FRANCESCA BRITTAN and CARMEL RAZ
Fiction may struggle to hold us spellbound in the manner of music, but its prompting of more diverted states of mind, and its depictions of the richness and freedom found in the sloppiness of drifting thought, suggests how constricted a world can be that treats attention as its own end.1
In a 2015 piece for the New Yorker (“Music, Fiction, and the Value of Attention”), literary critic Nicholas Dames thus muses on the dwindling cultural prestige of the novel: its difficulty in sustaining relevance, sales, and above all, attention. Music, Dames posits, has access to a cognitive power that prose cannot command, and perhaps this is why it has become the object of such elaborate description in contemporary fiction (Richard Powers's Orfeo, Colm Tóibín's Nora Webster, and Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, among other novels). Here, sustained accounts of musical listening aspire to the “waves of [neural] connection” or the “rapt submergence” inspired by sound—forms of focus seemingly unavailable to text. But can accounts of attending to music restore a tragically lost literary attention? Do we even want it back? These are some of the issues Dames raises, in a piece that gestures toward a rich body of work on histories of literary attentiveness (including his own scholarly writing), while revealing a thinner understanding of auditory focus. Old myths about music's power to bewitch the mind (to induce a “dream of absorption”) intermingle, in his essay, with newer theories about its potential to “[light] up long-dark regions in [the] head.” We are left with questions about the aesthetic power of listening, its relationship to histories of philosophy, psychology, and cognition, and, in a more pointed sense, its role in defining states of attention or distraction.
Dames's article forms part of an outpouring of popular writing intent on diagnosing and renovating our lack of focus. Alongside the New Yorker, venues including The Atlantic and, more recently, the New York Times have featured essays on rebuilding, strengthening, marshaling, and protecting our attention.2 Such general interest pieces are responses to a wave of work from the scientific and corporate domains: psychological and neuroscientific research on the cognitive workings of attentiveness, new diagnoses (especially ADHD) from the medical field, business models exploring the “psychic economy” of attention, and—moving beyond the human—efforts in Artificial Intelligence to extrapolate “attention mechanisms” for algorithmic learning. Across disciplines, there is an acute sense both that the power of focus is crucial, and that our access to it is dwindling—a problem often attributed to encroaching technological environments, information overload, and the cultural fetishization of speed and productivity.3 Our inability to agree on a coherent definition of attention coexists with the widely held sense that the path to salvation lies in laying bare its cognitive mysteries. We are, it would appear, suffering from a modern epidemic of distraction, one that we must make a concerted effort to understand and address.
And yet inattention is clearly not a problem unique to the present day. The sense of yearning for a lost, utopian moment of focus—a condition of full awareness, self-knowledge, spiritual fulfillment, or connectedness—is perennial. Artistic productions are perhaps an obvious site from which to undertake an investigation of attention's histories; indeed, explicit engagements with the theme in relation to the visual arts can be traced at least to Michael Fried's Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (1980) and to Jonathan Crary's subsequent recasting of the problem of attention as one of modernity in Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (1999). Over the course of the last decade and a half, the rapid emergence of cognitive historicism has allowed us to expand our consideration of the mental processes of visual attention to include those associated with reading and writing. Foundational in this regard have been studies of Romantic neural sciences and psychology by Alan Richardson and by Dames himself, which pioneered the application of historical models of cognition to literary analysis.4 Explicit histories of attention dating from the early 2000s—cultural, religious, and scientific—have provided a theoretical infrastructure for more pointed studies of cognitive focus extending back to Aristotle and Augustine, and up to Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin.5 Most recently, scholarship on the history of attentive modalities has focused on literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—that is, on the era in which philosophical and moral panic about distraction began to anticipate modern levels.
The field of literary studies has shown that, over the course of the revolutionary and early Romantic periods—when industrialization, burgeoning commodity culture, globalization, and modern telecommunications began to transform the landscape—many of the anxieties about cognitive focus that we now regard as “contemporary” had already coalesced.6 Indeed, attention had long since held a central place within Enlightenment thought, situated by philosophers and aesthetic theorists as a keystone of the aware, fully participatory self. In France, eighteenth-century responses to René Descartes's Meditations (1641), and to Jean de La Bruyère's figure “distraction” (Les caractères, 1688), initiated a lively exchange about attentiveness, thoughtlessness, and reverie that occupied thinkers from Étienne Bonnot de Condillac and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Johann Caspar Lavater.7 In Germany, new ways of theorizing the mechanisms of focus in the work of Georg Friedrich Meier and Johann Georg Sulzer were taken up and extended by later thinkers who included Ernst Platner, Novalis, and Christian Friedrich Michaelis.8 And in Britain, John Locke's account of the role of volition in attention led to a grappling with the interrelationship of passive and active modes of attending by philosophers such as David Hartley, Thomas Reid, and Dugald Stewart.9
By the late eighteenth century, acute awareness of the political, economic, and aesthetic demands of cognitive focus—and a sense of its growing scarcity—shaped not only critical discourses but also forms of production: poetic modes, plot types, narrative style and pacing, and even page formatting. Literary scholars have offered up fascinating analyses of poetic inattention in William Cowper, William Wordsworth, and John Keats;10 of concentration and distraction in Jane Austen;11 of forms of rapt or wondrous cognition in Stéphane Mallarmé and Gustave Flaubert;12 and of aesthetic attentiveness in Karl Phillip Moritz, Georg Simmel, and Friedrich Nietzsche.13 Moving well beyond fiction and poetry, their work demonstrates attention's crucial role in bridging Romantic literary, medical, theological, and economic worlds. This historical cross-disciplinary orientation has persisted; indeed, the heavily diversified nature of attention research today is an extension of the scientific and philosophical collaboration that the topic stimulated across the breadth of the long nineteenth century.
But what about music? And what of Dames's proposition that musical listening stimulates forms of focus unknown to other media? This idea is not entirely unfamiliar, and becomes less so when we consider the works singled out for description by Dames's authors—Bach's Goldberg Variations, Mozart's Requiem, Beethoven's symphonies, Franz Schubert's “An die Musik,” and Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (among others). The “lost” focus Dames fantasizes seems to be located in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century repertoires, which cast “a spell … more primal, maybe, than prose.” His claim resonates easily with extant histories of listening, particularly those of James H. Johnson (1995), Thomas Tolley (2001), and Matthew Riley (2004), which identify the eighteenth century as the moment at which key discourses relating to auditory attention and distraction were first articulated.14 During this period (long before the sonic fictional descriptions highlighted by Dames), philosophers, musicians, and critics had already homed in on auditory awareness as an important index of focus or its deficit. Indeed, Locke's insight that an unnoticed sound literally goes unheard regardless of its impact on the sensing organ—his paradigmatic example of the way the mental state of absorption alters our perception—would be subsequently taken up by other philosophers such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.15 To be attentive was to focus on a specific object for some duration, as Reid observed; in other words, attentiveness entailed a mental state characterized by a distinctive (and often altered) sense of temporal flow.16
Histories of listening are histories of attention. The reverse is not always true, although capacities of sonic awareness, recollection, and retention are often yoked, in broader discussions of creative invention, to acute powers of focus and, by extension, aesthetic insight. Over the course of the late eighteenth century, more explicitly musical forms of attending, including the rhapsodic absorption invoked by Dames's authors, become metonyms for the cultural ideal of attentiveness itself. We might locate the origins of this mode in the article “Unité de mélodie” in Rousseau's Dictionnaire de musique (1768).17 Or in Adam Smith, who praised instrumental music for its potential to “fill up, completely the whole capacity of the mind, so as to leave no part of its attention vacant for thinking of any thing else” (before 1795).18 Certainly, it was in place by the time Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder described the “true way of listening” as “the most attentive observations of the notes and their progression … the distancing and withdrawal from every disruptive thought and from all extraneous sensuous impressions” (1792).19
This kind of intensive focus was—or would be—inextricably bound up with idealist tenets, canonicity, nationalist ideologies, and theological injunction. Equally clearly, it was freighted with an Enlightenment valorization of concentration over wandering or diffuse forms of attending. Hardly surprising, then, that Dames, though fascinated by the phantasm of complete musical absorption, is also wary of it, pointing out that unwavering attention “does not necessarily equal perceptiveness.” Why, then, he asks, “do we … feel so strongly that our artworks must nourish it?” The question is a useful one, and might be extended to encompass others. How are modes of attending, including Wackenroder's “true way,” enforced, embraced, manipulated, or evaded? What role does auditory attention play in wider economies, or ecologies, of focus and distraction? What are its limits? And what relationship does musical attentiveness bear to affect, ethics, or identity formation? Work emanating from the fields of sound and media studies has already broached some of these questions,20 as has scholarship focused on histories of experimental psychology.21 In the contributions that follow, we broaden the scope, contemplating music's interaction with cultures of attention from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century. Theories of focus and distraction shift considerably across this period, but a sense that the content and meaning of music is inextricable from the forms of attention it demands remains stable. In many circles, problems relating to the temporality and ephemerality of sonic experience are recast as cognitive challenges that, as our work suggests, become inextricable from aesthetic and political programs of attentive conditioning.
