1. How are we to think of the explosive potentiality of "pop," this "minor" or "intensive" use of music in Deleuze and Guattari's work? In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari take as the starting point of their analysis of music the concept of the "refrain" or ritournelle (literally "little return"), which they define as a rhythmic pattern that serves to mark a point of stability in a field of chaos, like the tune a child hums in the dark to comfort him- or herself. Refrains can be of many types, with many uses and motifs: not only the refrains of pop music, but also nursery rhymes and lullabies, the folks songs and Lieder of a people, national anthems, sacred or liturgical hymns, the drinking songs of friends, or even the songs of birds. What is common to all such refrains, however, is that they are linked to the spatio-temporal delineation and organization of a territory. Deleuze and Guattari begin with this notion of the refrain, not because it lies at the origin of music, but rather because it lies at its middle, and thereby gives them the means of assessing both the reterritorializing and deterritorializing potential of music.

  2. Music can be said to reterritorialize on the refrain when it moves in the direction of what Deleuze and Guattari call a "punctual system," which is like a house erected on the territory of the refrain. This music-architecture parallel (architecture as "frozen music," and music as "moving architecture") has often been used to characterize the representation of music in the classical Western tradition, from Goethe and Schelling to Varèse and Xenakis. Each sound becomes a "note," a point whose position is determined within a system of coordinates having two basic axes: the horizontal axis of the melody, in which the points form horizontal lines which are superimposed vertically on the bass line, thereby entering into polyphonic relations of counterpoint with each other; and the vertical axis of harmony, which moves along the horizontals but is not dependent on them, in which the notes form a harmonic chord that runs from high to low and links up with the following chords. Between these two axes, diagonals of modulation or transposition can be drawn that establish localizable connections between points of different levels or moments, thereby instituting various frequencies and resonances.3 From this point of view, canonical genres like the sonata, with its three movements, each of which has specified sections (theme, exposition, development, coda, etc.), can be seen as "enframing" forms, like a house whose internal architectonic structure encloses various rooms and passageways. The music unfolds in a "pulsed" or metric time, which is marked by the inscription of a certain number of beats in the determinate time of a measure (tempo), and constitutes a striated space-time. Audiences, when listening to such a piece of music, are expected to focus on its "plan of organization," that is, on the relational network of points and lines, whose unfolding they try to follow during the course of the piece in order to infer or reconstitute the structure of the whole.

  3. However, music is deterritorializing when it moves in a different direction, that is, when it no longer gives primacy to formal relations and structures, but to the sonorous material itself. The musician no longer demands that the note function in relation to the harmonic or melodic axis, but rather considers the sound in its singularity, as a pure force. It is as if the structure of the house, in an act of deframing, opened out onto the sonorous forces of the Cosmos, following a deterritorializing "line of flight" that makes possible an almost limitless plane of composition. Even within a punctual system, this takes place whenever the diagonal is liberated as an autonomous dimension of space and time, when a pure "block of sound" is created that escapes the coordinates of the melodic horizontal and the harmonic vertical and forms a "transversal" that passes between the coordinates. Modern Western music, as Deleuze and Guattari suggest in What is Philosophy?, can in fact be read as the progressive conquering of such a sonorous plane of composition: the abandonment of the strict sonata form in favor of more open "compositional studies" on the piano (Chopin, Schumann, Liszt); the liberation of variations of speed between sound particles (Wagner's recurrent "leitmotifs"); the opening up of local, territorial refrains to the great refrain, the powerful song of the Earth (Mahler, Berg, Bartók); the focus on timbre (Stravinsky, Boulez); the proliferation of percussive effects or "densities" (Varèse); the placing-in-variation of the voice (Stockhausen, Berio); the redefinition of sound in terms of noise and silence (Cage); the movement toward a non-chromatic use of sound in an infinite continuum, in which the sound itself becomes an autonomous motif that ceaselessly transforms itself, diminishing and augmenting, adding or subtracting, varying its speed and slowness (electronic music, synthesizers) (What is Philosophy 189-191, 195).4

  4. From this point of view, music can be said to be made up of mobile or "floating" blocks of sound that enter into composition with each other on the smooth space-time of a cosmic plane, outside of points, coordinates, and localized connections, in a "non-pulsed" time (nontempo) made up of nothing but modifications of speed and differences in dynamic. There is no longer a predetermined "plan of organization" to be recovered or inferred, but only a "plane of consistency" on which these blocks of sound or "percepts" enter into various connections, convergences, and divergences. In Deleuze and Guattari's terms, these blocks form a rhizome. Under these conditions, it is the "color" of the sound—its timbre, intensity, duration, density—that assumes increased importance, insofar as it constitutes an exploration of the deterritorializing potential of the "sonorous phylum" itself.5 We shall see below how a number of contemporary musicians have taken this "deterritorializing" aspect of music in new directions.

