest in a ‘compositional process and a sounding music that are the same thing’;[1] Robert Morris presented a wooden box for exhibition, from which emerged the recorded sound of its own construction (Box with the Sound of its Own Making [1961]). Navigating conceptual coordinates provided by these three examples, in this chapter I use Žižek’s account of fetishism to complicate commonplace assumptions about products and processes in music and sound.

There is a historical dimension to Cage, Morris, and Reich’s embracing of processes. Echoing others, I suggest that the then-developing culture of an emerging late capitalism involved not only specific modes of production of products, but also a certain production of processes; this is manifest under interrelated but nonidentical terms such as postmodernism, the service economy, and post-Fordism. In fact, Žižek himself has suggested that the postmodern often makes visible the process of production, which is very much linked with the production of the product. Even more fundamentally, he has pointed to the fetishisation of the ephemeral under postmodernism, where, for instance, money loses the material referent that was its coinage. I find it notable that this shift takes place alongside a widely chronicled dematerialisation of art, exemplified by 1960s Conceptual Art – a move resonating with some of the musical and sonic practices discussed below.[2]

While Conceptualism did move art practices away from the focus on the artistic product – and thus resisted reproduction of that dominant form of the twentieth century, the commodity – this same strategy arguably reproduced instead some of the processes that would come to later characterise a ephemeral postmodern as such. Tim Rutherford-Johnson has shown how once-radical processes, such as musical Happenings, become later co-opted by a capitalistic system insistent on spectacle.[3] And, as argued by Claire Bishop and Kim Grant, artistic processes of working commonly – although not identically – relate in their inception to nonartistic labour practices and to priorities that are not always aesthetic in nature.[4]

Antonio Negri has provided a brief historical overview of the relationship between artistic and nonartistic modes of production, and argues that from around 1968 there emerged a new paradigm of production within both spheres.  He notes an emergence of what he calls ‘immaterial labour’. This form of labour, let it not be misunderstood, ‘makes material products, commodities and communication’; it is not immaterial in the sense of being “purely abstract” or “transcendent”.[5] (Elsewhere Negri refers parenthetically to ‘cognitive labour’.[6]) This labour is instead characterised by being socially organised through a multiplicity of intertwined networks, associations, and movements. Negri locates a paradox here: he suggests that what characterises art of this late period is that it vitally and corporeally stages ‘the abstraction of the social relations in which we exist.’[7] In summary, echoing Negri’s and others’ contextualising and historicising gestures, I’d like to suggest that it is not only new product-forms that constitute postmodern art and music, but new forms of making, production, and process, entailing a dialectic of materiality and ephemerality.[8]

Žižek’s formulation of fetishism, products, and processes is helpful here. [.…] Žižek suggests that what is concealed in the fetish of production is the ‘social mode of production.’[9] Furthermore, Žižek argues that this laying bare of the production behind the fetish-object (e.g. ‘the making of…’ programme) is a peculiarly postmodern fetishism, one that dissipates the materiality of the fetish, one directly related to the other two modes of fetishism [outlined elsewhere in the chapter’s introduction]: fetish of the interpersonal (the king and his subjects), and the object-focused (the commodity-form)[10] – a historical observation according with the three very different late twentieth-century examples discussed below: (1.) Cagean practices of performance and listening, (2.) Steve Reich’s conception of ‘Music as Gradual Process’, and (3.) Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of its Own Making. In this view, fetishism still might function, it seems, where one turns away from products produced and instead puts on show one’s processes of production.



[1] Reich, Steve. ‘Music as Gradual Process’, in Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, ed. Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner (New York and London: Continuum, 2005), p. 305.

[2] Lippert, Lucy R. Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (University of California Press, 1997).

[3] Rutherford-Johnson, Tim. Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture Since 1989 (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017), particularly see the section ‘Reveling in Resources’ (pp. 165–170).

[4] Claire Bishop considers ‘delegated performance’ practices, which “outsource” the undertaking of artistic work by nonartists, at the direction of the artist,  relating these to contemporary labour practices, managerialism, and outsourcing. See Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (New York and London: Verso, 2012), especially ‘Chapter 8, Delegated Performance: Outsourcing Authenticity.’ Kim Grant explores the role of assistants “to the artist” (e.g. with Jeff Koons) and concludes: ‘The artist no longer has to make anything or have any specific skills, but as the widespread refusal to eliminate the notion of the artist as the individual “creator” of an artwork indicates, the essence of authorship remains a central art world value.’ Grant, All About Process: The Theory and Discourse of Modern Artistic Labor (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2017), p. 237.

[5] Negri, Antonio. ‘Metamorpheses: Art and Immaterial Labour’, in Art & Multitude: Nine Letters on Art, followed by Metatorphese: Art and Immaterial Labour, trans, Ed Emery (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011), p. 107.

[6] Ibid., 115.

[7] Ibid., 107.

[8] One might add here that art needn’t blindly reproduce dominant modes of production; it might act critically as an immanent space of contestation. Ibid., 108.

[9] Žižek, Slavoj. The Plague of Fantasies (London and New York: Verso, 2008), p. 130, emphasis in original.

[10] See Ibid., 130-131.

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