A number of unexpected threads run through the colloquy. Our contributors resist the hegemony of focused listening dictated by German idealist aesthetics, foregrounding the importance of music and auditory cultures to less familiar modes of attentiveness ranging from British conceptions of interest qua reward (Mathew) to the performance of pathological focus in European medical contexts (Raz) and the importance of vacant or idle attention in Schubert (Brittan). The stakes of the psychic economy and the role of gender in constructions of attention appear as themes in a number of essays, as does the idea of attentiveness as a tool in forging individual and national consciousness (Kieffer). The long historical sweep of the set reveals that the heritage of Wackenroder's “true way of listening” continued to haunt fin-de-siècle and Weimar Republic listeners attempting to grapple with their own acculturation as auditors, the political implications of listening, and the weight of attention's musical histories (Steege). Issues of agency surface repeatedly, including the role of volition and acquiescence in musical attending, and the centrality of distraction to self-aware forms of auditory focus.
Attending to attention is, of course, a tricky business, but it is also illuminating. Centering our inquiries on historical cognitive processes themselves allows us to home in on the patterns of spotlighting, filtering, and dispersal that shape theories of creative production as well as modes of musical consumption, analysis, and investment. Our intention is to provoke questions as well as provide preliminary answers—to consider how and at what cost we pay attention.
Interest and the Musical Histories of the Attention Economy
Days before Joseph Haydn arrived in London from Vienna in January 1791, the Morning Chronicle published an excited preview of the major musical events that were planned for that year. In addition to the Hanover Square concerts, at which Haydn was to be the star attraction, the list included the “professional concert under the able conduct of Cramer,” “two rival Opera houses,” the “Antient concert,” the “Ladies subscription concert” on Sunday evenings, “Oratorios twice a week” during Lent, and the “Academy of Antient Music.”22 And there was more: there would have been concerts in the main pleasure gardens, large musical gatherings sponsored by organizations such as the Anacreontic Society, and countless semi-private musical performances in the houses of the gentry. Never before would Haydn have witnessed such a glut of music making.
By the end of his second full season, Haydn was regularly attracting immense crowds to the Festino Room at Hanover Square, which comfortably held around 800 people: “1500 people entered the door,” noted the socialite Charlotte Papendiek on her ticket following the concert of May 3, 1792. This program, advertised in several newspapers, was as densely packed as the room: a couple of symphonies, some songs, a “Concertante,” a cantata, concertos for violin and for harp, and—a finale surely guaranteed to bring the house down—the Earthquake from Haydn's Seven Last Words.23 Any ticket holders who were unable to get a good look at Haydn amid the crush were in luck: the Morning Chronicle announced that Thomas Hardy's dashing oil portrait of him—an image that was already circulating as an engraving published by John Bland—was on show that very day in the gallery of the Royal Academy. Publicity, ticketing, the jostling of celebrity singers and instrumentalists, reports and reviews published before and after the concert in newspapers and journals, not to mention the subsequent sale of parts and piano reductions of Haydn's newest music (some of which were hawked even in the concert venue): this was information overload, of a kind that Haydn had never previously experienced, a bracing encounter with the hubbub of the early “attention economy.”
The concept of the “attention economy” was unpacked most comprehensively in a book of the same name by Thomas Davenport and John Beck, published between the founding of Google and the launch of Facebook.24 Though their idea was crucially shaped by the new forms of monetary and social commerce made possible by the Internet, it was premised on an analysis of information richness by the economist Herbert Simon, who, decades earlier, had been responding, together with media theorists such as Marshall McLuhan, to a predigital iteration of public anxiety about the overabundance of data and the concomitant possibility of cognitive exhaustion. “The wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes,” Simon explained. “What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”25
It is tempting to say that Simon merely expressed, in the technocratic terms of his postwar moment, media-induced anxieties of much longer standing. Indeed, in that spirit, the philosopher Galen Strawson cites René Descartes's reassuring complaint that “it is impossible for individuals to examine the huge number of new books that are published every day”—a sentiment that was possible as early as 1642.26 But this would be to ignore the historically distinctive conception of the human mind that underpins any kind of attention economy: there are no forms of attention without the web of social practices and material infrastructures, techniques and technologies, that make them thinkable.
Foremost among the technologies that shaped Davenport and Beck's analysis was, of course, the web page (a standard unit of our phenomenal landscape nowadays), and we might pause to consider how the average web page reinforces the conceptual premises of the attention economy. Having atomized our attention into clicks, the web typically displays a center encroached upon by advertising, peripheries that are laid as so much bait. The parsing of our attention into clicks to be harvested by these pestering margins—discrete parcels of response to seduction or surprise—has everything to do with money. As in the prosopopoeia of the commodity early on in Marx's Capital, when Marx reports on what the commodity would say if it were to speak, clickbait appeals to us in a voice made of barely more than social relations, a voice whose distinctiveness and seductiveness, in the Marxian analysis, nonetheless occludes these relations themselves.27 For the commodity that is bought and sold in the course of our clicks (as we might recognize when the advertising that pops up on our browsers uncannily predicts our desires) is actually our attention itself. Every click reifies it and passes it on to somebody else, who can use it to gather still more. This transaction—as Tim Wu, among others, has noted—produces “attention” as a kind of psychic currency.28
The idea of attention as currency is a good deal older than the Internet, however. It is to some degree implied in words that nowadays seem oddly to blend monetary and psychic meanings, such as “investment” and “interest.” It was in the eighteenth century that this blend was established—when, as historians of commercial society have long observed, subjects also became consumers, and were increasingly assailed by inducements to invest in things. This was especially true in the metropolitan landscapes of eighteenth-century England. Thus the eponymous protagonist of Frances Burney's Evelina (1778) is introduced to the world in large part through the bundle of activities captured in the novel's most fashionable neologism: “shopping.” “There seem to be six or seven men belonging to each shop, and every one took care, by bowing and smirking, to be noticed,” marvels the innocent Evelina. “I thought I should never have chosen a silk, for they produced so many, I knew not which to fix upon,” she continues, describing the kind of distraction and information overload that have become motifs of the present-day attention economy.29 Amid this whirl of competing investments, many eighteenth-century commentators remarked on the risk of overstimulation, and the related epidemic of boredom appeared, an idea now loosened from the centuries-old theological condemnation of ennui. The London beau monde, explained Samuel Johnson, was “always endeavouring to raise some new desire that they may have something to persue [sic]”—seeking somewhere to invest its mental capital, lest its psychic currency should accrue no interest.30
Johnson and his contemporaries eagerly cultivated the new genres and formats of the eighteenth-century attention economy, the literary style and presentational forms that Shaftesbury had dubbed “the miscellaneous manner of writing”—the gatherings and re-gatherings of notes, quotes, and anecdotes that constituted the bulk of the period's publications.31 It is something of an irony that the continuing moral panic about the fracturing of our attention spans in the smartphone age tends to contrast an emerging form of (in)attention modeled on the Internet—an assemblage of jerky, metonymic clicks and links—with the austere and bounded self-presence of the book. Yet in the eighteenth century, the book was by no means self-evident as a symbol of cohesion and continuity: “Among the Variety of matter treated of, every Reader may find something worth laying up,” promised William Dover in the preface to his Useful Miscellanies (1753).32 The oft-repeated metaphor of knowledge as a disparate collection of useful items to be laid up as capital, whether in the memory or on the page, extended at least as far back as John Locke's distinctively mercantile image of the educated mind, common in late seventeenth-century thought, as, in part, a “magazine of materials,” well stocked with experience.33 Given the long-standing metaphorical interplay of physical storehouses, psychic spaces, and new media forms, one can well understand why the eighteenth-century literary entrepreneur Edward Cave should have adopted the word “magazine” to denote a publication: the shop or warehouse of miscellaneous things.
