Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Eric Drott reviews From 1989

Seth Brodsky. From 1989, or European Music and the Modernist Unconscious. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017. 368 pp.

Review by Eric Drott

11 October 2017

What do Mstislav Rostropovich, Leonard Bernstein, and David Hasselhoff have in common? This question may read like a joke, and in a way it is. But since Sigmund Freud, jokes are never just jokes. Understood as symptoms, they demand to be taken seriously—especially when it is history that is playing the joke on us. That these three performers all marked the fall of the Berlin Wall with concerts in its vicinity; that all three concluded their performances by gazing “deep into the interior elsewhere” (p. 43); that all three used the occasion to celebrate the empty signifier “freedom”—such commonalities aren’t just funny (though they are that). They also bespeak the powerful fantasy that held these three musicians in its grip. Not fantasy in the term’s everyday sense but in the Lacanian sense: less a question of liberation than of subjection, of suturing the breach that 1989 had opened and that these performances ostensibly celebrated.

Rostropovich, Bernstein, and “The Hoff” are not really the main subjects of Seth Brodsky’s brilliant and engaging book From 1989, or European Music and the Modernist Unconscious. Rather, this unlikely trio serves as a way into the two topics signaled by the book’s subtitle, psychoanalysis and musical modernism. With regard to psychoanalysis, their performances enable Brodsky to navigate a path in the book’s first part through musical fantasy in its conventional guise, understood as a tradition or genre, and towards an understanding of how music itself may function as fantasy. To this end, Brodsky takes advantage of another fortuitous historical coincidence, one that juxtaposes these concerts with an additional artifact of 1989, Slavoj Žižek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology. Yet Brodsky isn’t content to simply mine Žižek’s text to explicate fantasy’s workings. Rather, he treats it as an object of historical inquiry, a symptom to be interrogated alongside the performances of Rostropovich, Bernstein, and Hasselhoff.

With regard to modernism, From 1989 also avails itself of coincidences—or what Brodsky calls “non-encounters.” The book’s second part turns to other musical creations of 1989, late modernist works like Luciano Berio’s Rendering or Heiner Goebbel’s Befreiung. The point is not to draw an inert contrast with “tradition” (as embodied by Rostropovich or Bernstein) or “commerce” (as embodied by Hasselhoff). Rather, their relation is likened to that of analyst to analysand. Such pieces act “as clinics . . . in which certain subjects are temporarily unmastered and their fundamental fantasies traversed” (p. 133). This ingenious move opens the way for a rethinking of musical modernism, now understood as an “analyst’s discourse” that seeks not to repress antagonisms but to “make these the basis of a social link” (p. 212). But this move also enables a commensurate reimagining of Lacanian psychoanalysis, not as an avatar of an emergent postmodernism, but as what “modernism, losing its hegemonic grip on the arts, begins to look like when it migrates (back) into psychoanalysis” (p. 218).

Yet I am surely not the only reader whose critical reflexes will be triggered by the privilege accorded musical modernism as the agency that decomposes the fantasies by which broader (musical) culture props itself up. Brodsky is hardly unaware of the risk this gesture represents. Early on, he makes clear that the traversal of fantasy that new music seeks to effect might instead turn into its opposite, into a “fantasy of traversal.” It is not until the third section of the book that he elaborates on how modernism, as an “analyst’s discourse,” might lapse back into a “master’s discourse”—albeit one whose fundamental fantasy centers, paradoxically, on the experience of loss and subjective destitution that accompanies the loosening of fantasy’s grip. Hence the crucial question Brodsky poses towards the conclusion of his book: whether musical modernism is “always fated . . . to turn from iconoclasm into graven image, unpicturing into picturing, denaturing into second nature” (p. 258). It is a virtue of From 1989 that the questions it raises provoke still more. One of these is whether the “second nature” to which figures like Rostropovich, Bernstein, and Hasselhoff are subject, whether the “picturing” they perform and the “graven images” they fashion, might undergo a similar reversal. Is there an angle from which their performances could be heard as constituting their own peculiar species of analyst’s discourse, a means of “denaturing,” “unpicturing,” and iconoclastically disrupting modernism’s own fantasies?