Ideologies of Sound: Longing for presence from the eighteenth century until today


Nicola Gess

This essay began with a suspicion and a discomfort. The suspicion was that the pervasive theoretical interest in sound and music in recent years is connected with the simultaneous popularity of an aesthetics of presence in philosophical discourse. For music has time and again been appealed to as part of the search for preconceptual sensory experience, for immediacy, bodily presence, or states of immersion. The discomfort was that such appeals are often connected with an ideologically motivated understanding of music that ultimately has little to do with a historically informed, critical and concrete examination of music as an art form. Instead, this appeal is often accompanied by a return to the past that is motivated by cultural criticism: a lost essence (of language, art, community) is sought and rediscovered in music or sound, as is the experience of immediacy and bodily presence. The long tradition of this entanglement of art and ideology in philosophies of music can be traced in texts by, among others, Rousseau, Wackenroder, Nietzsche, and Bloch; today, it reappears in the work of philosophers of presence and sound theorists.[1]



My use of the term “aesthetics of presence” follows Roberto Simanowski’s summary of aesthetic discourses prominent in the last few decades. For Simanowski, these discourses “have been founded on such concepts as the ‘performative’ (Fischer-Lichte, Mersch), ‘intensity’ and the ‘sublime’ (Lyotard) or ‘presence’ (Gumbrecht), and they have their common denominator in renouncing the hermeneutic approach to art, in shifting the emphasis from the meaning of artistic phenomena to their sensory presence” (Simanowski 2012: 7, emphasis added). Similar concepts include “event” (Mersch) and perhaps also “appearance” (Seel) and “immersion;” among these thinkers, Gernot Böhme and Peter Sloterdijk can also be mentioned, although their concepts (such as “atmosphere” and “sphere”) have not been taken up as much in these discourses.[2] The key concepts of the aesthetics of presence promise an experience beyond symbolic orders, that is, an experience of immediate contact with “materiality,” “phenomenal being,” or the “real” (to name three more common concepts in these discourses). Such contact is often described as an involuntary, sensory mode of being affected by the (artistic) phenomenon. The promise of such an experience is even connected to the concept of the performative, even though one might assume that this concept would approach a constructivist understanding of artistic phenomena. But Mersch actually uses the performative the other way around: “An ‘aesthetics of the performative’ should thus be understood as an aesthetic of the event rooted less in the medial (that is, in the processes of staging and representation) than in the events that occur. […] They possess the dimension of ‘aura’” (Mersch 2002: 9). In these “auratic experiences,” then, it is not the fact of being made, the “how” of the aesthetic phenomenon, that is central, but the mere “‘that’ (quod) of appearance that is primarily touched” (Mersch 2002: 10; cf. also Simanowski 2012: 26). Often, this promise is embedded in a rhetoric of liberating the suppressed, distorted, and forgotten real from the traps of symbolic orders and interpretive constraints. As Simanowski summarizes it,

in the hermeneutic paradigm, Lyotard sees an intellectual rage for control that transforms the energies of the shock effect of the event into a theoretical dispositive that ‘imposes’ meaning […] Erika Fischer-Lichte describes how concretely perceived bodies, things, sounds, and light are robbed of their particular phenomenal being by their conceptual determination […] For Gernot Böhme, the interpretation of images as iconic signs ‘denies’ and ‘corrupts’ the ‘experience of the presence of what is represented’, namely, the atmosphere of the image. (Simanowski 2012: 25)

As these examples show, such scenarios of liberation often also work with a rhetoric of the unfalsified, the genuine, and even the originary. Gumbrecht, for example, contrasts a culture of meaning with a culture of presence. When he treats historical and geographical distance as the same, a gesture which Johannes Fabian has criticized as the “allochronic discourse” of anthropology (Fabian 2002: 31), Gumbrecht sees this contrast realized both in the European Middle Ages and in non-Western cultures, e.g. Japan (Gumbrecht 2003: 82): “[T]he world of presence culture, is a world where […] humans want to relate to the surrounding cosmology by inscribing themselves, that is, by inscribing their bodies, into the rhythms of this cosmology” (Gumbrecht 2003: 82). At the same time, the culture of presence is characterized by never wanting to change or “derail” these rhythms (Gumbrecht 2003: 82). The category of time is displaced by the category of cosmic space, which is also the space of the body. It is not change but coming into contact with other bodies that determines how people relate to the world they live in: “[S]pace, that is, that dimension that constitutes itself around bodies, must be the primordial dimension in which the relationship between different humans and the relationship between humans and the things of the world are being negotiated” (Gumbrecht 2003: 82, emphasis added). The body “inscribes itself into the rhythms and regularities of the world seen as cosmological order” (Gumbrecht 2005: 246; cf. also Simanowski 2012: 26), and this world is understood as a timeless order that is just as originary as it is contemporary (for example, for non-Western cultures).