Next to these literary technologies of the attention economy, the music historian could place a cluster of media platforms that came to prominence toward the end of the eighteenth century: the ticketed public concert (of the kind that Salomon and Haydn staged in London), the purpose-designed concert rooms where such diversions took place (such as those at Hanover Square), and the copious printed materials (announcements, reviews, and related musical publications) that mediated these events. And the music that Haydn and others composed in this commercial environment inevitably contained formal traces of the new attention economy. Music historians are well used to the claim—argued in connection with Paris by James Johnson, London by Thomas Tolley, and German-speaking centers by Matthew Riley—that new ideals of attention (or, sometimes, a species of attention called “attentiveness”) may have developed in the late eighteenth century, and that they may have accompanied social practices such as listening in relative silence.34 Less common, however, is the idea not only that musical publications and performances might have been subject to changing techniques of attention, or might have been in dialogue with changing listening publics, but that musical forms, styles, and genres could be considered among the technologies that produced the modern currency of attention itself.
I have argued elsewhere that several of Haydn's London compositions both responded to and taught the relatively new concepts of interest and the interesting in music, via musical technologies that were designed not merely to capture audience attention in the concert room, but to sustain this attention in an iterable way, in part by acknowledging and spurring the further production of music-related discourse.35 One of the period's most energetic producers of such discourse, Charles Burney was only the most prominent of contemporaries to laud the “contrivance, and the interesting combination of the whole” in Haydn's symphonies.36 These interesting musical combinations kept him, and everybody else, writing and talking. Following their earliest performances, several of the London symphonies acquired nicknames that pointed out, in the baldest terms, their most interesting features. The “Surprise”—the unequivocal hit of the 1792 season—was perhaps the most lastingly popular of them, reportedly inducing raptures with its sudden timpani stroke and orchestral tutti in the midst of its otherwise placid Andante. These symphonic nicknames are evidence, I have argued, not merely of Haydn's newly blatant attention-seeking in London's densely populated attention economy, but of a new range of social relations mediated by the London music market: publicity and advertising, critical extraction and elaboration in newspapers and journals, and the expectation of future iterations in formats such as piano transcriptions—all technologies that made possible new modes of musical curiosity, discrimination, and attentiveness. It seems to me that, in this case, the term “interest” proves more useful and revealing to the historian of this period than its more immediate-sounding cousin “attention,” not only because it cropped up repeatedly in contemporary commentaries on Haydn's music, and not only because it more clearly connoted economic models of personal involvement, which were especially relevant as concert impresarios and music sellers competed to sell tickets and publications. More than this, the iterative, discourse-oriented nature of the interesting—more obviously than the apparent suddenness of attention-grabbing—points toward the many technologies and media forms that worked to turn ephemeral strategies of musical attention-seeking into more lasting capital. Haydn's music generated interest, and thus value, over and over.
By contrast, “attention” risks implying a capacity of mind that is somehow thinkable apart from the technologies and social relations with which it is always enmeshed. Now and again, William Weber's important exploration of the question “Did people listen in the eighteenth century?” frames the history of musical attention as though it were predominantly a quantitative matter, a question of the ways in which “other musical cultures” valued and inculcated greater or lesser amounts of attentiveness.37 I would be more inclined to say that, in the absence of the media infrastructures and social relations characteristic of the incipient capitalism that Haydn first encountered in England, one cannot speak meaningfully of attentiveness as though it were a measurable degree of psychic investment—in other words, that particular conceptions of attention require particular economies. As in the case of the insistent appeals of clickbait or the seductive voice of the Marxian commodity, even the most distinctive and instantaneous moments of the London symphonies were produced and sustained by a series of social relations: compressed into the single click of attention are the complex patterns of musical mediation that model attention itself.
Since the nineteenth century, most discussions of musical attention have been structured around a series of ethically freighted oppositions: attentiveness versus distraction, continuous versus intermittent, depth versus surface, interest versus disinterest, structural versus culinary, and so on. Yet the music of the late eighteenth-century commercial metropolis might reveal what the attention economy and its ostensibly more virtuous opposites have in common: a conception of all attention as a kind of expenditure, and thus the belief that even the most superior forms of attention involve investing one's psychic currency wisely, and in the choicest things.
Talking to the Hand: The “Hysterical Epistemology” of the Migrating Sensorium
Nineteenth-century European medical texts abound in reports of patients allegedly seeing, tasting, smelling, or hearing by means of their internal organs or their extremities. These dislocations traversed corporeal and national boundaries. In Aix, Estelle L'Hardy heard with her wrist, elbow, and stomach, while in Bologna, a woman heard with the palms of her hands, the soles of her feet, and the pit of her stomach.38 Ann Finn of Dublin could hear only when spoken to on her abdomen, while Johanna Anschütz of Vienna heard with the hollow of her hand.39 The patients—typically young women—acted as if some or all of their senses had been transferred to another limb or organ, one that alone was capable of perception. Contemporary physicians ascribed these sensory transformations to a trance-like state of catatonic passivity. Alternately termed “hysteria,” “catalepsy,” “ecstasy,” or “somnambulism,” this condition was typically diagnosed as arising either spontaneously from organic causes or as a result of a mesmeric magnetization.40
The phenomenon of “transposition des sens” or sensory transposition, as these altered capacities became known, was first described by Jacques-Henri-Désiré Petetin in 1805. Petetin (1744–1808), a Lyon-based physician with an interest in medical electricity, had been summoned to treat a young female somnambulist. At one point, she began to sing compulsively.41 Unable to attract the woman's attention in this disordered state, Petetin grasped her, and in doing so slipped and fell across her body, crying out, “It is truly unfortunate that I cannot make this woman stop singing.”42 Astonishingly, his outburst brought about an immediate reaction from the invalid, who halted her song. From this, Petetin concluded that she had heard him only because, as he stumbled, his mouth had made accidental contact with her abdominal region. In his subsequent investigations, he discovered that the site of hearing could also be transferred to her feet and fingertips. The woman further revealed that she sang only to distract herself from an additional altered sensory capacity: her sight had been transposed inward, affording a literal clairvoyance in the form of the horrifying view of her internal organs. These symptoms led Petetin to speculate that, under certain conditions, the loci of sensation could roam and concentrate throughout the body.43
After Petetin published this case history in 1805, reports of transposed senses began to appear throughout Europe. The diagnostic category of sensory transposition persisted for over a century in the face of repeated debunking by expert commissions.44 Moreover, the conspicuous role of musical performance in Petetin's symptomology remained remarkably constant: as late as 1909, Cesare Lombroso described a case of sensory transposition in a young girl who showed an “extraordinary aptitude for music.”45
The tenacious grip of Petetin's case history on the nineteenth-century medical imagination is startling. Understanding the persistence and popularity of the claim that the senses could wander throughout the body requires us to look beyond the explicit medical theories invoked to explain the symptoms of the disorder and to consider the broader stakes of the migrating sensorium. The conspicuous role of sound in Petetin's diagnosis and its reception indicates that this “hysterical epistemology”—to coin a term that captures the implicit link between the roaming senses and the Hippocratic theory of the wandering uterus—was modeled, in many respects, on the modality of audition. As I will show, this epistemology further entailed an inverted hierarchy of knowledge and power, one in which the female patient acquired a temporary dominance over her male physician owing to a tacit elevation of audition over vision. The frequent and widespread recurrence of Petetin's syndrome, I argue, thus testifies to the existence of a robust resistance from below to rationalist (and male-dominated) discourses about attention.
