Desiring Machines: a Deleuzian social production lens on the Second Viennese School

The Search Journal of New Music and Culture (Franklin Cox & Steven Takesugi, eds.) released its first book in 2011: The Second Century of New Music; the following is an excerpt of my opening chapter for that book; this excerpt, though, could form the basis of another book project with the above working title. 

The Search book is an attempt to synthesize the dialogues and questions that emerge from a century of avant-garde music. Since the chapters form a narrative of commentary on the last century’s chronology, my application of social production theory to Arnold Schoenberg’s first chapter seemed to work well as an opening. Later contributors include Chaya Czernowin, Helmut Lachenmann, Ming Tsao, and Erik Ullman.

In what follows, I’m attempting to distill those parts of the paper here for a broader readership of artists and culture practicioners—a view of these materials that requires less familiarity with Schoenberg as a music theorist, and less experience in Western Music History. (For the moment, brackets are interjected to annotate those elements in-progress.) Those interested in reading the complete chapter in advance of the book’s publication should contact me.



Recent scholarship on Schoenberg’s early stylistic development—before the 1908 abandonment of tonal unity—emphasizes, and takes as a primary concern, his “idiosyncratic” tonal language (Haimo 1997 & 2006, Simms 2000). This view of Schoenberg’s Brahmsian/Wagnerian music helps some to explain the later shift to atonality as a product of highly personal drives; it makes atonality an end-point in an individual and eccentric compositional journey. We are challenged to reconcile this new sensibility with established views, voiced especially by T.W. Adorno and Carl Dahlhaus, that atonality was a product of powerful aesthetic teleologies in 19th-century music.

[In other words, we used to think of Schoenberg (especially with Adorno’s help)  as a product of “historical forces,” receiving a culmination of “problems” affecting Romantic music, and reacting to those problems in a nearly inevitable way, to create “atonality.” New musicologists would rather see Schoenberg as an individual, and, intentionally or not, to marginalize atonality from the rest of music history. My abstract continues:]

Moreover, both sides of the polemic are troublesome. The debate as a whole prioritizes harmonic language over other concerns in Schoenberg’s complex view of compositional practice, and of the social, representational world in which music is situated.

Critiquing bourgeois notions of identity and cultural production that emerge in early-twentieth century Vienna, Deleuze and Guattari (1983) arrive at a conception of subject that both mirrors the trajectory of Schoenberg’s harmonic language, and illuminates some of Schoenberg’s ambivalent writing on musical form. Deleuze and Guattari theorize hidden subjectivities that are the results of alternate or unexpected social coherences under early modern capitalism. Musical analyses likewise reveal that compositions of Schoenberg and Brahms, in stark contrast to earlier Romantic individuation and difference, display unexpected possibilities for the role of sameness or synthesis, emergent from within musical relationships of estrangement.

[I refer to Brahms above because, as musicologists generally know, Brahms’s deceptively conservative music contained, for Schoenberg, the seeds of a radical formal innovation called “developing variation.”]

[Early in my paper, I make the musicological debate (not as important here) more explicit, and finally come ‘round to saying:]

There is a lot at stake here: if established voices have been wrong about the thrust of Schoenberg’s radicalism, then much of how we think about the last century of composition could be up-ended.

However, Schoenberg’s compositions and theoretical observations suggest more specific and exacting concerns, and a more complex relationship to history, than are implied by the sides of the current debate. For example, some of Schoenberg’s early music displays a deeper engagement with form and idea than with harmony. While his main shifts in harmonic language are obvious and radical, Schoenberg’s evolving approaches to musical ideas and their development seem to straddle those shifts, and suggest a more consistent, if elusive, overarching concern. By combining familiar historical claims, an important Deleuzian/Guattarian framework for social production and subjectivity, and some analytic observations, this essay will move toward a more precise sense of Schoenberg’s distinct notions of how musical wholes and musical ideas come into being: namely, that developmentally ambivalent relationships among a composition’s materials are essential to the full subjective realization of a musical idea.