For all his emphasis on presence, Gumbrecht is methodologically cautious: he emphasizes that the “recourse to pre- or to nonmetaphysical cultures and discourses of the past” is only a “strategy” to break “discursive taboos” and be able to discuss phenomena of presence (Gumbrecht 2003: 78). Further, he repeatedly characterizes the culture of presence that he derives from the Middle Ages as an ideal type (Idealtypus) that does not really exist in its ideal form (Gumbrecht 2003: 79). Such scrupulous caution cannot be found in a further purveyor of the aesthetics of presence. If Gumbrecht reaches back into the Middle Ages as an “ideal type,” Sloterdijk appeals to the actual prenatal past of every human being and its own space of presence: the maternal uterus. Thus, for Sloterdijk, the “child’s earliest presentist encounters” (Sloterdijk 2011: 293) elude not only any conceptual determination but even any object status at all. Sloterdijk calls the things that the child meets here “‘Nobjects’: they are spherically surrounding mini-conditions envisaged by a non-facing self […] in the mode of non-confrontational presence as original creatures of closeness” (Sloterdijk 2011: 294). Here, then, with a reference to Heidegger in which he also speaks of an “ontotopology” that must still be established (Sloterdijk 2011: 333), Sloterdijk describes an original state in which the not-yet-subject is suspended in a “space” of bodily presences that elude all attempts to define them. The later loss of this state may cause “spheric mourning” (Sloterdijk 2011: 459), but it also lays the foundation for aesthetic experiences, especially the experience of music: indeed, for Sloterdijk, the intrauterine state is reflected in the physiology and phenomenology of hearing. It is not just that in the uterus a “psychoacoustic initiation of the fetus into the uterine sound world” takes place that is awakened again in later musical experiences as an acoustic memory (Sloterdijk 2011: 296). Sloterdijk goes further:

[I]t is logical that acoustic events can only be given in the nobject mode […] From the physiology of listening as a state of being set in sympathetic vibration, it is evident that acoustic experiences are media processes which cannot possibly be represented in languages of object relationships […] listening to music always means being-in-music. (Sloterdijk 2011: 296)

For Sloterdijk, then, there is hardly any other art as well suited as music – and no sense as well suited as hearing – for recalling and even re-experiencing the original intrauterine state.

Sloterdijk’s aesthetics of presence is not the only one that makes a fundamental appeal to sound and music. Gumbrecht, Mersch, and even Seel all draw on sound phenomena to describe the effects of presence, appearance, or auratic events (as will be discussed further below). This reaching out of the philosophies of presence to sound-phenomena can presumably be traced back to a somewhat earlier junction: the inverse reaching out of sound theory and sound-art theory to phenomenological approaches. As Seth Kim-Cohen has demonstrated at length, “sonic theory” already began to “pursu[e] the essentialist, phenomenological route” (Kim-Cohen 2009: 92) long before 2009 (the year when his book was published):

Aristotle believed that flies could spontaneously generate from animal dung. Such is the persuasiveness of the apparent. The apparent would have it that sound is purer than vision; sound is not as susceptible to being deceptively manipulated; sound is a direct encounter with waves created by the sounding objects, a physical phenomenon, an actual vibration of the body. (Kim-Cohen 2009: 91)

Kim-Cohen shows that such persuasive “streams of thought” are already established in the sound-art avant-garde (in the work of Schaeffer, for example, where it is primarily the promise of a sensory presence of “sound-in-itself”). Further, he argues that they were first developed theoretically by such media theorists as Marshall McLuhan and Friedrich Kittler. In fact, McLuhan’s influential media theory (The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962) does contain an often overlooked theory of acoustic experience. McLuhan anticipates not only several important concepts of the aesthetics of auditory presence, such as immersion and spatial, holistic experience, but also the appeal to cultures of presence that are presumed to be originary and living in an “eternal present”. On the basis of ethnological studies, McLuhan assumes an essentialist and primitivist stance that Kim-Cohen justifiably criticizes: McLuhan contrasts “Western literate communities” with “‘primitive’ or auditory communities (Africa, China, India, Russia)” (McLuhan 1962: 21) in which humans live in a “magical world of the resonant oral word” (McLuhan 1962: 19). Even in 1989, McLuhan is still convinced that

[f]or the caveman, the mountain Greek, the Indian hunter […], the world was […] reverberating […] Acoustic imagination dwelt in the ebb and flow, the logos […] Acoustic space structure is the natural space of nature-in-the-raw inhabited by non-literate people. (McLuhan quoted in Kim-Cohen 2009: 93)

Kittler’s media theory also pursues a theory of sound that sees sound as a phenomenon that has not (yet) been encompassed by the symbolic order – sound as the still undomesticated real. Paradoxically, it is sound recording that reveals the essence of sound: “An invention that subverts both literature and music (because it reproduces the unimaginable real they are both based on) must have struck even its inventor as something unheard of” (Kittler 1999: 22). This revelation takes the form of sounds that are otherwise “overheard” by the ear: “The phonograph does not hear as do others that have been trained immediately to filter voices, words, and sounds out of noise; it registers acoustic events as such” (Kittler 1999: 23; Kim-Cohen 2009: 95).