The second half of the eighteenth century famously saw the rise of new theories of attention conceived along multiple axes: involuntary versus voluntary, single versus divided, pathological versus healthy.46 Whereas in the past, focused attention had frequently been linked to notions of contemplation and self-control, distributed attention now became correlated to health and single-mindedness to pathology. As Natalie Phillips has recently demonstrated, this transformation was evident in the rise of the psychiatric diagnosis of monomania, in which the mind was believed to obsessively return to a single idea.47 Another manifestation of the newly negative connotations of unswerving focus can be found in accounts of mesmerized subjects compelled to attend to—and obey—the commands of an external agent.
Around the beginning of the nineteenth century, Petetin and others began to explain mesmeric phenomena—such as hysterical sensory transposition—as the result of mechanistic nervous electricity rather than the action of an occult magnetic fluid. In the 1830s, this idea was gradually superseded by the realization that the same experiences could be caused by manipulating the faculty of attention through suggestion.48 In 1841, Scottish physician James Braid effectively confirmed this theory by demonstrating that hypnosis could be self-induced. The mesmeric trance, he maintained, arose from “absolute repose of body, fixed attention, and suppressed respiration, concomitant with that fixity of attention.”49 Recasting the condition as essentially consisting of changes to the attention meant that various behaviors previously ascribed to supernatural or electric forces could now be interpreted as indications of morbid single-mindedness.
Given the new importance of attention in accounting for hysterical phenomena, the immersive experience of sound emerged as a particularly appealing illustration of the way in which the senses might wander. For example, British physician Thomas Renwick invoked the case of a deaf man who was able to enjoy listening to music by relying on bone conduction to explain the symptoms of a patient who claimed that her sense of sight had migrated to her hands.50 Auditory sense transposition, whose only indication was an apparent change to the faculty of attention, as demonstrated by an intentional response to given sound, was at once feasible and uncontroversial: physicians simply noted that transposition had occurred when their charges reacted solely to sounds directed at a certain limb or organ. As the philosopher Alexis Bertrand remarked when discussing Petetin's patient as late as 1891, the woman “even heard through her big toes, so that it may be said she was all hearing, although not all ears.”51
The multidimensional nature of hearing also led Gabriel Andral, professor of internal medicine in Paris, to attempt to demystify the diagnosis of somnambulism in 1833 by comparing it to “a familiar instance of a kind of abstraction noticed every day,” namely the situation in which two persons are “so intently occupied with each other, with their minds so mutually concentrated, that they are perfectly insensible to all that is passing around them.” In this scenario, he continued, “[q]uestions are put to them in vain. Sometimes they do not hear them at all; or if they do, they do not understand their import.”52 Here excessive attention caused concrete sensory transformations—a deafness to sounds produced by anyone other than the subject of fascination.53 A related explanation was proposed in 1866 by Ambroise-Auguste Liébeault, the founder of the Nancy School of hypnotherapy, who reported that he had successfully transposed his patients’ sense of hearing to their fingers and stomach.54 He clarified, however, that this was simply a hallucination induced by suggestion. It was sufficient to command hypnotized individuals to ignore all sounds not addressed to their fingertips for them to lose the capacity to voluntarily direct their attention to other sounds.
Another significant factor to consider in the cultural construction of sensory transposition (and the changing understandings of attention it implied) is the impact of a major revolution in nineteenth-century medicine: the development of new technologies that gave physicians access to a patient's internal organs. The most momentous of these innovations was arguably René Laënnec's invention of the stethoscope in 1816. A paradigmatically multisensory device, the stethoscope relied on the medium of touch to convey sounds from deep within the patient's body into the physician's ear, where they were translated into insights about the state of the internal organs. This process entailed a kind of divination that superficially resembled the marvel related by Petetin's somnambulist, who found that her “inner sight” allowed her to scrutinize her own innards. The pathologist Michel Peter made precisely this point in 1877 when he suggested that Laënnec's invention had “transposed our senses by allowing us to see with the ear the visceral lesions through the chest walls, now made transparent.”55
If mediate auscultation already entailed a form of sensory transposition, it also transformed the experience of hearing itself, as Jonathan Sterne has observed.56 In order to focus solely upon specific noises emitted by the inner organs, a listening physician needed to develop meticulous habits of concentration. Interpreting auditory information through the stethoscope thus necessitated a heightened process of filtering that required the utmost attention, paired with a robust capacity for ignoring irrelevant distractions. The immense anxiety—on the part of both physicians and patients—that accompanied the introduction of the stethoscope into medical practice demonstrates how this mode of single-minded auditory attention became linked with pathology in the popular imagination.
So why are shifting discourses of attention so closely intertwined with sensory transposition in the nineteenth century? The answer may lie in the circulation of attention itself within the therapeutic setting and the special role of hearing in this context. The act of hearing and acknowledging another's speech is to grant that other person a kind of power over oneself. Whether consciously or unconsciously, patients who confined their hearing to moments in which a doctor communicated directly to a chosen limb or organ were essentially setting strict conditions under which they themselves would listen and respond to sounds. In doing so they rejected the demand to distribute their attention while also compelling a particular form of attention from their caretakers. Patients were thus able to determine how they would attend to others, while also exercising control over the way others attended to them.
The inverted power dynamic implicit in such encounters was evident to members of the medical community. As the French physician Alexandre Bertrand observed in the 1820s, “when, then, an ecstatic affirms that she hears only by means of the foot, the knee, the elbow, or any part of the body except the ears, all that we can conclude … is that hearing can function for her only upon the condition that her interlocutor touches her foot, her knee, her elbow, etc.”57 In contrast to Liébeault's later success in hypnotizing his patients into hearing with their fingers, the entranced subject generally determined the circumstances of sensory transposition. This involved a renegotiation of authority between the doctor and his patient, something that we might compare with the famously charged dynamics between male physicians and female hysterics. As in the scandalous case of John Elliotson and Elizabeth Okey, female patients were controlling the physicians who believed they were controlling them.58 Such power exchanges were particularly explicit in cases where sensory transposition was allegedly accompanied by claims of medical clairvoyance comprising the patient's ability to view her own organs or predict the course of her disease.59
The gendered aspect of these role reversals is striking, especially given the inadvertently comic eroticism of a doctor speaking by pressing his lips or fingers to a patient's foot or abdomen. For oppressed subjects such as women, invalids, and the insane, exhibiting sensory transposition (whether consciously feigned or experienced in response to a physician's unwitting prompts) afforded a temporary alleviation of their subordinate position in the social hierarchy. Beyond exercising power over their doctors, patients with these symptoms attracted considerable attention and occasionally financial reward, since general audiences as well as men of science flocked to see them exhibit their abilities.60 In this way, the conventions of diagnosis provided patients with an opportunity partially to determine the circumstances of their illness, whether real or imagined. Rather than the physician setting the terms, the psychic currency of attention allowed the hysterical epistemology to hold sway: an upended reality in which limbs and organs were capable of audition, the patient viewed her organs and prescribed her own treatment, and the entranced subject herself decided the exact conditions under which she would (not) hear.
Thus, for over a century, patients, often female, reported the migration of their senses, a phenomenon indicative of a multilayered medical imaginary involving the renegotiation of sensation, knowledge, and power. These wandering sensory capacities were frequently linked to a heightened sensitivity to music and sound, as well as an occult ability to predict the course of a given illness or hysterical fit. As a perverse parody of medical expertise, sensory transposition enacted a grass-roots opposition to the advent of new regimes of attentive listening analyzed by Sterne and others.61 Recovering the traces of such unexpectedly inverted epistemologies reveals the centrality of the auditory modality to nineteenth-century medical practice, while at the same time inviting us to consider the means by which the weaponization of attention continues to function as a covert strategy of resistance.
