Transmission in Motion

Seminar Blogs

The possibility of criticising the technical – Martin Essemann



The framing of music as writing, as fundamentally techical in the broadest sense, and the implicit inflation of technics and culture that seemed to underly the presentation, is perhaps a delayed response in the field of musicology to the questions about Modernism in visual art that arose in the middle of the last century: the realisation of anxiety about the stability of an academic concept of ‘music’ in the face of rapidly dissolving social institutions and conventions surrounding the production and consumption of music. Seemingly leading to the conclusion that we must either maintain, even if only theoretically, the meaning of music as something technical or admit the term to be superfluous. Luckily the speaker, Claire McGinn, did not allow for a simplified conception of technics that separated it from the social, but in her engagement with Derrida and Stiegler the focus on the theoretical constitutive link between concepts of the human and writing/technics seemed to prevent a critique of the technical that did not end up in a overly pessimistic or psychoanalytical dead end. Such a criticism might benefit from a more classically marxist approach or its various later instantiations: Simone Weil’s writing on oppression could be a recommended place to begin. From such a perspective the problems arising from reliance on technics is not necessarily an individual loss of capacity in the sense described in the presentation but a restriction of agency in the broad sense, of what kind of control we actually are able to assert over the technics in question: pessimism is not so much directed at over-reliance but on the forms of technics that are organised so that they sustain or even increase forms of exclusion and domination. The idea mentioned in the presentation, that there are always a human agent responsible for nuclear missiles, rather crudely glosses over the many people without a say in the matter — despite pretensions of democracy. Barrel organs and computer programmes are thus very different types of technics, and the way they are distinguished from other forms of music making might also differ — I think that there is a way of difference between exasperated conservative expressions of taste in relation to the organist and the people who ‘just don’t understand’ (this last word should be emphasised) the teenager who makes auto-tune mumble rap in his bedroom. This could also enrich the discussion of accessibility by not simply making a matter of who attends what space and whether someone in particular has the capacity to participate to asking to what degree these participants are able to shape and take responsibility for their actions. The last chapter of Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism speaks about the desire for political immediacy that have been expressed both by rightwing demagogues and ecological activist, and the observations she makes might inform a more complex understanding of how to navigate that overlap in a call for accessibility.



Berlant, Lauren, Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Weil, Simone, “Analysis of Oppresssion,” in An Anthology. London: Penguin Classics, 2005, p. 147-177.