Even if Kim-Cohen’s critique of the foundation of sound theory in phenomenological essentialism has been extensively debated, his diagnosis is still accurate. Recent theoreticians of sound, such as Salomé Voegelin or Christoph Cox, have continued to develop the tendency identified by Kim-Cohen.[3] Imagining sound as the other of the visual, Voegelin derives a promise of immediacy and sensory presence from it that dissolves linear temporality in an emphatically loaded “Now”:

What I see is always already gone. It engraves itself into my retina as a picture of the past […] Sound on the other hand is immediate sensibility: unordered and purposeless, always now […] Sound […] sounds the now as a complex duration of past and present continued together in the action of perception. This now is absence and presence in the paradox of sound that is always here. It is not linear or intentional, but extensive and intersubjective: permanently and only here on my body. (Voegelin 2010: 169–170)

The philosophical aesthetics of presence thus uses music and sound to describe desirable experiences. In turn, sound theory and sound-art theory move toward an aesthetics of sensory presence that promises access to the real, to the experience of past “acoustic cultures,” or to a mystical “now.” But this double link does not at all begin with the advent of “sound” and “sound-art”, as Kim-Cohen suggests in his work. Rather, it reaches back to an influential tradition in music aesthetics from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century, a tradition that had a strong ideological foundation and was even, at times, explicitly politically motivated.


Trans. Andrew Shields. All translations of citations from the German are by Andrew Shields unless otherwise noted. A different version of this article in German appeared in Wolf Gerhard Schmidt (2014), Klang – Ton – Musik. Theorien und Modelle (national)kultureller Identitätsstiftung. Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag (cf. Gess 2014: 97-116).

[1] In highlighting a particular tendency in texts by Rousseau, Wackenroder, Schopenhauer, Wagner, Nietzsche, and Bloch, this interpretation has to be intentionally quite pointed. In many ways these texts have turned out to be more insightful than their surface claims or their assimilation by later philosophers of music. This has been shown, for example, by interpretations informed by deconstruction: in the case of Rousseau and Wackenroder, for example, the language of musical presence, immediacy, and immersion can be understood and relativized in terms of issues of writing, compositional craft, and musical analysis. Further, several of these authors, especially Nietzsche, did later revise their claims, but these issues cannot be addressed here. In part II, this article takes up earlier work of mine that develops these themes further (cf. Gess 2011: 132–147 and 358–360; Gess 2015b; Gess 2007).

[2] Seel’s “appearance” belongs here only conditionally: Seel distinguishes three levels of appearance, and only the first aims at sensory presence in the above sense (Seel 2003: 145–171). Immersion belongs here insofar as texts about the aesthetics of presence (as well as those on sound theory) repeatedly attempt to describe the immersion of the listener in the world of sound. The alternative sense of the term in studies of virtual reality does not play a role here.

[3] The text by Cox (2011), however, is much more reflective and focuses on materiality rather than working from a phenomenological perspective.


Rousseau’s 1755 diagnosis of his contemporary world is devastating: “Societies have assumed their final form” (Rousseau 1986: 72). Rulers rule not for but against the people, who have only “arms and cash” to defend themselves against the public use of violence (Rousseau 1986: 72). The desolate state of society is reflected in the French language, a “slavish tongue” that, given its lack of prosody, resonance, and harmony, can no longer be used to “make oneself understood to the people assembled”; rather, such a language is only appropriate “for murmuring on couches” (Rousseau 1986: 73). According to Rousseau, his age is therefore characterized by a profound speechlessness: the orator’s art of convincing the public and advocating freedom has been replaced by mute violence and private intrigue.

It comes as no surprise then, that Rousseau’s Essai sur l’origine des langues is driven by a doubly sentimental longing for an “original community” and its first, musical language. Rousseau imagines meetings at tropical wells where the first language developed from the growing love of the sexes for each other:

Girls would come to seek water for their household, young men would come to water their herds […] The first tongues, children of pleasure […] long bore the mark of their father. They lost their seductive tone with the advent of feelings to which they had given birth, when new needs arose among men, forcing each to be mindful only of his own welfare, and to withdraw his heart into himself. (Rousseau 1986: 44–46)

The original language imagined here as the expression of an age of love, leisure, community, and communication is also identified as song: “Around the fountains […] the first discourses were the first songs. The periodic recurrences and measures of rhythm, the melodious modulations of accent, gave birth to poetry and music along with language. Or, rather that was the only language” (Rousseau 1986: 50). Here, song is a natural language of the heart that emerges from passion as directly as it is understood by listeners.

