Ruard Absaroka: Alienation and ethnomusicology – revisited

David Harvey (2014) cites alienation as a catalytic concept fundamental to animating political action in order to displace and dispossess the many-headed hydra of late global capitalism. However, despite its position as a basic contradiction of capitalism, there is still only passing consideration in even Marxist music scholarship of the topic of alienation, even though music and capitalism in general is receiving increasing attention.

A brief history of the concept
The term “alienation” has evolved over time, and the resultant diversity of meanings is one hindrance to wider engagement. The established meaning in everyday usage of “outcast,” “estranged,” or just “fed up” is related to Karl Marx’s conception but also significantly different. Originally, “alienation” was a legal term referring to the transfer of property rights to new ownership. This found wider currency in the Enlightenment, and classical economists employed it in new theories of political economy and the labor theory of value. The term was also developed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the contrasting sense of a collective alienation that forms part of the social contract with the state (Rousseau [1762] 2002).

Marx’s treatment of alienation, however, also built on Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s notion of “unhappy consciousness,” a detached inability to unify fragmented consciousness and life, though as the young Marx argued, Hegel didn’t fully appreciate alienation as more than an abstract and spiritual feeling bad. It was Marx who first highlighted how alienation coincided with exploitation and the material conditions in which we live, an insight influenced by Feuerbach’s materialist and atheist reversal of Hegel’s idealism. Re-injecting dynamism and radicalism into the idea to account for societal change, Marx then also shifted the focus: away from the individual to the organization of labor and toward the relationship between humans and nature. The antithesis to alienated man was “total man,” and the “positive supersession of private property” meant “the sensuous appropriation of the human essence and human life” (Marx [1844] 1992: 351). There are parallels in Durkheim’s treatment of “anomie,” but it was Marx’s persistent, if frequently misunderstood, theorizing of alienation that framed later discussion.1 Connecting alienation to labor in particular makes it, in the Marxist tradition, fundamental to society, history, and being human since, despite its profound philosophical ramifications, alienation is something that everyone who works is intimately familiar with. As (Trotskyist) scholar John Molyneux (2006) writes:

The alienation of labour [means the estrangement] of the producers from the whole material world which they produce; from their humanity, individually and collectively … Alienation thus pervades the whole of our society. [The theory of alienation] contains in embryonic form the entire Marxist critique of capitalism … a fundamentally inhumane and dehumanizing system; why it subordinates living labour to dead labour, people to profit.

A spectre is haunting music scholarship: Alienation
Surprisingly little has been said about alienation and the arts, and what there is tends to be strongly biased toward visual art.1 One scholar who has explored art and alienation is Molyneux, tackling an old debate on the left as to whether art can be a product of unalienated labor. He suggests it is wrong to argue that unalienated labor is impossible under the capitalist market. Clearly, much artistic endeavor is alienated, and artists as people are affected by alienation (which pervades every aspect of society) and so is their art (alienation is frequently addressed as a theme, and art may succumb to its pressures). But this is different from claiming that all art is alienated under capitalism, an approach that obscures the very tactics and agency that are a major interest to ethnomusicologists. Molyneux further warns against confusing the commodification of the product (artworks) with commodification (and alienation) of the artistic labor that produces the product. Most artists can distinguish alienated from unalienated aspects of work. They “actively seek the commodification of their output (they try to sell it) but they also defend their control over the process of production” (Molyneux 1999). This rings true for musicians too.

Music and alienation certainly overlap across many terrains. In 1980 Kenneth A. Gourlay wrote an essay that constitutes the only focused study of alienation and music since Theodor Adorno’s work of the 1930s and 1940s, whose frame had been largely restricted to recorded music and commodity fetishism (e.g., Adorno [1938] 1978: 276–279). Gourlay wrote of the chronic alienation of the ethnomusicologist “from intimate rapport with the total musical activity of a society which … alone can give meaning and life to his/her subject” and noted further that the term had not yet “been applied systematically to either musical performance or scholarship” (1980: 123). He argued for “musical studies with a human face,” a humanizing ethnomusicology. His thesis was that the central problem of our time, namely overcoming alienation and realizing humans’ full potentials, had musical aspects:

[M]an, in one aspect of what Marx called his “species being,” is not only Aristotle’s “political animal” or the “economic man” of the classical economists, but also … homo ludens [“man the player”] and, in consequence, homo musicans. In short, music is essential to man’s humanity. (1980: 123)

Gourlay’s enthusiasm centered on the supposedly unalienated music making of “non-elitist-integral societies,” which reads a little naively today. Meanwhile, his critical remarks concerning the scholarship of some prominent practitioners of the discipline can’t have endeared him to ethnomusicological colleagues. Gourlay’s essay was self-confessedly no more than an opening salvo.

However, today many of the questions he raised remain unanswered and increasingly pertinent. That I can find no response to Gourlay’s essay testifies to a lack of sustained discussion of alienation even among music-oriented academic Marxists. Nevertheless, Gourlay’s starting point was echoed twenty years later in Regula Qureshi’s concerns about a “socially engaged music scholarship” (Qureshi 2002: xiv).

