The Supreme Music: Music and Politics by Giorgio Agamben

An Excerpt

Josephine Mpongo practises the cello in the Kimbanguiste neighbourhood of Kinshasa.

If the access to the word is, in this sense, museically determined, we understand that for the Greeks, the nexus between music and politics was so evident that Plato and Aristotle treat musical questions only in the works they consecrate to politics. The relation of what they called μουσική (which included poetry, music in a strict sense, and dance) with politics was so close that in the Republic, Plato could subscribe to Damon’s aphorism according to which “musical modes cannot be changed without changing the fundamental laws of the city”. Men come together and organize the constitutions of their cities through language, but the experience of language—insofar as it is not possible to grasp and master its origin—is in turn always already conditioned musically. The groundlessness of the λόγος grounds the primacy of music and makes it possible that every discourse is always already museically tuned. For this reason, in every age, humans are always more or less intentionally educated to politics and prepared for it through music, even before this happens through traditions and precepts that are transmitted by means of language [lingua]. The Greeks knew perfectly well what we pretend to ignore, namely, that it is possible to manipulate and control a society not only through language, but first and foremost through music. Just as,for a soldier, the trumpet blast or the drumbeat is as effective as the order of a superior (or even more than it), so in every field and before every discourse, the feelings and moods that precede action and thought are musically determined and oriented. In this sense, the state of music (including in this term the entire sphere we inaccurately define as “art”) defines the political condition of a given society better than and prior to any other index; and if we truly want to modify the rules of a city, it is first of all necessary to reform its music. The bad music that today pervades our cities at every moment and in every place is inseparable from the bad politics that governs them.

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