For Rousseau, the “degeneration” (Rousseau 1986: 68) of language in his contemporary world corresponds to the “degeneration” of melody caused by harmony, or more precisely by the constraint of melody by harmonic laws. However, in contrast to the desolation of language, a trace of the origin is retained in the melodies of vocal music. For example, when Rousseau praises song’s “power over sensitive hearts” (Rousseau 1986: 57), he refers not only to the original scene by the well but also to his own contemporaries. They, too, feel the immediate power of a melody that, “though inarticulate, is lively, ardent, [and] passionate” in its imitation of the “vocal signs of passion” (Rousseau 1986: 57), even to the point of becoming identical with them. Rousseau is taking a position in a contemporary debate here, the querelle des buffons that pitted Italian opera against French opera. For Rousseau, the lyrical tragedy of Rameau, who had founded the theory of harmony with his Traité de l’Harmonie in 1722, is exclusively focused on harmonic laws and thus has a distorted sense of melody, while the melodies in the Italian opera buffa imitate language moved by the passions and can thus touch the heart with great immediacy. That is, if the French language distances itself as far as is possible from the first language and can thus never be “favorable to liberty” (Rousseau 1986: 72), the original songs are still present in the vocal melodies of Italian opera. Rousseau does not say whether such melodies can release a revolutionary power (as German music later does for Nietzsche), but at least such melodies – in their supposed primordiality, authenticity and immediacy – inspire him to imagine an alternative society.

Rousseau’s musical fictions of origin influenced not only the debate on the origin of language in the late eighteenth century but also the aesthetics of music and the literature of sentimentalism and Sturm und Drang. If, in sentimentalism’s understanding, music enabled immediate and undistorted heart-to-heart communication, music in the age of Sturm und Drang was seen as permitting the direct expression of both “true” and “strong” “human feelings.” For unlike language or painting, music was thought to be “intimately bound to the nature of passions”, and could thus give voice to the obscurity and darkness of feelings and communicate them to the listener (cf. Herder 2006: 284). Both these understandings of music are present in Wackenroder’s Berglinger texts from 1797 and 1799.[4] They also begin with a critique of the contemporary world, but the critique is more individual than systematic, with the artist suffering in a world of philistines and “subtle reasoners” (Wackenroder 2014: 137). Berglinger, like Rousseau, sketches an “originary” counter-world which can only be entered through music. This realm is also based on a longing that is turned backward, as when listening to music is described as both an oral pleasure and an element that flatters all the senses and draws the listener in. Such images are connected with the tendency to see the sensory effect of music in feminine terms. Here, Wackenroder recodes the erotic charge of music in Rousseau as a child-like longing to return into the loving mother’s arms. The characterization of the listener as a child (which Sloterdijk has recently taken up again) runs through the Berglinger texts in numerous passages discussing the caves, depths, and grottoes of music: music emerges from the “mysterious vaults” of an “oracular cave” that listeners involuntarily find themselves in (Wackenroder 2014: 141). On the one hand, in connection with metaphors of maternity and childhood, such images create an imaginary maternal body the listener is drawn into. On the other hand, these hollow spaces are also located inside the listener. Music generates currents in a “secret river in the depths of the human soul” (Wackenroder 2014: 137). In the form of barely accessible memory, the listener draws the imaginary place of fusion into himself. Only sounds can report from this place: “With easy, playful joy the resounding soul rises forth from its oracular cave” (Wackenroder 2014: 141).

Two decades later, in Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea (1818), Wackenroder’s urge to create a metaphysics of music was extended to become the essential component of a theory of being. But in Schopenhauer, music no longer reveals the (heavenly) sphere of the (individual) soul;[5] instead, it reports from the dark realm of the world-will at the foundation of all existence (cf. Schopenhauer 1909: 212). It no longer disembodies and spiritualizes the passions but rather makes it possible for them to speak in their rawest form, in the direct connection of bodies and their blind urge to life. Here, music speaks to the listener not only immediately but also deeply physically. Richard Wagner’s conception of the musical drama goes on to turn Wackenroder’s feelings into a pre-individual “objectification of the will” in a step that is based on Schopenhauer: music “does not therefore express this or that particular and definite joy, this or that sorrow, or pain […]; but joy [or] pain […] themselves, to a certain extent in the abstract, their essential nature, without accessories, and therefore without their motives” (Schopenhauer 1909: 314). Wagner turns this claim by Schopenhauer into an absolute primacy of the acoustic over the visual, of hearing over seeing. In his Beethoven essay of 1870, Wagner writes of a “second world […] perceptible only through the hearing, strictly speaking, therefore, a true world of sound” which reveals both the “essence of the world” and the identity of this essence with the inner essence of every individual human (as opposed to a “world of light” that remains trapped in the world of mere appearance) (Wagner 1873: 29–31).[6] Wagner’s essay was closely connected to Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy (1872). His opposition of a sound-world of essence and a light-world of mere appearance is the starting point for Nietzsche’s much more wide-ranging aesthetic philosophy of a “duplexity of the Apollonian and the Dionysian” (Nietzsche 1909: 21) in which music speaks from the “essence of [the] Dionysian” (Nietzsche 1909: 32) while the beautiful illusion of the Apollonian on the stage of Wagner’s music drama conceals the audible “terrors and horrors of existence” (Nietzsche 1909: 34). But Nietzsche makes the cultural and political context of both texts clearer. Both in the original preface to The Birth of Tragedy and in the “Attempt at a Self-Criticism” that he later published as an additional preface, Nietzsche emphasizes the connection between The Birth of Tragedy and the Franco-Prussian War that led to the founding of the German Empire. Nietzsche, who volunteered as a medic during the war, first draws parallels between the stages of the writing of his essay and the stages of the war (Nietzsche 1909: 1–2) and then insists that his text deals with an “earnest […] German problem […] which we properly place, as a vortex and turning-point, in the very midst of German hopes” (Nietzsche 1909: 20).

