“Der hypersexuelle / geschlechtslose Jazz”

... or how improvisation does (not) go along with authorship. (english version)

Version française : voir ici. The kind reader is asked to excuse the (probably numerous) mistakes is english, sorry but the translation is my own ! Edit, 2010.06.22 : new version, with various corrections & many improvements, thanks to Elsa Grassy — thank you very much, Elsa ! Any commentary, or suggestion for correction, is much welcome.

It has been said over and over again : jazz would be inextricably related to sex, and the idea is even arguably etymologically wrought into the music, the word “jazz” would derive from a slang term describing sexual excitement, or the sexual act. No matter how uncertain the etymology : real or invented, one can assume it has something to do with the old racist myth of “Black people”’s sexual hyperactivity, since jazz was born in the African-American community. We can see here a first instance of how the notions of Geschlecht, “race”, and Geschlecht, sex or gender, are associated — however ambiguously. Dancing, in the past, seemed to contribute to this mise en scène of the body as a source of sexual power. Still today, in our supposedly egalitarian societies, the image of jazz remains one of a “music for men”, and jazz-women are still scarce. Moreover, within the sub-branches of the genre, allegedly “cerebral” avant-garde jazz is even more overwhelmingly perceived as “male”, at least in ordinary representations. To complete the picture, the “jazz atmosphere” necessarily includes cigarettes, alcohol, as well as dark, smoke-filled rooms — havens of masculinity.

A sociology or a history of representations could probably explain part of these “androcentric” characteristics of jazz. Such socio-historic explanations, however, would not exhaust the subject : one has to look beyond “outside” representations to examine the musical processes on which jazz music “itself ” is built as well as the aesthetic discourses that accompany these processes.

In this paper, I would like to deal more specifically with improvisation and the aesthetics most commonly associated with it. From the very start it should be visible that, far from being opposed to the figure of the author (as it is traditionally conceived) because of improvisation’s presumed “orality”, the figure of the improviser remains quite close to it, and most notably retains the author’s directly phallocentric characteristics : his creativity and informative originality, his mastery and “domination” of the material, his ability to create a style (that is to say the unmistakeable sign of the creator’s presence in his work), the absolute and the immediate transcendence of a specific value and of a particular meaning, the truth of a presence, etc. — in short, all that is bound to activity, understood as virile, as opposed to passivity, a supposedly feminine trait. The improviser is a real, genuine genius, as defined by Kant in his third Critique : gifted with free and sovereign inspiration, and the only kind of artist capable of reaching the sublime. He is the most manly of men, the one who engenders. The improviser, like the author, is a father — again, this is a matter of Geschlecht : gender and genre, race, lineage, and family.

One can therefore see the hypersexuality of the jazz musician reappear at the very core of the aesthetic discourse on jazz : being an improviser, he is “geschlechtsvoll”, in a way. Of course, if one follows a classical logic, it is also possible, to consider this ostentatious hypersexuality as being the most explicit symptom of a properly pathological castration anxiety, without disrupting anything in the phallocentric hierarchy of values. Then, it wouldn’t be difficult to relate the previous arguments to Adorno’s writings, in which as we know he accuses jazz of the worst flaws and failings. Which means, first and above all, sexual failing or failure : jazz, according to Adorno, suffers from impotence (Impotenz), it’s not even a women’s art but, much worse, an art for sexually ambiguous men, or an art for the castrated. Jazz is therefore duly doomed to unproductive wandering : it is the orphan, the bastard, the illegitimate child, and it will therefore remain without offspring. And, as always, of course, this diagnosis about jazz declares it both useless and harmful : the pathology is a contagious one, and leads to the hysteria of the “jitterbugs”, to the false trance of a false primitivism. The verdict is finally announced, impeccable : jazz is — as much as its flagship instrument, the saxophone — “geschlechtslos”. Geschlechtslos : asexual, deprived of a sex and of a gender, but no less deprived of a race, of a good lineage, etc. It would probably be a misreading to jump to the conclusion that Adorno’s hatred for jazz is, as it is sometimes said, a case of cold feet, or of frigidity. If one reads Adorno closely, one realizes that at no time does he fear to see the body, the improvisation or the orality breaking in. Then there must be something else : behind the well-ordered and well-oiled rhetoric of the dialectician philosopher, the mistrust of jazz is ruled by the same axiology as the jazz defenders’. The latter praise jazz for its virility, whereas Adorno sentences it for its lack of virility : in each case it is the discourse about virile, productive activity which prevails — in each case it is the feminine, unproductive passivity, which is condemned.

But, in the end, this doesn’t tell us which rhetorical economy allows this discourse to fit other parts of Adorno’s aesthetics and, more generally, his philosophy — parts that are sometimes much more difficult to enclose fully within the classical discourse of phallo(go)centrism. And, above all, it doesn’t help us to find a way to think about improvisation differently : as long as we keep thinking about artistic and musical creation in terms of activity and passivity, as long as we conceptualize the sexual difference as an opposition, we will not be able to evade from this circular economy of logic. Which leads one to the tentative conclusion — perhaps following what as initiated under the name of écriture within the so-called “French Theory” in the second half of the twentieth century (as developed by Blanchot, Barthes, or Derrida) — that at the same period another figure of the improviser could be emerging. That improviser is no longer an author, but a scriptor, which undermines the figure of the masculine genius.

The main purpose of this paper will therefore be to see in what way the aesthetics of improvisation repeats and shifts the traditional aesthetics of authorship and genius.

Preliminary bibliography
Adorno, « Abschied vom Jazz » (1933), G.S. 18, s. 795-799.
Adorno, « Über jazz » (1936), G.S. 17, s. 74-108.
Adorno, « Zeitlose Mode » (1953), G.S. 10.1, s. 103-137.
Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie (1970).
Barthes, « La mort de l’auteur » (1968), Le bruissement de la langue.
Derrida, Éperons : les styles de Nietzsche (1972).
Derrida, « Economimesis » (1975), Mimesis des articulations.
Derrida, « Le parergon » (1978), La vérité en peinture.
Derrida, Genèses, généalogies, genres et le génie (2003).
Foucault, « Qu’est-ce qu’un auteur ? » (1969), Dits et écrits.
Lacoue-Labarthe, « Typographie » (1975), Mimesis des articulations.
Lacoue-Labarthe, Musica ficta : figures de Wagner (1991).