Works belonging to the highest order of genius depend upon the rare combination of three distinct qualities—(1) Invention, (2) Expression, (3) Concentration. Speaking generally, we may say that Beethoven and Mozart possessed all three. … Schubert, the first and second. As fast as [Schubert's] ideas arose they were poured forth on paper. He was like a gardener bewildered with the luxuriant growth springing up around him. … His music is more the work of a gifted dreamer. … His thought possesses Schubert—Beethoven labors till he has possessed his thought.62
In this extract from an 1866 sketch of Schubert by English critic Hugh Reginald Haweis, a host of negative assessments of the composer are heaped together: he is a “dreamer” (rather than a Beethovenian laborer); he lacks formal control; he tends toward wandering; his music emerges from an unthinking or trance-like “naturalism.” Of course, these kinds of claim were not new—they resonate back to the earliest profiles of Schubert by Johann Michael Vogl—but what interests me here is Haweis's tracing of the composer's perceived faults to a single crux problem: an absence of concentration. The idea had already been broached in an 1860 profile by James William Davison, who described Schubert as “greatly wanting in the power of concentration,” and in Heinrich Kreissle von Hellborn's biography, in which Schubert was said to lack “zusammengefaßte Kraft” (concentrative power). Earlier critics had described his tendency toward “somnambulism,” “unconscious” composition, and a physical and intellectual “sponginess” at odds with “willpower,” “reflection,” and mental effort.63 Schubert's soundworlds, for many of his nineteenth-century critics, seemed to emerge from a specially loose or undirected form of attention, and it is this state that I contemplate here. What does it mean to refuse or eschew “concentration”? Why are references to a wandering or idle mind repeated with such insistence by both Schubert's admirers and his detractors? Such epithets have, in some ways, proven damaging,64 but I suggest here that they might also be illuminating. What happens if, rather than resisting Schubert's allegedly “unconcentrated” self, we embrace and examine it? What can be gained, in other words, by situating the composer—both his reception and his approaches to musical production—within eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century theories of attentiveness?
Questions about the origins, forms, and proper molding of attention are perennial, but as a wealth of recent literature has shown, they were especially central to eighteenth-century philosophers and aesthetic theorists, who saw the focused mind as key to the intellectual project of the Enlightenment.65 Attention was, as Georg Friedrich Meier put it, “the hand with which the soul grasps a dark idea in its ground, lifts it up and thus brings it into the light of day.”66 Competing ideas about the mechanisms and gradations of mental focus developed among British and continental philosopher-psychologists, though general trends can also be identified. A useful overview is provided by Margaret Koehler, who traces a path from John Locke to Dugald Stewart, noting a gradual move from the idea of attention as an involuntary or automatic function (the mind passively receiving ideas that “offer themselves”), toward its conception as a voluntary and active state (attention as “the effort of the mind, to detain the idea or the perception”).67 As Koehler shows, theories of multifocal attention, which argued that the mind could/should pay heed to multiple stimuli simultaneously, gave way over the course of the eighteenth century to a valorization of unifocal attention, the idea of steady concentration on a single object or train of thought. Central to this shift was a sense of “distraction” as the key impediment to philosophical and creative achievement: James Beattie warned in 1783 against its potential to generate an “absent” or “empty” mind, and Stewart insisted in 1792 that fruitful thought focused steadfastly on a particular line of inquiry, “exclud[ing] the other object that solicits its notice.”68 Women were considered especially vulnerable to distraction, their “soft” brain and nervous tissue rendering them open to every passing impression, and therefore unable to maintain mental focus and logic.69 As Natalie Phillips has shown, conduct manuals from the late seventeenth century onward repeatedly counsel women to police their “naturally” wandering minds, thus avoiding daydreaming, meaningless diversion, and hazy (potentially unvirtuous) forms of imagining.70 Robust, virile, and enlightened thought—the foundation of knowledge and taste—involved a concentrated effort of will, what Johann Georg Sulzer called “voluntary attention accompanied by reflection” (1774) and Joseph Priestley termed an “exercise of our active powers” (1777).71
But as the century waned, relentless injunctions to pay attention—to train and mold the mind—began to meet with resistance. Of course, pockets of refusal had always existed (especially among women, who had long celebrated the potential of poetic “wandering”),72 but they started to emerge more persistently through the 1780s and 1790s, just as the cult of concentration reached its peak. Literary critics and historians have floated a number of possible explanations for the shift: public exhaustion resulting from the militarization of attention during the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars; cognitive shutdown in the face of a late eighteenth-century information glut; reaction against emerging regimes of industrial-capitalist production; and response to the proto-Romantic sense that highly trained forms of attention blockaded creative cognition.73
Clearly, all of these forces were in play, and over the course of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries molded new discourses of attention. Consider, for example, the Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste (1790) by Scottish priest-philosopher Archibald Alison, which all but reversed entrenched ideas about concentration, understanding, and aesthetic appreciation. Here, Alison argued that the state of mind most amenable to the cultivation of taste was one in which “the imagination is free and unembarrassed,” not focused on a particular target but “open to all the impressions, which the objects that are before us, can create.” Rather than being fundamental to inspired cognition, trained attention was anathema to it, resulting in “steady and precise” as opposed to “enlarged and extensive” thought; indeed, only “the vacant and the unemployed” mind had access to deeper modes of understanding.74 Alison's call for a freeing of attention was echoed, in somewhat different form, by Friedrich Schiller in his treatise On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795). Schiller too argued for the importance of a liberated state of contemplation, positioning the “free play” of the mind as a crucial antidote to the relentless concentration (the “specialization”) inherent in industrial labor.75 For him, this release was important not only in order to neutralize the dehumanizing modern economy of attention but also (as for Alison) to encourage taste and moral character. Rather than just a letting go, the unconcentrating of the mind was a form of enlarging, a sensuous opening to beauty that “consummat[ed]” one's “humanity.”76
Schiller's ideas had significant resonance among English Romantic poets, including Coleridge, whose meditations on creative work return repeatedly to the importance of the “indolent and passive” mind.77 But in German-speaking circles, the argument for unconstrained attention was extended most famously by Friedrich Schlegel, whose novel Lucinde (1799) featured a passage titled “Idyll of Idleness.” Rejecting both “concentrated reason” and the culture of utility with which it was entwined, the “Idyll” hails cognitive relaxation (“intentional … passivity”) as the true source of knowledge and aesthetic insight. Idleness, for Schlegel, is a state not of laziness but of sensual presentness in which the mind is illuminated by an all-inclusive awareness of natural sights and sounds (the lapping of waves, the play of the breeze). Released from a set trajectory, such a mind is free to wander, its mental shapes reflecting the landscape itself, evolving into a “living fullness of superfluous leaves and branches.” The resulting unpruned forms of attention are not just poetic (giving rise to “many melodies”) but theological, facilitating a glimpse of the divine macrocosm—a sense of “one's whole ego and … the world and life.”78 Significantly, according to Schlegel, the new passive forms of focus come most easily to women. In his writing, the cognitive softness once rejected as a feminine defect is appropriated as a masculine virtue.
And now we turn back to Schubert, a composer whose critical reception seems intimately bound up with these discourses of attention—indeed, defined by precisely the tensions concerning free-mindedness and concentration that were being worked out in philosophical and psychological exchange in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Schlegel's Lucinde was well known to the circle of Schubert and Franz von Schober, establishing a set of radical social ideas as well as a new language in which to describe states of creative inspiration and production.79 References made by Schubert's listeners from the 1820s onward to “unlaborious” genius, structural wandering, “natural” overflowing of ideas, and dreamlike stasis resonate easily with the ideal of passivity advocated in Schlegel's “Idyll,” as does the notion of Schubert as a composer of “feminine” sensibility. (As Schlegel's writing suggests, the epithet was not always intended as a negative.) These labels—and more broadly, the figure of the unconcentrated composer—appear, in light of early Romantic discourses about idleness, less like indicators of failure and more like signals of cognitive modernity that were attractive to “Romantics,” less so to conservatives, and certainly out of fashion by the time of Haweis's sketch.