Emergent subjects: “desiring-production” and musical form

Desiring-production as a model for (musical) subjectivity 

For Schoenberg the theorist, the fundamentals of how the musical “idea” relates to the musical whole seem to be constantly in flux. In relation to twelve-tone theory, for example, he sometimes invokes a grand organic vision, in which unities of small objects (such as set classes, chords, and other shapes) are responsible for sustained formal energy. Simms has found, in a discussion of the Schoenberg/Schenker polemic, that by 1939 Schoenberg had decided there was “only a single motive,” from which a work springs whole.[1] Carpenter and Neff similarly emphasize hierarchies of totality, in which music begins with the composer’s “single thought,”[2] or perhaps even just the latent forces of a single tone.[3] Large-scale coherence arises from a continuous extension of those possibilities. Nevertheless, in the same notebooks, Schoenberg derides the “sentimental poeticizing notion that a composition might arise from the motive as germ of the whole”[4] and his use of the term “organic” seems rare, and always hesitant. Schoenberg insists that his basic theory of idea and development “departs from the usual understanding of the motive as germ of the piece out of which it grows.”[5] Instead, we frequently find metaphors of desire, sexual identity,[6] architectures and machineries,[7] contrasted only ambiguously with bodily organs. He explains “developing variation” as a kind of horizontal counterpoint, in which “an opposing idea” must exist,[8] for music to fulfill its fuller and freer potential for difference and becoming. In contrast to Kurth’s and Schenker’s, Schoenberg’s writing related to the problem of musical subjectivity seems deeply invested in a breadth of possibilities, but is therefore often contradictory, or perhaps radically ambivalent.

Fortunately, in recent decades, a more abundant theoretical discourse has evolved, toward a more elaborate account of the social and aesthetic processes of subjectivity.  The concept of “desiring-production” in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, is particularly important tool in the inquiry at hand, because their examples of identity and subjectivity upon which Deleuze and Guattari draw, are grounded in the early-twentieth century culture, and in particular the Viennese culture, that Schoenberg shared. Because their conception of “social production” is broadly conceived to unify discourses and problems in several disciplines, it is important that energy be devoted here to a selective discussion of their model.

Deleuze and Guattari conceive of desiring-production as an inclusive hybrid of familiar productive forces, including individual experiences of psychological drive (for them, a simultaneous reinvention and critique of the psychoanalytic concept of the same name) and the social forces that influence material and social production[9] (a similar reinvention and critique of Marxist economic theory). This conception is especially germane here, in that their initial examples of desiring-production—as it responds to modern “late-capitalist” social conditions of late 19th- and early early-20th-century Europe—bear a close resemblance to what Haimo finds out-of-sorts in Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre. Deleuze and Guattari invoke the early industrial-era phenomenon of bricolage: a tinker’s assembly of amorphous collections of metal and junk, oblivious to the materials’ original purposes in industrial machinery. Bricolage thus involves the re-appropriation of familiar materials, into a chaotic assemblage that deviates from those materials’ expected purposes.[10] Just as Adorno attributed Schoenberg’s quickly shifting harmonic vocabulary to the excess and extravagance of bourgeois Vienna and Paris, Deleuze and Guattari point to bricolage as a response to capitalist excess, and in particular, the broadly schizoid tendencies of desire in a state of excess, where “everything functions at the same time, but amid hiatuses and ruptures…distances and fragmentations, within a sum that never succeeds in bringing its various parts together so as to form a whole.”[11] If we consider this notion of bricolage along with the two strains of Schoenberg scholarship outlined above, then the semi-arbitrary assemblies of harmonic function in the Harmonielehre might be easily imagined as part of a larger post-industrial fluctuation in systems of aesthetic value.