Qureshi (2002: xvi–xviii) distinguishes three intellectual lineages of Marxist thought that address culture (and music): the cultural/humanist Marxism of the Frankfurt school, studies of political economy of power and domination, and “state Marxism” with its attendant demands that art should “serve the people.” Of these perspectives a few tangentially responded to the challenge of accounting for alienation. Adorno, the key intellect of the first of these lineages, reserved praise for works that uncompromisingly treat the real alienation of modern life rather than espousing some mass-cultural false utopia.

Charlie Keil also covers a fraction of Gourlay’s remit in a brief yet engaging polemic in favor of “participation theory.” This relates the paradoxes of participant observation, “going native,” and multimusicality as well as the “subject shifts” from “participation” to “alienation” of academics who were musicians before joining academia: an experience of division into “musical selves” and “analytic selves” (Keil 1995: 318–319). Alienation clearly impinges on the lives of music scholars, both through the personal experiences of academics and because of broader disciplinary approaches and heuristics informed by concerns (perhaps unacknowledged) with alienation. Ethnomusicologists deal with the commodification of the products of their own para/extra-musical labor, be this articles that sit behind firewalls managed by corporate publishing behemoths, to the publicizing of their own books, or unintended results and ethical quagmires consequent upon initially straightforward recording projects. Broader methodological issues also arise: the reflexive, experiential/phenomenological “turn” across ethnographically orientated disciplines from the 1980s served at one level to address issues of academic alienation. A more recent turn toward “sensuous ethnography” can be seen in this same light: the honest engagement with the wider sensorial context of research is itself a means to counteract alienation both from that which is studied and from the environment.

I suggest there is now a pressing need to reconsider both recent trends in ethnomusicology and the intersection of music and late capitalism, from a standpoint that integrates theories of alienation. A refocus on the materiality of music making (cf. Stokes 2002) would also be a welcome by-product of alienation-conscious ethnomusicological endeavor.

In the light of the immense changes brought by digital technology and neoliberalism, and with the benefits of recent scholarship, which of Gourlay’s ideas are of continuing analytic utility and what new insights are now possible thirty-five years later? How is alienation from work, from self, from others, or from nature musically inflected? How do we judge these changes, and do we need to do something about them? Why is a theory of alienation encompassing musical production and experience important? I contend that while a theoretically sophisticated appreciation of alienation may prove indispensable in understanding music’s societal role, the study of music, a multivalent semiotic medium with manifest potency as a technology of the self, may yet contribute much to a general theory of alienation.

Alienation and music making
So where are the most salient points of contact between music and alienation? First, for Marx alienation was explicitly not the “human condition,” but it always arises as the result of something and is inherently connected under capitalism to the commodity form and private property (Marx [1844] 1992: 322-324). Certainly there has been systematic commodification of much musicking and frequent changes in the relations of production. As Tim Taylor (2012) argues, while historically tracing music making and advertising in the ages of radio and then television, there have been increasingly close ties between music and commercial imperatives. Music is also increasingly used in the service of other monetized products and experience economies, and each of these developments brings an attendant alienation. In particular, the musician is increasingly alienated from the products of her activity.

Second, alienation can be traced to processes of professionalization, whereby musicking turns into a “job.” Clearly, musical specialists predate modern capitalism (stereotypically, but not exclusively, mendicant social outcasts); however, for Gourlay, an African specialist, the “total musicality” of “non-elitist, egalitarian” societies increasingly gives way to alienated forms. Among these are specialist supply (by professional musicians), promotion of the individualistic ethos of the “artist,” written scores replacing oral and improvised traditions, and rituals of passive listening and spectacle replacing inclusive ceremony. Music consequently becomes more esoteric. Gourlay then argues that today’s “elitist but open society” produced the world’s finest “art” music but also inevitably drove music into opposition “to retain its humanity and cease being a mathematical twelve-finger exercise” (1980: 133). The musician becomes ever more alienated from her productive activity itself.

This leads directly to a third point: there certainly may be occasions when alienation is deliberately exploited by musicians or the music industry. Is some degree of alienation a necessary or desirable spur for creativity? Certainly, tropes of anxiety and resistance abound in explanations of much twentieth-century popular music. Beyond the condemnations of a music industry in which musical actors lose control of the products of their own creativity, one can also identify alienation in performance as a commoditized service. There are situations where alienated interaction is internalized and musicians cannot conceive of more wholesome relations to themselves, their fellow beings, or nature.

I also discern a “secondary” alienation. Beverley Skeggs (2004: 184), discussing class and culture, points out that working-class alienation, injury, and affect can be used as a resource, converted into exchange value to enhance or sell the products, politics, and identities of others:

Working-class antagonisms create commonly felt estranged emotions, forms of sensuous alienation, which the entire culture industry attempts not only to sublimate onto safe pathways but also to brand [as] products through affect.

Related to these points is the deliberate musical usage of refractory dramatic devices such as the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt (aka distancing, “theatrical alienation”), which counteracts any cozy suspension of disbelief or indeed mere enjoyment as entertainment. By disclosing the manipulative contrivances and highly constructed qualities of the event or medium, the vicarious catharsis that Aristotle lauded in tragedy is foreclosed, and audiences may be forced into a critical, analytical frame of mind. Think no further than the Situationists, punk, even noise music, or, for that matter, any direct audience address at live musical performance. This topic is more thoroughly addressed in theater studies but might equally be approached through “musical poetics.”