The connection between Schubert's compositional idiosyncracies (a tendency to melodic repetition or recoloring rather than development, for instance) and an aesthetics of wandering is not foreign to modern scholarship. Both Adorno and Dahlhaus associated the composer's work with a meandering absorption in the sensuous detail of landscape,80 and more recent critics have taken up these ideas, linking the concept of wandering with that of temporality, often reading Schubert's nonteleological lyricism, circularity, and harmonically “floating” passages as signals of memory or nostalgia.81 While these ideas are useful, I would suggest that it was not just a recollective tendency (or a form of Biedermeier complacency) that molded Schubert's soundworld, but an investment in the radically idle cultures of attention alluded to above. Scott Burnham points the way toward such a conclusion, suggesting that passages often marked as “recollective” (the static middle section of the Impromptu in F Minor D. 935, no. 1, the second large phrase of the Piano Sonata in C Minor, D. 958, the hushed tremolo near the opening of the String Quartet in G Major, D. 887) have the primary effect of “alter[ing] the listener's quality of attention,” moving away from a “predictive” toward a “focal” cognitive mode, a condition of presentness.82 This idea is provocative and might be pursued: for instance, the “presentness” so crucial to early Romantic ideas about creative cognition was not conceived as monolithic but encompassed a variety of overlapping states. Schlegel parsed idleness into forms of ambient awareness, wandering, sleeping, and “pure vegetating”;83 Schiller outlined states of free contemplation and play; and Coleridge embraced meditative repetition alongside modes of just-noticing, in which boundaries between back- and foreground, center and margins, become blurred.84
If we accept that Schubert's “unconcentrated” orientation was central to his musical aesthetics, we might then notice how his states of musical presentness differ from one another: how, for instance, the devices of prolonged stasis that generate a sense of relaxation (sleep?) in the wondrous second movement of the String Quintet, D. 956, are distinct from those of unhurried repetition and melodic extension (play?) in the opening of the Moment musical op. 94, no. 1. Perhaps more importantly, we might map the way these stretches relate to more active, teleological passages. Schubert's work is not, of course, uniformly relaxed; passages of “idle” mind frequently give way to stretches of concentrated thematic development, sometimes contained in contrasting structural sections, occasionally in violent interjections. The tension between activity and passivity in his music—its attentive rhythm—seems carefully calibrated, exploring what Schlegel positioned in the “Idyll” as a dialectic between Promethean work (mundane utility) and Herculean rest (divine awareness), and what Schiller described in his treatise as a tension between production and reflection.
What was the proper relationship between these modes? How was an increasingly industrial society to balance the rhythms of cognitive focus and rest? And what role could passivity play in a modern attentive economy? These are some of the questions with which Schubert's music grapples, and which he invites us to contemplate. In so doing, he addresses some of the most pressing social issues of the moment, rendering his work modern, political, and “psychological” in new ways (to borrow Schumann's term). Suzannah Clark, in arguing against the notion of a sloppy or unaware Schubert, points out that “[his] music sounds involuntary but was not created that way.”85 I could not agree more: rather than accidentally losing focus, the composer consciously interrupts the trained attention denounced by Schlegel (and famously embraced by the Promethean Beethoven), creating new patterns of work and relaxation. He invites us to notice and enter an alternative attentive ecology—to acknowledge the value of rest, the creative potential of unconstrained focus, and above all, the ways in which (moral) assumptions about work and idleness have molded our sense of worth, coherence, and meaning.
Bergson, Debussy, and Early Twentieth-Century
For much of the nineteenth century, the mainstream of academic philosophy in France held that consciousness, at the most elemental level, was premised on a certain kind of purposeful mental activity that presupposed a unitary, self-possessed human subject. Thus Victor Cousin's influential Du vrai, du beau et du bien, published in 1853—though based on ideas disseminated thirty-five years earlier through his lectures at the Sorbonne and published from student notes in 183786—claimed that “there is perception only if there is some degree of attention, and perception ends at the moment when our [mental] activity ends.”87 Toward the end of the century, however, this philosophical tradition came increasingly under critique. At the vanguard of an emerging psychological modernism, intellectuals such as Théodule Ribot and Hippolyte Taine argued, against Cousin's metaphysical spiritualism, that mental processes arise from and are entirely dependent on material processes in a material brain. From this physiological perspective, and drawing on the work of English psychologists, Ribot's essay “Le mécanisme de l'attention” (1887) maintained that attention is an abnormal state, one which “cannot persist for very long because it contradicts the fundamental condition of psychic life”—that is, continual change and variation.88 For Ribot, then, in contrast to Cousin, perception far exceeds the purposeful mental activity that is characteristic of attention because it consists, in large part, in habitual mental processes that operate beneath the threshold of our conscious awareness.
With respect to musical listening, challenges to the idea of the undivided attention of a self-present, willing subject took a variety of forms around the end of the century. One especially well-known example is the account of aesthetic experience in Henri Bergson's Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience (1889, translated into English as Time and Free Will). In a rebuke to what Bergson saw as the crude biological determinism of Ribot's psychological modernism, Bergson reimagined consciousness as a continuous interpenetration of heterogeneous psychic states, an interpenetration that is constitutive of reality as experienced in duration (“la durée”). In the course of elaborating this account of consciousness as heterogeneous multiplicity, Bergson characterized aesthetic experience as an attenuated version of hypnosis, its purpose being, he claimed, “to put to sleep the active or rather resistant powers of our personality and thus to bring us into a state of perfect responsiveness.”89 With respect to music, Bergson proposed that “rhythm and measure suspend the normal flow of our sensations and ideas by causing our attention to swing to and fro between fixed points, and they take hold of us with such force that even the faintest imitation of a groan will suffice to fill us with the utmost sadness.”90 Musical attention in this sense did not entail a listener's active engagement, much less any intellectual involvement, but the passive condition of being acted upon, creating a state of heightened suggestibility and affective responsiveness.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, a very different rethinking of musical attention figured in discussions surrounding the music of Claude Debussy. Specifically, the question of musical attention in early Debussy reception is inseparable from changing ideas about what it is in music that one is supposed to pay attention to. For many critics, the idea of music as bound by convention, able to be parsed into harmony, melody, and form, had been usurped in Debussy's compositional practice by music as a kind of sonic materiality that knew no such categories, or that could be understood only by reference to the nonmusical noises of nature. Reviewing the premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande in the Revue des deux mondes in 1902, Camille Bellaigue, a Conservatoire-trained pianist, complained that the score
seems like nothing but a noise, or rather a mixture of diverse, vague noises: a door that creaks, a child that cries in the distance, the moving of furniture, the sighing of the wind in the leaves or on the water. One begins to doubt at times that all of this is notated, that these rumors and whispers have passed from an inorganic sonorous state to the state of organized sounds, and from the realm of nature and matter into that of mind and art.91
Other reviewers, more charitably, claimed that Debussy's accomplishment was to find musical means to engage listeners’ attention in a new way. Auguste Boisard wrote in Le monde illustré that “[Debussy's] orchestra seems to be a constant notation of the noises of nature, of the whistling of the wind, the songs of the birds, the murmuring of springs, the song of the cicadas, the quivering of the leaves, the roar of the waves, the moaning of the wind, the ringing of bells”; nonetheless, “he defines and makes intelligible all of these vague, scattered harmonies, with a delicate art in which the attentive listener finds as much interest as charm.”92
Consequently, repeated assessments of Debussy's music in the Parisian musical press as, by turns, noisy, dreamy, and imprecise should not be taken as indications that musical attention was no longer required, or indeed that the proper mode of attending to this music was not an active one. There was a concerted effort in the first several years of Debussy criticism after Pelléas to think through the kind of attention that is appropriate to a music such as Debussy's—a mode of musical listening that attends not to melody, harmony, or form as conventionally conceived, but to sound as materiality, freed from the strictures of convention, and that could often be described only by recourse to its resemblance to natural models (such as speech, the sounds of nature, or, somewhat more abstractly, the harmonic series).93 Debussy himself repeatedly framed his aesthetic as, at least in part, a reconfiguration of auditory attention: in an interview of 1909, for example, he complained, “We don't listen to the thousand noises of nature all around us; we do not pay enough attention to this music of such variety that [nature] offers us in such abundance. It envelops us, and we have lived in the midst of it until now without perceiving it.”94