At the heart of this intention is Nietzsche’s nationalization of the “Dionysian essence” as a German essence. Starting from the same “degeneration of the Hellene” that Rousseau began with, Nietzsche decries “the evanescence of the Dionysian spirit” in Western culture (Nietzsche 1909: 150). Now it is German music that is supposed to lead the way out of this desolate situation: “Out of the Dionysian root of the German spirit a power has arisen which has nothing in common with the primitive conditions of Socratic culture […] German music as we have to understand it, especially in its vast solar orbit from Bach to Beethoven, from Beethoven to Wagner” (Nietzsche 1909: 150–151). For Nietzsche, too, then, music heralds a way back: “backwards […] to the period of tragedy” (Nietzsche 1909: 152). This backward movement, though, is nationalistically colored by the Franco-Prussian War: “The German spirit” must “return[…] to the primitive source of its being”, which will also free it from being “compelled” by “Romanic civilization” (Nietzsche 1909: 152–153). In Nietzsche, the “Mothers of Being, the innermost heart of things” (Nietzsche 1909: 121) from which music sounded for Schopenhauer, has now become a German “knight sunk in slumber” who “still rests and dreams” “in some inaccessible abyss” from which “the Dionysian song rises to us,” calling for a battle with Romanic civilization (Nietzsche 1909: 184–185).

Both Wackenroder’s heavenly realm of the soul and Nietzsche’s martial war rhetoric can be found in Bloch’s Spirit of Utopia of 1918. Written during the First World War, the book hopes for a coming Socialist revolution but is as sentimental as it is Messianic. Bloch hopes for the restoration of an idealized past in a social order that seems almost medieval, in which there are only peasants, craftsmen, and a spiritual nobility, all controlled by the church (Bloch 2000: 246). He strives for a utopian redemption from the existing world with its exclusive fixation on the interests of capital. This redemption would create a different, truer world: “We […] build into the blue […] and there seek the true, the real, where the merely factual disappears” (Bloch 2000: 3). This u-topos of the blue is but another version of Wackenroder’s human interiority, and for Bloch, this interiority has to be encountered. The paths to this encounter with oneself lead through the realm of art, and above all music, whose goal is an increasingly less distorted expression of interiority and thus of the future of humanity. A whole quarter of The Spirit of Utopia, then, is taken up by a Philosophy of Music.[7]

I have already discussed this philosophy of music in all its details in another context;[8] here, I only want to mention three aspects of it. First of all, as in today’s aesthetics of presence, social relationships or historical events play hardly any role at all in Bloch’s analyses. They are replaced by music history, which Bloch understands as the history of the soul. Here, the supposed “untimeliness” of music is central. Where the later Nietzsche had a critical perspective on untimeliness in terms of how music was lagging behind developments in other arts, Bloch sees this asynchronicity as a reason to believe in music’s utopian potential. As “the language of a vanished age” (Bloch 2000: 40), music is ahead of its own time precisely by lagging behind its time and creating an ideal connection back to the past:

[S]onic constructs […] become younger precisely by becoming older […] In the end it is what is most reckless, painful, what lets itself go, what is most paradoxical to itself, which also stands closest to what is old, most primordially basic, simplest, given, immemorially longed-for, lost to the adult world. (Bloch 2000: 44)

Secondly, Bloch’s “Gothic sanctum” of interiority, which man is supposed to return to, is neither sociologically, nor historically, nor psychologically determined. Instead, this “sanctum” is filled by music – especially the “German music” of Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner. Bloch’s treatment of works of music amounts to a series of projections and identifications: a desired “content” is projected into the music; that content can then be identified with or localized in the “Gothic sanctum” of interiority. But this content remains specifically non-concrete; Bloch’s style is more focused on generating vague moods and suggestive intuitions.