Fourth, alienated engagement with, and consumption of, music can be seen as characterized by the distinction of Pierre Bourdieu’s (1984) analysis, whereby individual use values are polluted by secondary concerns that buttress the mechanisms and maintenance of class society.

Fifth, we arrive at ways of listening and aural ecologies. Gourlay contrasted active participation as opposed to passive listening (1980: 130). Studies of ubiquitous ambient Muzak (Lanza 2004) and “bad” music (Washburne and Derno 2004) tell us about contemporary experiences of alienation from other human beings and the community, although they aren’t framed in such broad terms. However, with the mobile musical devices that have emerged since the 1980s, there are new possibilities for “tuning out,” “sonic distancing,” and “sonic withdrawal” (Beer 2007) to create “sonic envelopes” against technologically mediated attempts to manipulate experience through sound (Bull 2007). The corollary of these developments is the advent and systematization of music therapy, one of the goals of which is surely to mitigate the worst effects of alienation (though it largely takes the form of a service commodity produced by wage labor).

Finally, what is the relationship between musical practices and alienation with regard to “immaterial,” “free,” “invisible,” “affective,” and “digital” labor? Michael Betancourt (2006) argues that the “aura of the digital” feeds capitalist fantasies of continual growth and anticapitalist fantasies of a world without scarcity or the need for capitalist production, and in fact rests on a denial of the actual costs of access, creation, production, and maintenance. For him, affective labor is a subset of immaterial labor and reduces alienation, while what he terms “agnotologic” (ignorance-creating) capitalism eliminates dissent. On the one hand, the digital world appears to offer a musical soapbox, with the producers and consumers really being the same people in the age of mash-ups, BitTorrent, “auratic piracy cultures” (Rodríguez-Ferrándiz 2012), and musical gift economies. This might appear to imply the radical reversal of some commodification of recorded music, countering trends discussed in point one above. On the other hand, perhaps we live in a globalized musical panopticon, as denizens of contested spheres of digital rights management, iTunes accounts, and streaming services that monetize data about our personal musical preferences, producing value in a digitized attention economy in which we work for free even as we enjoy heretofore unparalleled access to music.

If, in the near cliché of orthodox ethnomusicological dicta, music both reflects and refracts society, then in music and through music one also comes ear to ear with alienation. What, however, would totally alienated music sound like? Or, more desirably, what is totally unalienated music? Interest in flow (Csikszentmihalyi 2002) and entrainment (Clayton 2005) addresses modes of all-engrossing musicking far removed from alienation, if only for the limited duration of a performance. It is perhaps precisely in studies of flow and entrainment that the powers of music to resist alienation in contemporary capitalist society or provide temporary alleviation become most apparent. In contrast, Lefebvre, indulging in borderline Gemeinschaft (broadly,community”) nostalgia pined for the revival of bawdy pastoral festivals in the belief that spontaneity could potentially disalienate everyday life. His ambitious “Rhythmanalysis” (2004) project has not (yet) been widely endorsed, but it proposes an intriguing and musically informed framework for detecting and dissecting adverse alienation-induced societal trends. To achieve a fuller ethnomusicological understanding of the meanings and functions of music in sociocultural context, however, there now remains the challenge, prefigured by Lefebvre, “to rejoin [an] enlarged sonic and social phenomenology … with a critical analysis of modern forms of power” (Born 2013: 47). Recent developments, such as the choice of “Music and Labor” for the Society for Ethnomusicology 2014 Pre-Conference theme, indicate a movement in this direction.

Ruard Absaroka is an AHRC-funded PhD candidate at SOAS, University of London, and has lectured there chiefly on East Asian Music and general Ethnomusicology courses. His research interests include the impact of digital technologies on informal, independent musicking. He works as a research assistant on the AHRC/Leverhulme “Sounding Islam in China” project, and his doctoral dissertation focuses on urban musical geographies and networks in Shanghai. He is also an active musician in London.


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1. Marx’s most explicit usage of “alienation” (entäusserung) and “estrangement” (entfremdung) is in the “Estranged Labour” segment of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (Marx [1844] 1992), though the terms are found throughout much of his early work and also in hundreds of key passages in the Grundrisse (Marx [1857] 1973). It is a myth that they vanish entirely in his mature work, and his analysis of fetishism (versachlichung) and reification (verdinglichung) are certainly a development from, rather than replacement of, the earlier notion of alienation.

2. Cf. Istvan Mészáros’s classic volume on Marx and alienation examines the origins and structure of Marxian theory itself, before turning to the political, economic, ontological, moral, and aesthetic facets of alienation. Five pages are devoted to “Production and Consumption and Their Relation to Art.” Music crops up in only a few references (1970: 175, 202, 210).

Cite as: Absaroka, Ruard. 2015. “Alienation and Ethnomusicology – revisited,” FocaalBlog, April 13,