Mauro Fosco Bertola

Universität des Saarlandes

Tarrying with the negative? Contemporary music and the sublime

Positioning at its core the category of the sublime, the modernist aesthetic famously engenders a problematic relationship between music – characterised as an autonomous, self-relating agent of nonrepresentational negativity pursuing on its own terms a powerful critique of the Western metaphysic of presence – and its embeddedness in cultural contexts. At its most radical, like in Lyotard’s aesthetic, music’s ‘immaterial matter’ becomes a traumatic, ‘in-human’ Otherness, a sublime, otherworldly sound-event, “which is not addressed […and] does not address” (Lyotard 1991: 142).
Picking up again her old polemical stance from 1989 against this kind of aesthetic and dismissing the modernist sublime as a fundamentally ‘male’ category, Susan McClary recently highlighted how in the last few decades a new generation of composers like Katija Saariaho, Thomas Adès or Salvatore Sciarrino has arisen, which by still drawing on the modernist tradition nonetheless engages more directly with signification and the cultural inscription of music (McClary 2015: 32- 33). On this basis McClary calls for rehabilitating the allegedly feminine category of the beautiful, thus relocating music’s essence within the anthropological boundaries of pleasure and opening it for cultural diversity and contextuality (see also Bérubé 2005: 1-27 and Wolff 2008: 11-29). Yet, is the beautiful the more apt category for aesthetically framing this artistic development? And does it really account for this alleged relocation of music’s essence within the dimension of the human and of cultural diversity?
As Catherine Belsey has pointed out, the specific twist at the core of Žižek’s philosophy consists in its conflating Lacan’s psychoanalytical theory of sublimation with Kant’s concept of the sublime (Belsey 2005: 141). Žižek’s sublime object thus intermingles not only pleasure and pain but also the absolute negativity of the Lacanian Real and the positive features of its cultural inscription. In my paper I intend to explore the potential this theoretical frame offers for reading these recent artistic developments neither in terms of a domesticated modernism nor as a return to the aesthetic category of beauty as a culturally embedded fit between form and content.
Instead, I will propose that we read them as the exploration of a specific, twisted space at the crossroad of the ‘meaningful’ positivity of culture and that ‘sublime’ negativity that the modernist aesthetic sees as the nonrepresentational essence of music.

Keywords: Sublime, Beautiful, Lyotard, Žižek


Mauro Fosco Bertola is a research fellow in the DFG postgraduate programme “European Dream-Cultures” at the University of Saarbrücken. From 2012 to 2017 he was a Lecturer of Musicology at Heidelberg University. After completing his Master’s Thesis in Philosophy in Italy, he studied Musicology in Heidelberg. In his PhD (Die List der Vergangenheit. Musikwissenschaft, Rundfunk und Deutschlandbezug in Italien, 1890-1945, Böhlau 2014) he analysed the role of music traditions for constructing national and fascist identities in Italian and German musicology and radio broadcasting. He has published numerous articles on various subjects ranging from Philip Glass’ operas to Toru Takemitsu’s reception of Debussy and to the link between opera, film and ideology. Together with Rex Butler he also edited a special issue of the International Journal of Žižek Studies focusing on Žižek and music. He is currently working on a monograph on the presence of dream in contemporary musical theatre.