Thirdly, Bloch’s ideas circle around the apocalypse that is supposed to interrupt the course of history and separate the Messianic age from the entirely annihilated past (Bloch 2000: 278). This figure leads Bloch to re-evaluate the First World War in his wartime essays. The war’s violence is explained as necessary to the complete annihilation of the Prussian military state and the preparation of the ground for a new Germany. Bloch may insist that the enemy’s tools should stop being used after the victory (Bloch 2000: 406; Bloch 1985b: 315), but it becomes clear from his music theory and his style that his utopia is already contaminated by violence. Bloch is fascinated by any musical works that he can hear as battlefields. He worships Beethoven as a despot who destroys what came before him with apocalyptic violence: “It is astonishing how much the symphonic tends to first murder […], then to bestow it again” (Bloch 2000: 81). This gift-giving, the creation of the new, then takes the form of a dictatorial regime controlling not only the musical material (when Beethoven, say, manipulates “the little melodic structures like lifeless entities” [Bloch 2000: 128]) but also the listener. Again and again, Bloch celebrates those moments when the listeners are “persuaded, compelled, entranced” (Bloch 1985b: 203). Bloch’s book itself also strives for an intensive, even autocratic effect. As he wrote to Lukacs, “I am the Paraclete and the people to whom I am sent [that is, his readers] will experience and understand the returning God in themselves” (Bloch 1985a: 66f). The necessary effect on his readers depends on several factors: his prophetic style (with such phrases as “there will be a time” [Bloch 2000: 234]); the creation of a diffuse foreboding by means of endless chains of metaphors whose effect is to render argumentative discussion impossible (Bloch 2000: 234 and 154); and suggestive principles that aim to control the reader’s mood, such as “We only hear ourselves. For we are gradually becoming blind to the outside” (Bloch 2000: 159).


[4] In Confessions from the Heart of an Art-Loving Friar (1797) and with Tieck in Fantasies on Art (1799) (Wackenroder 1971; cf. Gess 2011: 132–147).

[5] On the heavenly recoding of the inner realm in Wackenroder see (Gess 2011: 144–147).

[6] I have already undertaken a detailed analysis of this theory of Wagner’s, as well as its consequences for his musical theater, in another context (Gess 2015a).

[7] Bloch was also influenced by an irrationalist current in the musicology of his time; it was quite widespread, especially in popular discussions of music. This current included such musicologists as August Halm, Ernst Kurth, and Fritz Stege (cf. Kneif 1965).

[8] The discussion here is based on (Gess 2015b [forthcoming]; Gess 2007).



What Rousseau, Wackenroder, Nietzsche, and Bloch share with today’s theorists of presence is not the desire for political upheaval, but a critique of the present – or at least of the present state of art – that often generates a longing for a concealed, forgotten, or lost place of the originary and the authentic in which an unalienated existence was or would be possible. In Rousseau, this place is the primeval community around the well; in Wackenroder, the oracular cave; in Nietzsche, the primal German-Dionysian origin; in Bloch, the Gothic sanctum; in Sloterdijk, the uterine realm; in Gumbrecht, a pre-Cartesian culture of presence; in McLuhan, the African “world of sound” (McLuhan 1962: 19); and in other, less explicit theorists, the sensory world that supposedly precedes symbolic orders. And like their predecessors, these recent theorists try to enter that place through music: The supposed non-referentiality of music or sound-art serves as an ideal surface for projecting all kinds of possible contents and as an ideal playground for auratic interpretations. At the same time, compared to the other arts, music offers a supposedly more intense “physical reality” – an assumption based primarily on music’s purported absence of meaning but also on a phenomenology of listening that claims, as Sloterdijk puts it in Klangwelt, that the musical ear participates “exclusively in the mode of immersion in reality provided by acoustic events” (Sloterdijk 2007: 11).