One way of understanding the novelty of debussyste discourse, then, is as a reconceptualization of the relationship between musical attention and recognition, one that, in dialogue with recent advances in the fledgling sciences of psychology and sensory physiology, applied new scrutiny to the act of recognition and the sensory processes on which it depends. In this context, musical attention became a matter of first recognizing one's acculturation into a certain mode of musical listening and expectation and then attempting to hear beyond that acculturation in order to access musical sonority in a new and different way. Jean Marnold, one of Debussy's most vociferous defenders in the immediate aftermath of Pelléas and a central figure in the discursive milieu of debussysme in the years that followed, described Debussy's musical intervention in 1904:
There will be—there is today—music before Debussy and music after Debussy. The former is music of the past, of more or less arbitrary and spurious theories; the latter is that of the future because it arises from potentialities, ignored or misrecognized but essential and … ineluctable, like the laws of nature. Tomorrow sensibility will no longer spontaneously understand any other language.95
Debussy's achievement, then, was to alter listeners’ receptivity to musical sounds, enabling them to attend to new and different harmonies. But—notwithstanding his own appeal to a naive receptivity to the sounds of nature—the capacity for musical attention nonetheless depends upon one's cultural preparation, without which no amount of attention is sufficient to hear music properly. (For the same reason, Marnold contended that we can never attend to music of the past as it was heard at the time of its composition: “However deeply we manage to recreate in ourselves an adequate sensibility and transpose ourselves” into the musical style of a bygone era, “we can succeed only in taking part—and only for an instant—in a spectacle of internal contemplation.”)96 In 1908 Louis Laloy, another influential critic of the time and a friend of Debussy, imagined being transported to a concert hall in the twenty-second century: “No doubt we would receive some vague impression of grandeur and force, or even delicateness or sweetness; but we would be incapable of either following the work or assigning it any signification, because we could neither sort out [démêler] nor coordinate our sensations.”97
This debussyste account of musical attention had nothing to do with Bergson's likening of aesthetic experience to hypnosis, of which Debussy critics, in the years immediately following the premiere of Pelléas, were almost certainly unaware. (Bergson's influence on debussyste discourse came only after his meteoric rise to fame following the publication of L’évolution créatrice in 1907.) To be sure, because these critics were highly attuned to the issue of acculturation, their conception of musical attention tended to acknowledge, to a far greater extent than critics earlier in the century (such as François-Joseph Fétis, an admirer of Cousin), that this attention is not simply a matter of mental activity and volition; it is limited and conditioned by a historically variable “sensibility,” which intervenes in musical listening in ways of which we are not consciously aware. But in order to properly grasp Debussy's music—and especially to advance music's historical evolution, as Debussy had—a new and purposeful mode of attention was nonetheless required. Marnold went so far as to compare Debussy's heightened auditory discernment with the recent discovery of radium: “One no more invents a chord than one invents a color, shade, or hue. Like radium, all of this lies preexistent in nature and must be intuited [pressenti], contemplated, discovered.”98
After 1909, however, as Bergson's philosophy began to enter the sphere of intellectual influences that informed Debussy criticism, Debussy's music became a model of a very different kind of musical attention.99 For Raphäel Cor in 1912, connecting Debussy's music to Bergson's philosophy was a way of shoring up the case against Debussy. Cor argued that musical experience involves active affective engagement, “musical enthusiasm, a state of ardent lyricism.” On this point, Cor tells us, “all the psychologists are very nearly unanimous,” citing the authority of Ribot and Taine.100 Cor went on to lament that Bergson's understanding of music—that is, his account of musical listening as essentially passive—was brought to its sonic fulfillment in Debussy's compositions.101 This music “acts on you like a narcotic. You feel dispersed into this musical vapor that surrounds you; you taste the raptures of a slow asphyxiation.” True musical experience, Cor claimed, is nothing like “those states of vague reverie provoked by more artificial methods, like opium, morphine, or the art of M. Debussy.”102
In his anxiety about the susceptibility of the human person to being acted upon, and more specifically, the susceptibility of the European male to the influence of a feminized musical experience, Cor hardly presents us with something historically new. More significantly, he was an early exemplar of a self-consciously psychological account of musical attention that rejected modernist compositional innovations, in large part because of their ostensible potential to unsettle the model of the active and self-present listener. The paradox in Cor's position on Debussy is that the authorities he invoked to support his view—Ribot and Taine—had themselves emphatically rejected the idea of a self-possessed, fully volitional subject, which they regarded as an outmoded relic associated with the metaphysical philosophy of Cousin. Yet this same psychological modernism, when it came to musical listening, rejected, in one fell swoop, both of the challenges to the active and self-present listener discussed above—the debussyste one and the Bergsonian one—even though the Bergsonian philosophy that Cor linked to Debussy's compositional practice had been written without any knowledge of Debussy's music, and even though the critics who advocated for Debussy's music had themselves been offering a model of musical attentiveness very different from Bergson's.
This early French psychological discourse (of which, of course, Cor is not the only exemplar) is in stark contrast to debussysme and its attempts to think through new possibilities for what musical attention might entail. Instead, “la psychologie musicale” attempted to recover a model of musical attention premised on nineteenth-century ideas of mental activity, self-presence, and an ahistorical listening body, even as—often turning to the music of Beethoven or Wagner by way of illustration—it reinscribed the authority of a German Romantic common-practice idiom against an emerging twentieth-century modernism. For the psychologists, in other words, musical listening was an opportunity to perpetuate a metaphysics of self-presence that otherwise had no place in a modern, empirical psychologie. At the same time, this psychological discourse tended toward reifying the very category whose coherence debussysme had so insistently called into question—that is, the category of “music” itself.
Joining In or Letting Go?
How we hear music: this became a problem in the nineteenth century.103
What is required to begin writing a history of listening? Presumably, you want more than simply a wealth of historical record ready to hand, whether concerning audience behaviors, taste publics, or media technologies, let alone shifts in style or compositional poetics. Rather, before that, you need some motive and aptitude for reflecting, often quite speculatively, on what listening might even be such that it can be understood as susceptible to change at all. This would, one supposes, involve both an openness to the particularity of auditory acts themselves as an aspect of life, and also some practice in techniques of description in order to be able to register something about the character of listening that would escape ordinary recognition. Yet such an aptitude would further, one might equally suppose, spring up at moments in which some dissatisfaction is provoked by something in one's own circumstances, dissatisfaction as much with available modes of audition as with available modes of describing audition. Thinking, it has been said, may well begin with disappointment.104
My contribution to this colloquy dwells on one such moment, a pair of Weimar-era texts in which the object of disappointment is nothing less than “nineteenth-century musical attention” itself. To the extent that the ranks of the dissatisfied and disappointed—no less than those of the passionately and even radically thoughtful—are often occupied disproportionately by people in their twenties, it is fitting that the chosen case here involves the conjunction of two twentysomethings who at the moment in question were just stepping into public view as professional thinkers: Heinrich Besseler (1900–69) and Günther Stern, later Anders (1902–92). Their published reflections from the years 1925–28 convey a vivid moral urgency about the stakes involved in the interpretation of what it might mean to hear music in a state of attention, and that urgency was heightened by the need to pass judgment on the past. Of interest here is the way they leveraged their distance from the historical origins of concert listening in order to turn that phenomenon back into a historical peculiarity, away from the natural disposition it had come to seem. Roughly speaking, despite enormous disparities between their respective wider intellectual, ethical, and political programs, their common conceit was that, while there probably had been such a thing as “nineteenth-century musical attention,” the idea of aesthetic perception at the center of that cultural practice had been an illusion. This illusion was no longer tenable and hence needed a revised image, a better theory or story that one could tell oneself in order to make sense of the peculiar phenomenon that is musical hearing.
