Friday, April 4, 2008

Revision as biography: revisiting the aesthetic subject

A good friend of mine, Leah, is currently working on her dissertation regarding the puzzling move by Beethoven to revise his String Quartet No. 13 (Op 130), extracting the controversial "Grosse Fuge" and rewriting a jolly finale instead. The Grosse Fuge, freed of its strongholds as a movement to the 13th String Quartet, gained aesthetic autonomy as an independent single-movement piece, published as Op 133. Eventually shying away from the herculean question "Why?", she decided to pursue musicological study into a small but significant subtitle published under the main title of Grosse Fuge.

And understandably so, for musical biographers have often engaged in heated debates regarding the biographical details that persuaded Beethoven to tear out the Grosse Fuge. And speculation will be speculation, for the vast litany of intrinsic and extrinsic events that form the web of any event spatialized in time can never be fully recovered. One problem with musical biography in the creation (and inevitable generalization) of truth regarding the history of manuscript bibliography has been crouched upon a troublesome notion of the permanant, stable, pragmatic subject which simply reacts to and encounters its environ. For a discipline that already has to struggle with the fluidity of revision and text, considering the heterogenity of the subject would only be an added burden. However, such neglect (or presumption) of the stable writing (and/or reading) subject cannot and should not be simply buried under the carpet or left to the philosophers.

In fact, I believe that a recourse to subjectivity studies in music can produce a wealth of knowledge and possible interpretations that may be especially illuminating to material and bibliographical scholarship. There is simply no reason to dismiss the fact that the composing subject is and should be conceived as fractured and plural as the body of sketches that figure the sum of a single musical "work". The metaphor is a fitting one, one that might even be conceived of as personification. Granted the regulatory concept of the single abstract nominal category (here I borrow from Locke's "nominal essences") called the "work concept", much scholarship has muddled the presumptions of a total, localized and unified system of presentation that can be thoroughly assimilated into material rules. Instead, we see how the category "work" (as localized to a singularity for convenience's sake - take, for example, an opus number) is already a localizing force, as if it were a microscope whose resolution could be adjusted to varying degrees. Similarly, the heterogeneous subject is localized at what Lacan calls the "ego-Ideal" - the misrecognized mirror image; the site of the Imaginary where the "barred" or "split" subject constructs an illusion of his total self; the site of life investment; the necessary mistake.

Zizek, working on Lacan's hypothesis, takes this idea of misrecognition a step further, claiming that there already is a "double-reflection" at work at the site of the imaginary upon which the subject (or composer) is constituted. In his work on Political jouissance (For They know not what They do), writes:

"...the [split] speaking subject is split into the ignorance of her imaginary experience ... and the weight her words assumer within the field of the big Other, the way they affect the intersubjective network ... this double reflection produces a symbolic point the nature of which is purely virtual: neither what I immediately see ("reality itself") nor the way others see me (the "real" inverted image of reality) but the way I see the others seeing me." (Zizek (2008), 13)

This is what Zizek locates in Lacan as the "purely virtual viewpoint of the Ego-Ideal", the vantage point from which the gaze of the big Other is necessarily (paradoxically) constituting-of and constituting-from
the "split" subject. So how does this lead us to subjectivity in manuscript studies? Quite simply, by acknowledging the site of the Ego-Ideal as a regulating locus for knowledge production, we are empowered with the means to theorize that the site of misrecognition is also the site upon which decisions regarding the editing of manuscripts are consulted, indeed negotiated as if it were the forearm upon which Rodin's The Thinker's heavy jaw rests on.

As early as Hegel, the heterogeneous subject has been theorized in philosophical literature as (in Hegelese), a subject that perpetually "reduplicates" itself. In Hegel's writing on aesthetics, the great work of art enables the thinking subject who is a site of spiritual evolution and hence, instability, to reconstitute himself by "recognizing" the spirit [geist] in the work of art, the spirit of which he is a participant to as well. In a reverse-Lacanian move, Hegel views the successful work as something of recognition (as opposed to misrecognition): the work of art serves as a mirror, reflecting and making intelligible the Spirit manifest in man. Man recognizes his greatness in this narcissistic feedback loop (and here we have some potential Freudian undertones), and thus is given a platform upon which to contemplate his great role in the unfolding of telos. But Hegel is not far away from Lacan, and drawing out consonances in either of their theories finds friendship in the concept of the author, who is always constituting himself by constituting the Other gazing at the self, or the work.

Revising a work of art, or a manuscript, therefore, may reveal a tension, a rupture, or an irruption in the subject that constitutes materially. After all, sketches and revisions are methods of reproduction, indeed a Hegelian form of "reduplication", such that the final product is more befitting, or filial to the heterogeneous subject at a certain coordinate in space, time and history. Upon these terms, can we not read Beethoven's risky maneuver as an attempt at writing (and therefore, revising) a biography of the self, where the concept of "Opus" so rationally linked with the idea of telos and positivism suggest the possibilities of a linear historical trajectory that can be absorbed into the rationalizing imperatives of the Symbolic? For me, Beethoven's decision to reassert the Grosse Fuge into the institutionalized (read: Symbolic) logic of Opus numbers reveals (1) an insistence on creating a narrative that reflects a progressive and logical telos, and (2) an implicit (but unwitting) subscription to what Zizek calls "the point of double reflection" whereby "the Imaginary is ... hooked on the Symbolic" (10).

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