This then provides the foundation for generalizing statements about “music” or “voice” or “sound” as such. For example, Sloterdijk writes that all music is “entirely under the sign of rediscovery”: the “specific fascination of the tonal art” as such is “bound to the effect of the return of an audible presence that was thought to have been lost” (Sloterdijk 2007: 13). Wackenroder saw oracular caves full of sound; Nietzsche heard sounds from the belly of the will – Sloterdijk explicitly talks about the uterus of sound. He assumes an “original listener” who “is embedded from the beginning in an internal continuum of sound dominated by two emanations from the maternal environment: the heartbeat […] and the voice of the mother” (Sloterdijk 2007: 10). Sloterdijk thus understands hearing in the mother’s body as the foundation of all further hearing; later, then, music is always able to “speak to the register of deep regressions”: “Thus, music can still evoke the intimate prehistory of the adult subject shaped by the rigors of the real” (Sloterdijk 2007: 11). For Sloterdijk, then, listening to music involves “the return to the realm of the heartbeat and the archaic soprano” (Sloterdijk 2007: 12). Sloterdijk’s distinction between a “hearing [and] a seeing relationship to the world” (Sloterdijk 2007: 51) also shows how close he is to Nietzsche. This “hearing relationship to the world” is a matter not of distance but of “inhabiting” what one hears. “The nature of hearing” as “being in the sound” makes this “inhabitation” into a “submersion of the subject in itself” (Sloterdijk 2007: 52–53). When Sloterdijk answers the suggestive question of “where we are when we listen to music”, he sounds like Bloch: we are in ourselves. Sloterdijk goes on to counter Descartes’s cogito ergo sum: “I hear something in myself, therefore I am” (Sloterdijk 2007: 67). He appeals to this inner hearing, but he reinterprets it, like Bloch, as a “subjection” (Sloterdijk 2007: 68) by the sounds of an other: “Attention to inner voices and sounds means […] being ready for incoming acoustic presences; it is not that I gain a foundation through them, but that they subject me to their sound” (Sloterdijk 2007: 68). For Bloch, this other was the voice of the Paraclete he saw himself as; for Sloterdijk, this autocratic demand also echoes in his prophetic tone: “An age of music and psychology begins that relates the glass palaces of rationality to a seismic foundation” (Sloterdijk 2007: 76).

While Sloterdijk talks about music as such, Gumbrecht talks about opera in a general way. While he also expects the “production of presence” (Gumbrecht 2005: 343) from opera, he sees it as a return not to the sounds of the mother’s body but to a pre-Cartesian culture. The origin of opera in the seventeenth century thus appears as a “compensation […] in light of the normalization of the Cartesian world view” (Gumbrecht 2005: 350): the more everything focused only on “meaning”, the more opera asserted itself as a remnant of the declining culture of presence. This leads Gumbrecht to see the actual core of opera as such not in the libretto or the stage action but in the physical reality of the voices and the instrumental music (cf. Gumbrecht 2005: 350). Opera is focused on “emergence” or even on the ”epiphany […] of substance, in this specific case: towards the epiphany or emergence of the sound” (Gumbrecht 2005: 351) that produces the experience of “presence” (Gumbrecht 2005: 354). Similarly, Mersch is also interested in the physical reality of voices as such, from which he hopes to reach the presence of corporality. Quoting Michel Serres, he writes about the voice in and beyond music:

“Beneath language, beneath all languages, universally so, music lives beneath meaning and before it, its pre-condition and its physical medium […] Music sings before language, before sense, is the condition of that which remains always soft […] Beneath song […] the phrasing seems to speak a foreign language from before the time of meaning, so ancient that it speaks to our flesh.” Thus does the corporality of the body find in the sound of voices a manifold presence that cannot be captured in categorical classification. (Mersch 2002: 113)

The political or at least ideological tradition of the aesthetics of music described here raises the issue of the political orientation of contemporary theories of presence and sound. If one wanted to locate them politically, one would surely refer on the one hand to their emancipatory self-understanding as liberating aesthetic experience from the trap of the symbolic and the intellectual rage for control. Or as Kim-Cohen writes: “To turn to the aural is to turn away from power” (Kim-Cohen 2009: 94). In combination with the explicit renunciation of a historical, sociological, or otherwise contextualizing embedding of the artistic phenomena under discussion, however, this gesture turns out to range from simply naive to essentialist – essentialist whenever instead of such a contextualization the focus is on a phenomenological essence of sound, hearing, or music as such. And this gesture is, as we have seen, just as often accompanied by an appeal to a past era when these essences are thought to have been central, or at least when the experience of sensory presence is thought to have been more central. Even if the contemporary theories of presence are not politically motivated (with the exception of Sloterdijk, who has by now apparently been appropriated by the German right, as discussed in [Weiß 2001: 61–71; Honneth 2009]), their rhetoric of liberation, their attack on the (hermeneutic) Geist and the regime of signs, their renunciation of contextualizing interpretation, their sympathy for auratically charged interior spaces and immediate aesthetic experiences, and their appeals to idyllic worlds in the past can all be seen as quite close to positions of the Romantic anti-Enlightenment and its turn to the field of aesthetics as part of its anti-political politics.

On the other hand, Simanowski sees contemporary theories of presence as characterized above all by a longing for affirmation that follows the “utopia” of “being one with the world” (Simanowski 2008: 268). In fact, Gumbrecht hopes that presence will generate a “redemption from the permanent obligation to move and to change, both in the sense of the never-ending “historical” changes […] and in that of the self-imposed obligation” (Gumbrecht 2003: 160). This attitude might indeed be characterized less by anti-Enlightement activism than by a “Buddhist or hedonistic” pacification of what exists. And Simanowski justifiably emphasizes that whatever could still shock the educated classes in the age of the avant-gardes can no longer do so: “In what Debord calls ‘the society of the spectacle’, scandal changes sides, and affirmation changes shape: the abyss is less the withdrawal than the imposition of meaning” (Simanowski 2008: 253). And it is this imposition that the aesthetics of presence would elude.

