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5 - Beethoven’s Emergency Brake

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 March 2021

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Summary

Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train – namely, the human race – to activate the emergency brake

(Benjamin 2003, vol. 4, 402).

The Musical Canon and Historical Causes

IMAGINE A TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY dystopia – it will not be difficult – in which pandemics hold entire populations in lockdown. Political speech is concentrated in the hands of politicians who in many cases control the media and, by imposing ideological targets on their research culture, also the universities. Gatherings of people from more than two households are forbidden, and political life is asphyxiated by the impossibility for oppositional groups to meet, theorize, or plan for action. This state of affairs was already diagnosed by Foucault in the twentieth century, as he observed real events from the seventeenth century when, during a time of plague in the French town of Vincennes, people were confined, always to their street, and on specified days to their houses, on pain of death. Rations were supplied via ‘small wooden canals … between the street and the interior of the houses’, it was decreed that ‘if it is absolutely necessary to leave the house, it will be done in turn, avoiding any meeting’, and infected people would be confined indoors to die (Foucault 1977, 195). For Foucault, this was an origin of the panoptical machinery of state, the internalized system of psychological surveillance which characterizes the modern world.

In a different, and more materialist, form than the immaterialist Foucault could ever acknowledge, and speaking to our own age of the permanent ‘state of exception’ (Agamben 2005) in which politics is founded on ‘the shock doctrine’ (Klein 2007), theorists of the Left have found, in the global response in 2020 to the novel coronavirus pandemic, a confirmation that the economic and political developments of recent decades have prepared the way for an ideological repression, a reduction to vanishing point of the possibility of intellectual resistance, that has few parallels in human history.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2021

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