Besseler's 1925 essay “Fundamental Issues of Musical Listening” is something of a minor classic in music studies.105 For at least one recent reader, it marks a founding moment in the historiography of listening.106 Its basic claim, formulated in the spirit of the Weimar-era youth movement in amateur music making, was that the more the social milieu of the concert hall became the paradigmatic site for musical listening, the more the experience of music lost its power to form and sustain communal bonds, as the long-standing intimacy between music and its everyday settings—children's play, labor, social dance, worship, and so on—was severed. “The mode of access to any kind of everyday [umgangsmäßig] music,” Besseler writes of a prelapsarian distant past, “was distinguished by the fact that in it listening played either no role at all or only a subordinate, accompanying role.”107 In other words, the more music became an object of nonparticipatory, “aesthetic” listening—a centuries-long process that was fulfilled around the time of Beethoven, in Besseler's account—the more it receded as the phenomenon it truly was.108 Paying attention to music is to misrecognize it; or, to put the underlying paradox in an extreme form (without, I think, doing violence to it), listening to music is to mishear it.
In 1927, Günther Stern, two years Besseler's junior and running in the same circles at the University of Freiburg, published a brilliant but now long-forgotten essay, “On the Phenomenology of Listening,” which does not mention Besseler yet is unmistakably a veiled response to him.109 But where Besseler saw his primary intervention at the level of music historiography as well as within the culture wars surrounding musical life at the height of the Weimar Republic, Stern responded as an aspiring philosopher of music, whose project was to think his way toward a characterization of what musical listening is in fact like for us, the better to bring it out. “Phenomenology,” as per Stern's essay title, named a program of describing and redescribing worldly phenomena so as to allow them to show up more truthfully. In Besseler's case, the act of redescription was meant to allow his readers to perceive that the disposition of attentiveness itself was responsible for obscuring what music essentially was. In Stern's case, by contrast, no such claims on behalf of a primordial truth of music were at issue. Rather, the task of correction applied more restrainedly just to the description of auditory attending. We customarily speak as if, in attending to something, we are selecting it from among many possible things, so that the act of attending is necessarily privative. On this understanding, attention to one thing entails distraction from another. Yet there cannot really be a principled distinction between the two dispositions, Stern finally suggests, since attention as commonly understood is merely an averted distraction, which in turn contains within it a virtual, unrealized attention.110 More particularly, Stern notes, the very nature of aural attention resists being essentially characterized as a matter of selecting or even tending toward something. “Attention as a tendential ‘looking toward’ [Hinsehen], ‘hearing toward’ [Hinhören], … is a secondary [type of attention]. As a voluntary disposition toward something, indeed to one thing, it occurs … when, and essentially only when, one has already been bound, open, opened-up to this one thing. Any selection in the act of attending would be otherwise incomprehensible.”111 In other words, in order to grasp what musical attention is in its most basic sense, one should not think of picking out individual details from a sonic texture or even of following a single line of melody. One should instead first think of the possibility of opening oneself up and letting oneself go—“Sich-gehen-lassen,” as Stern puts it.112 This is also a temporal disposition: attentiveness is oriented not just to what is happening right now but also to what may happen next.113
Stern's critique of what might be deemed the received view of musical attention differs from Besseler's on many points, perhaps most notably in being less overtly moralistic. He preserves the conceptual possibility of musical attentiveness on the basis of a kind of open letting go, but does not claim that the former is thereby a state of self-deception if it does not recognize the latter. Besseler by contrast thinks that the very practice of attending to music at a concert is inherently a kind of falsification or artifice in bad faith—an “Unnatur,” as he puts it at one point.114 Worse still, in the concert scenario since Beethoven, one is able to disavow the possibility of one's own free action all the more readily, in that one instead merely submits oneself to the musical performance of the free actions of the sovereign composer. Stern's assessment of the temporal structure of attention as entailing a necessary and salutary openness toward what is to come is matched in Besseler's account by a sense that going along with music that traffics in surprise, irregularity, and subversion of idiom is nothing more than “surrender” to objectified content and the arbitrary manipulations of the composer. For Besseler, the very notion that attention might be termed “voluntary” is allowing too much. Even the most nominally “active” listening is still a yielding, a forsaking of vital “energies” that have been “blocked up” by “the structures of capitalism,” “a spring of vitality which today survives only in a sort of guilty conscience: we sense that things could and should be different.”115
There is no mistaking the ease with which Besseler's disdain for the present flips his historiography into a politics. And just as unmistakably, his politics were violent. While his conservative musicological elders, understandably or not, misrecognized his mid-1920s orientation as “Bolshevist,” as early as 1934 Besseler had already voluntarily become a member of the paramilitary Sturmabteilung within the National Socialist state.116 Meanwhile, Stern, having been forced into emigration as a Jew, would eventually emerge as the true Marxist (albeit in a Heideggerian cast somewhat in the manner of his lifelong friend Herbert Marcuse), an orientation not distinctly foreseeable from within the very focused text of the 1927 phenomenology essay itself, unless it is to be discerned in the hints of a rejection of the idea of an unchanging human nature, which so sharply contrasts with Besseler's virulent condemnations of “artifice.”117 Given the particularly treacherous and mercurial relationship between political affiliation and cultural belief in their extended historical moment, perhaps the most we can say is that what fundamentally distinguishes a Besseler from a Stern here is the headlong rate at which the former moves from formulating an interpretation or description of the phenomenon to formulating an injunction about how it is to be approached and realized in practice. Is it possible that the mark of “resistance” here lies simply in the willingness to defer the end of interpretation?
At any rate, to resume the comparison, whatever the extent of their initial shared suspicion of the inherited image of the attentive self-possessed listener, Besseler's accusations of “guilty conscience,” together with his furious accusation that the concert hall was repressing the common will by splintering the populace into “a completely atomized and incoherent mass,” is nowhere to be found in Stern's youthful phenomenology.118 Instead, and this is one of the crucial moments of tacit communication between them, Stern's essay can be plausibly interpreted as a sustained attempt to neutralize the very charge of the bad passivity of “concert” listening. Both writers were intensely invested in opening up the listening person to the world—or, that is, in finding a way to describe, to imagine, the act of listening as a gesture that resists psychologistic reduction to an inner experience unshared with others. But Stern meets Besseler's blunt call for a communal “joining in,” or “Mitmachen,” as an overcoming of “passivity” by taking a few theoretical steps back to the point where the terms of discussion can be more thoughtfully assessed. If attention has a background state of openness as its essential precondition, then what could justify the choice between characterizing the attentive disposition as active and characterizing it as passive? The terms of evaluation fail, and Stern renders the question moot by redescribing the act of “attending” as an act of “letting oneself go”—not “Mitmachen” but “Sich-gehen-lassen”—in other words, a gesture that is in equal parts self-willing and self-denying.
This must be seen as more than mere rhetorical play, the sophomoric cleverness of two male twentysomethings trying their hand at argument. The acts of imagining and describing themselves remain acts, and in this particular case they are self-consciously historical acts in the sense that they constitute a judgment about a way of knowing believed obsolete. Besseler wanted to change musical practice to make people more free, a demand that would lead him to support an actual political strategy whose apparently extreme distance from his aesthetic-theoretical position is ironic only from a standpoint of comparative political naivety. Stern, by contrast, wanted something at once more modest and more difficult to conceive responsibly—to change the way of imagining what it might mean to be free in the act of listening. One wanted to dispense with attention altogether, the other merely to reinterpret it. Yet there are reasons to doubt the notion of interpretation's being “merely” anything (and it would of course be the work of a much longer essay to explore those reasons). As Stern (now Anders) put it many years later, troping an old Marxist chestnut, “It is not enough to change the world. We do that anyway. And by and large it happens even without our cooperation. We also have to interpret this change. And precisely in order to change its manner of changing.”119