Artist-prophets, power, dominance, and torture
Monday, April 16, 2007

It is interesting how often American’s advocate or rationalize torture, now even here on NMB. (“The terrorists had it coming.”) I used to think this was an anomaly of the “Praise-Jesus-And-Shoot-An-Arab” crowd, but it is much more wide-spread. The Commander of West Point, even met recently with the producers of “24” because he was concerned about how the torture scenes were affecting his student’s moral understanding and thus their professionalism.

We should note that the US military and CIA have long used music as a form of torture. Deafeningly loud music played for days on end is often part of their processes of sensory bombardment and/or sensory deprivation. To its credit, the Society for Ethnomusicology has published an official statement of protest against our government’s use of music as torture. You can find SEM’s position statement here:

“The Nation” also commented on SEM’s principled stand here:

Thoughts about WWE, gender abuse, torture, and music are not far fetched.

In fact, the use of music to assert power and to torture is nothing new. It was, for example, widely employed by the Nazis. Gabriele Knapp has studied this extensively in her book _Das Maedchen Orchester in Auschwitz_ (Hamburg: von Bockel 1996) Written as her doctoral dissertation, it is sober, cautious and scientific. The book specifically studies the women's orchestra in Auschwitz. She interviewed seven members of the orchestra and drew from four other interviews available in Israel. Her goal was to determine the uses and function of music in the camps. She found that the Nazis deliberately used music as a form of torture and repression.

Kanpp notes that music "was a part of the extermination apparatus" (particularly the marches;) that it was "coupled with excesses of violence and the killing of people;" that it was specifically used as an instrument of torture; and that it was used to reaffirm and assert status and power. She also notes that it added a "ceremonial framework to slavery" and deadened the perpetrators consciences--all themes in music (especially military music) uncomfortably familiar to those with the eyes to see.

When discussing why music was used to accompany the selection of prisoners who would go to the gas chambers, she makes one of her most interesting statements:

"My imagination meets its borders here, limits I neither can or want to cross. One can speculate why the SS needed music for the 'Selektion.' Such speculation quickly leads to regions of brutality and sadism, and its instructive worth is doubtable."

There seems to be at least some evidence to suggest that the musical sadism expressed in the camps was not a passing anomaly, but an inherent part of western art music, even if normally expressed on a much more sublimated level. If that is the case, the instructive value of examining the use of music in sadism and torture is very great.

To begin, one might consider the growing autocracy of the 19th century conductor (which already had a feudalistic heritage). Orchestral musicians were increasingly objectified; they became functionaries, highly responsive instruments, embodiments of the conductor’s musical fantasies.

At least on a subliminal level, a new aesthetic seemed to evolve, a megalomaniacal control of humans motivated by the combined unconscious sensualities of sadism and music (and specifically located in the context of cultural nationalism.) This might help us understand the work of conductors such as Toscanini, Rainer, and Stowkowski who joined musical transcendence with a tyrannical terrorization of their performers. Power and public subjugation, the whipping and slashing of the phallic baton, and the orgiastic build to climax under the watchful and authoritarian eye of the conductor are part of what patrons expect from symphony orchestras, and these expectations seem to contain vicarious satisfactions of sadism. (And once again, the correlations to WWE are oddly compelling.)

Knapp found that the sadistic objectification conveyed by conductorial autocracy seemed especially appealing to the SS as embodied in the camp orchestras. It reduced both the victims and perpetrators to de-humanized functionaries, thus weakening the capacity for empathy and moral judgment.

Seen from a larger perspective, the symphony orchestra's autocracy, human objectification, and cultural nationalism ultimately allowed it to be appropriated as a general simulacrum of National Socialist (Nazi) ideology. Symphonic music became the most German of arts. People saw that through a symbolic claim to transcendental authority, both conductors and their Führer as artist-prophets rose above the mundane world to share their revelations and abuse with the less profound. They saw that transcendental élan and passion could justify and enforce the subjugation of others, while at the same time symbolizing cultural superiority. Thomas Mann was one of the first to recognize that Hitler, an itinerate painter from Vienna, presented himself to the people as a myth-making, transcendentally inspired artist-prophet.

These cultural developments had huge socio-political implications. The larger design of Hitler's ideology as an artist-prophet included the recreation of humanity according to a new aesthetic. From this perspective, the Holocaust was a work of art, a "purification" of culture, a "sculpting" of the human race. Aesthetic and political ideology synthesized into a single terrifying force. Human life became clay in the artist-prophet's hands.

We should never forget that objectification is the first step toward torture. Note, for example, how deeply the prisoners at Gitmo are objectified. They are intentionally made to feel that they are already dead, pieces of human meat. The staged polemics of WWE are often quite similar. And like music, the language is largely visceral and emotional. And like the authoritarian and hierarchical structures of the symphony orchestra, the dramaturgy plays to desires of control, power, and dominance.

Of course, I know I am wasting my time trying to discuss complex ideas like these in a forum like this, but sometimes someone is out there who understands. Then it is worth it.

William Osborne