  5. These two formally different conceptions of music are not opposed to each other, even in the Western tradition, but rather they are complementary; they mark out a single field of interaction in which the deterritorializing force of sound continually cuts loose the contents of a punctual system, which in turn continually reappropriates the blocks of sound into new systems of coordinates (e.g., serial music in relation to free atonality). This is precisely why Deleuze and Guattari define music in terms of the labor of the refrain: "Does [the refrain] remain territorial and territorializing," they ask, "or is it carried away in a moving block that draws a transversal across all coordinates—with all the intermediaries between the two? ... In each case we must simultaneously consider factors of territoriality, deterritorialization, and reterritorialization." And they pose the problem of pop music in exactly the same terms:
    music is precisely the adventure of the refrain: the way music lapses back into a refrain (in our head, in the pseudo probe-heads of TV and radio, the music of a great musician used as a signature tune, a ditty); the way it lays hold of the refrain, makes it more and more sober, reduced to a few notes, then takes it down a creative line [of flight] that is so much richer, no origin or end of which is in sight... (A Thousand Plateaus 302, 303).
    As a concrete example of the deterritorializing potential of the refrain, Deleuze and Guattari cite the analyses of LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) who shows in Blues People how black slaves in America, in the conditions of forced labor, took their old African work songs, which were originally territorial refrains, and made use of them in a "deterritorialized" manner, in the process producing an "intensive" and plaintive use of the English language by blending it with their own African languages; these songs were in turn "reterritorialized" by whites in minstrel shows, and the use of "blackface" (Al Jolson); and then taken back by blacks in another movement of deterritorialization and translated into a whole series of new musical forms (blues, hootchie-koochie, etc.) (cited in A Thousand Plateaus 137-138).

  6. Clearly, their claims for pop as an inventive and intensive usage of the heterogeneous elements of different sonorous territories are a far cry from the pessimistic account of popular or mass culture articulated by T.W. Adorno in his writings on popular music (primarily commercial jazz) and the culture industry. For Adorno, mass culture in general and popular music in particular represent not merely the commodification of art, but, more insidiously, the systematic enforcement of the false universality of commodity relations and profit that rationalizes all difference, what he called the "non-identical," out of social life. Even if at one time a genuine people's culture did express itself directly in the form of folk tales and musics, Adorno considers that by the late twentieth century the "culture industry" had taken control of this art and turned it into a means of administration (Horkheimer and Adorno 120-167).

    Popular music in particular, Adorno claims, enacts through its repetitive verse/refrain form and superficial fashion shifts the debasement and conformity that capital imposes on its subjects: "The subject which expresses itself [through jazz] expresses precisely this: I am nothing, I am filth, no matter what they do to me it serves me right" ("Perennial Fashion," 132; see also Introduction to the Sociology of Music, chap. 2).6 Such a culturally debased and subjectively debasing form of expression could not possibly assist an individual performer or listener in "deterritorializing" the determinations of capital, but this is precisely what Deleuze and Guattari implicitly claim.

  7. In this, Deleuze and Guattari's work resembles the criticism articulated by the consumption theorists of popular music, particularly Simon Frith's studies of youth culture and, in a different vein, Dick Hebdige's analyses of punk as subculture. For these analysts, the commodity form of mass-produced popular music (as opposed to spontaneous folk forms) cannot fully determine the uses to which those commodities are put by consumers any more than commodity relations can completely reduce the singularity of avant-garde modern artworks, celebrated by Adorno for their formal resistance to the false universality of profit.

    Inspired instead by Mikhail Bakhtin's vaguely subversive model of dialogism and Walter Benjamin's (perhaps overly) optimistic analysis of mechanically reproducible works of art, consumption theorists (and their fellow-travelers like cultural historian Michel de Certeau) focus on the inventive ways that consumers find to de-contextualize and remotivate commodities and signs, often against the grain of capitalist ideology and market logic (see Bakhtin, Benjamin, and de Certeau). Deleuze and Guattari would make a similar argument in terms of the way these deterritorialized components can be reterritorialized, inserted into assemblages of desire that act as "war machines" against the market. Indeed, in Anti-Oedipus they follow Marx in insisting that consumption is itself a circuit within a more broadly conceived model of production, and they recognize that every economy must produce consumption at the same time that it produces products, and produces the network of distribution or communication that disseminates those products (Anti-Oedipus 68-106; Marx 83-100). As (part of) such an economy itself, music must produce listeners as well as sounds.

  8. Yet Deleuze and Guattari differ significantly from these consumption theorists in their refusal to posit the consumer's subjectivity, constructivist though it may be, as foundational in a phenomenological sense. If for consumption theory the individual subject, constituted by and within capital, subsequently constitutes or assembles an unforeseen or uncontrolled expression of its desires and dissatisfactions through its manipulation and remotivation of the commodities provided for it by the market, for Deleuze and Guattari the innovative expression precedes and constitutes the subject rather than issuing from that subject as an after-effect. That is, the subject that is expressed via the assemblages of desire is not prior or transcendent in relation to its expressions but immanent within and alongside them. It is in the middle of everything and open to discontinuous variation, like a refrain. The subject of/in pop music is not a source or origin but a surface effect, a wave of difference resonating across disparate regimes of signs; as participants in the production and consumption of pop music, we become pop ourselves.

1   2   3   4   5   6   Works Cited


Smith and Murphy:
Deleuze and Guattari

We Thank the Technology Goddess

Beginning Credits and Beyond
Blair: a-ha

Daughtry: Five Windows
Review Essay
Eldredge: Jackson
Tell us what you think...