Thus, talk of sound, music, and voice in contemporary theories often establishes an “ideology of presence” rather than actually examining auditory art. The claims quoted above about music, opera or voice “in general” may not be entirely wrong, but they are hardly specific enough, and they are lacking in any contextual assessment of the music or sound-art they are talking about, let alone an awareness of music and sound as epistemic objects. As a result, they not only tend toward an essentialist handling of auditory phenomena but also lose the opportunity to realize the potential of music or sound-art for the very critique of reason that they are actually interested in.

In this sense, I agree with Simanowski’s call for a “theoretical counterposition to the culture of presence” in terms of “an aesthetic of sovereignty”. Such an aesthetic “sees art as the medium to dissolve the dominant extra-aesthetic reason and thus as the site of an aesthetically realized critique of reason.” This is not a renunciation of interpretation; rather, resistance to the “intellectual rage for control” is pursued through the ”radicalization” of interpretation “as a never-ending process” (Simanowski 2008: 257). The founder of the aesthetics of sovereignty, Christoph Menke, emphasizes a central distinction:

The Romantic definition of the function of art describes it teleologically as a transrational site for solving problems in non-aesthetic discourses that precede it and can be analyzed independently of it; the modern positioning of art by Adorno, in contrast, sees it as a catalyst for the generation of problems that, without aesthetic experience, could not come up to be considered at all. (Menke: 1998: 287)

This distinction again makes clear that those theorists of presence who want to see music, sound, or voice as solving the problem of an all-too-imperious reason are heirs of Romanticism; beyond that, though, it also makes clear how music or sound-art can lead such Romantic discourses into a crisis. Kim-Cohen, for example, attempts such a reading “against the grain” of contemporary trends in his chapter “Sound out of itself” (Kim-Cohen 2009: 175–210). However, Kim-Cohen makes music a scapegoat that a sociologically grounded sound art and sound-art theory should distinguish itself from. It seems more constructive to me to include music in this changed perspective, that is, to understand sound and music as symbolic forms in historical and sociological contexts that they (can) simultaneously take critical positions on. As Brian Kane writes in a recent review directed against both Voegelin and Kim-Cohen,

[t]he way to argue against the ideology of the sound-in-itself isn’t by turning Music (writ large) into a straw man and then doggedly committing oneself to its alleged other, the social. The way to argue against the ideology of sound-in-itself is to demonstrate that sound is always already social – whether notated or improvised, Western or non-Western, Music or Sound Art. (Kane 2015: 21)

Of course, that does not mean that issues of sensory presence in music or sound theory should not be examined at all. Rather, it means that such examinations should be undertaken in a different way. In conclusion, then, I would like to offer three very brief examples from musicology that could take a critical position in these discourses:

(1) Carolyn Abbate’s article “Music: drastic or gnostic” offers language for a discussion of musical performance as a “sonic and visual reality” in terms of its “physical force and sensual power” (Abbate 2004: 509). Even if her approach explores an effect of presence rather than of meaning, it does so more concretely and critically by discussing the subjective experience of particular performances in terms of the history of discourse and by engaging in self-reflection that calls the resulting aporias into question.

(2) Even in Abbate, though, a remnant of understanding performance in terms of aura remains, as Levin has shown in Unsettling Opera. For him, performance, rather than providing the desired immediacy, only involves a different medium, another form of mediatization, as with the recording on DVD that Abbate rejects (Levin 2007: 8). Levin also makes an observation that turns out to be quite productive in thinking about performances: the isolation of the presence effects of performances can run aground in the unsayable; so those effects should always be considered in terms of the relationship between sensory experience and the effect of meaning, that is, in the mediation of all these terms with each other (Levin 2007: 10).

(3) In his article on paradoxes of musical temporality in recent music history, Christian Utz addresses the “construction of an acoustic present” on the basis of concrete musical analyses, for example, of procedures of the “spatialization” of musical time; these analyses break up the auratic effect conjured in many theories of presence. At the same time, he subjects the model of “the hearing of presence” to a critical examination that “above all begins with the aporia for musical analysis that are inherent in this model” (Utz: 2015: 22).

This cursory examination of exemplary texts of the past 250-plus years shows that the contemporary boom of the concepts of “presence” is connected with an appeal to the sense of hearing and to music and sound. What modern civilization has lost, namely experiences of immediacy, presence, and authenticity, current theory is hoping to find (again) in the art of sound. The examination also sets forth that such hopes have time and again been embedded in aesthetic ideologies appealing to the acoustic and the auditory as a foundation for anti-enlightenment, sometimes deeply reactionary positions. And finally, the examination thus also sets forth which directions contemporary research on sound, on the philosophy of music, and on the anthropology of hearing should not take, or at least why they would be well advised to cultivate an awareness of their history and to position themselves critically with respect to their currently fashionable “presence.”



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