Put differently, it is important to consider the possible ethical choices involved in our engagement with art, and once those engaged – the agents – are identified as players that can either potentially do harm, become victims, and/or take some kind of responsibility, the ethical potency of art reveals itself most clearly. One could choose any number of examples here, including from artistic research. Coming from my perspective of musicology and music-philosophy, I will now turn to film, and film music, as an example of how to understand the position of the listening subject in order to get closer to understanding important intersections between ethics and aesthetics, and music and ethics in particular. The discussion seeks to emphasise how film music might inspire the (listening) perceiving subject to ask: ‘Who am I’? Music, and sound, can have some very powerful ways of telling us who we are. Through its focus on subjectivity, the example continues to interrogate the article’s three key concepts – engagement, agency, and responsibility.
In order to clarify possible relations between music and ethics in film music in particular, we turn to film scholarship. A useful distinction has been made by Catherine Wheatley who suggests that film scholars interested in ethical issues can be ordered into two broad groups: those concerned with the ethics of a film’s content, and those concerned with the ethics of a film’s form. The former group focuses on plot, action, and character (for example the moral story of the protagonist), and for this camp, the spectator is in a position to learn something, for example about their own moral responsibility, as they empathise with characters and experience the suffering and redemption available from the characters’ narratives. For the latter group, film is not simply content, but contributes in ethically relevant ways as a medium, not simply as some narrative illustration, but as an active participant as a cinematic institution, employing a distinctive, recognisable form in filmic productions. For these scholars the filmic institution can have its own implicit ethics (or lack thereof). An example is an institution like Hollywood, which can be regarded morally dubious, because it so often uncritically promotes and idealises specific political values and works in coercive ways, for example applying satisfying formal structures of unity, continuity, and closure when such aspects ought instead to be approached critically. Adding to this body of scholarship within film studies, Wheatley proposes constructing a ‘new way of thinking about the film viewing experience: an ethical theory of spectatorship.’10 Particularly welcome about her framework is its focus on subjectivity and experience. The perspective broadly fits with the former group of scholars, focusing on content, but it takes seriously the spectator’s response to whatever ethical content is presented, as well as the role played by the director constructing this content. Further, the framework does so in moral terms: what is at play is analysis and understanding of the relationship between a director’s aesthetic reflexivity and the spectator’s moral reflexivity. Wheatley’s directorial subject is Haneke, so we will return to her again in a moment.
Finally, some scholarship has proposed that film can itself be philosophy. In their book Film as Philosophy (2005), philosophers Rupert Read and Jerry Goodenough show facets of this point. While arguing that films like Blade Runner and Last Year at Marienbad are themselves philosophy, Goodenough suggests that more than simply telling us about philosophical themes, or illustrating philosophical problems (although they do this too), films like these force the audience to engage with particular philosophical issues and themes. And during this active involvement, while the spectator is granted an opportunity, for example, to participate deeply emotionally, such films can challenge what we believe, and what we think we know, about our own lives and selves. For example in Blade Runner we encounter replicants who look and act like human beings, and with whom we get to empathise, as we as audience engage with them in a ‘form of life’ that makes it very difficult for us not to be drawn into their life-world, as if they were like us. In realising that these replicants are in fact closer to our real life than the humans we see in the film, we learn something about our world and ourselves. In Last Year at Marienbad, traditional cinematic techniques are to a great extent subverted, and the spectator is forced to engage with the narrative, scenery, and usage of flashbacks, in very different ways. The result of this challenging participation is that we get to understand better (and perhaps even acknowledge for the first time) what we can identify as our natural rationalist tendency to impose order. This suggests that film as philosophy can offer persuasive perspectives. Contrasting film with the written word, Goodenough says: ‘Film brings the bare functional proposition to life, makes it plausible, in a way that mere argument on paper cannot do.’11 There appears to be a cognitive move from being told something (in a novel) about, for example, emphatic behaviour, to seeing something (in a film) that forces deep engagement, and then arguably to hearing something that forces even deeper engagement.
This idea of a deeper engagement is key. In real life we can understand our musical responses and their ethical implications in a wide variety of ways. Musical associations are to some extent tied to the fictional spaces of film and opera, but by no means entirely. The link between art and life is easily made because we draw on situations and experiences from life (such as slow music at funerals) to shape our imagination. It is therefore desirable for an ethical criticism of music to account for multiplicities of listening, in order to achieve a more thorough understanding of instances of moral engagement, i.e. instances of the ethical experience of music. Regardless of the context, humans possess a complex capacity for mental imagery and emotional evocation. Most people are able to recall not only themes and other musical details, but also specific associations (images, emotions, thoughts) that accompany the recollection of the music. Simply put, music has the capacity to shape the narrative of our lives, and as we now also know, situate us experientially in ‘the now’. Narrative film music is one example that draws on this capacity, because otherwise it would not be so effective. One objection might be that film music is music working ‘as an accompaniment’ to a story, not as ‘pure music’ on its own. But the point here is that music is always to some extent working like this, shaping our experiences of a series of ‘nows’: even if we sit alone in a room listening to music, we still have the context of our imagination. Music can work in powerful ways to prompt memories and ideas, and therefore engage our emotional and intellectual faculties.
Continuing the theme of subjectivity in connection with our key concepts of engagement, agency and responsibility, it is instructive to draw on Kate McQuiston’s work on Stanley Kubrick’s infamous 1971 film A Clockwork Orange. In her 2008 study, ‘Value, Violence, and Music Recognized: A Clockwork Orange as Musicology’, McQuiston shows how the audience is forced to identify with the very violent and Beethoven-loving main character Alex. This merging of subjectivities happens especially through Beethoven’s Ninth, which we always encounter through Alex’s ears. Other music in the soundtrack, such as Rossini, belongs to the non-diegetic realm, that is our realm, but Beethoven is always an experience we share closely with Alex. That way, (McQuiston says) Kubrick ‘builds spectator associations between Alex’s experiences (and our reflections upon Alex’s experiences) and the music’.12 There is a particular climax in the film where this merging of subjectivities plays itself out very powerfully. It is a memorable scene: Alex is taken in to be ‘cured’ of his violent tendencies, and during this process he is tortured. The real torture, however, happens when he realises that his very favourite composer is being used as a soundtrack to accompany violent visual material.
The usage of Beethoven in A Clockwork Orange offers the spectator a complex web of ethical aspects: Kubrick makes us encounter Beethoven as a ‘locus of violence’13, but it is likely that we began watching this film without any strong aversion towards Beethoven’s music and the legacy of high culture it brings with it (an association that is so effectively contrasted with the violence in the film). Our possible resistance to this new violent association contributes to our anxiety and our ‘sensitivity to the violence in the film’.14 Crucially, it is through Beethoven that the spectator is invited to sympathise with Alex and with his violent acts, and the acts committed against him (as that particular scene shows, as well as Alex’s later attempted suicide).
Turning in the following to the Austrian film director Michael Haneke’s 2001 film The Piano Teacher, we encounter similar instances of engagement, agency, and responsibility through the theme of subjectivity. Here again is an example of music actively positioning the listening subject, helping to construct the listener’s subjectivity (but with real intersubjective ramifications), and influencing and shaping the ethical experience.