In total, desiring-production is a force that can be traced—in individuals, social groups, and traditions—along a path of forceful movement between two poles: a paranoiac pole and a schizoid pole. The paranoiac is an institutional (and generally Oedipal) order of subjugation, which articulates itself through differences and distances, essentially territorializing its identity: in part, it becomes what it is through an assertion of what it isn’t. The more elusive schizoid pole is imagined as state of “molecular” dissolution—of which bricolage, and any other energetic expression of inchoate dissolution and overlap, might merely count as preliminary hints. This dissolution is a state in which subject-groups “multiply and connect in ever new ways, freeing up territorialities,” making available new sites, and new kinds of relation, for the productive work of desire.[12]

To serve the analyses in this paper, it will be necessary to narrow our discussion of “desiring-production” considerably, avoiding many of the categories and terms[13] that support the broader Deleuzian/Guattarian argument. Nevertheless, their core discussion of this pathway between paranoiac and schizoid cultural forces is articulated in three stages—connective, disjunctive, and conjunctive—that both mirror the aesthetic problems with which Schoenberg struggles musically, and offer theoretical support for Adorno’s and Dahlhaus’ more speculative interpretations of Schoenberg’s development.


Three stages of social production

Social production—just one of the “regimes” of desiring-production—informs Deleuzian/Guattarian subjectivity in three interrelated stages: a connective, a disjunctive, and a conjunctive stage,[14] each of which can be connected hypothetically to current questions about atonality’s pre-history. The first stage is the production of a connective synthesis: a friction or conflict of motion that alternately pulls/presses desire and its object apart and together. This connective synthesis is a fundamentally diachronic mode of production, resembling traditional understanding of pitch-interval interactions: whether between consonance and dissonance, or desire and its object, tension propels production from one state to the next in a succession, or toward larger-scale resolutions and completions.[15] The second stage, a disjunctive synthesis, is a “folding-back-upon” (“se rabat sur”), in which simultaneously produced resistances and attractions are inscribed or “recorded” upon one another, producing a system of persisting cultural meaning and signification. In Deleuzian/Guattarian social production, this stage synthesizes and unifies artificial conceptions of the drive that are usually binary: resistance or attraction, value or devaluation. The way one force comes to represent another, or replace another, seems at least potentially to be an expansion on, or liberation from, the popular notions that we might categorize as connective synthesis. Consider that conventional wisdom sometimes takes small tensions to be embedded in hierarchies, and reflected in larger spaces, so that, for example, individual human desires are mimicked at the level of social forces. (Or perhaps that note-to-note interactions of consonance and dissonance are mimicked at the level of long-range voice-leading, or thematic development.) Yet in these “either-or” disjunctions of scale, a paradox of repetition is produced, in which a re-expression of an existing value, the appearance of the already-known, neutralizes the value, or force, that it meant to express.[16] Contrary to the organic hope for a blossoming system of linked vectors, disjunctive synthesis involves a “folding back” of one association upon another, and flattens or simplifies the complexity of their originating forces. Thus the disjunctive stage of social production turns what was a complex friction into an economical singularity: the social does not mirror the individual, or vice versa, but instead replaces it, and renders it mute.

Through these first two stages, production of any kind—capitalist production, the production of desire, the production of values, aesthetics, social codes—is transformed into an order of social production that inscribes, codifies and determines the ways that desire is valued or expressed. Crucially, Deleuze and Guattari suggest that through the paradox of the disjunctive synthesis, subjects will inevitably fail in negotiations between stereotypical fin-de-siècle categories of mental health: paranoia is converted into a kind of cultural productivity, while schizoid tendencies are institutionalized and repressed. However, in invocations of the third of these productive interactions—a “conjunctive” relation produced “in and through” the first two stages—Deleuze and Guattari afford production itself with the potential status of “something on the order of a subject.”[17] Through this conjunctive synthesis, the schizoid subject has a chance to escape the poles of paranoia and institutionalized schizophrenia, fulfilling its more basically revolutionary impulses: a conjoined, trans-social subject, reunited with an ambivalent, ambulatory, and deterritorializing force of desire.

Deleuze and Guattari argued for “something on the order of a subject” emerging, finally, in the productive relationship between individual drives and the three stages of social production. To illuminate that subjectivity, Deleuze and Guattari distinguish their stages of social production with shorthand notations—the connective synthesis: “and…” “and then…”;[18] the disjunctive: “either…or…or”;[19] and conjunctive (the revelation of the revolutionary subject, or the patient on the verge of a cure): “so its ___ !” It is perhaps a little too crude to associate these stages with the Oedipal legacies beneath Dahlhaus’ view of Schoenberg: an individuated, Wagnerian conception of form associated with a Meyerian or Narmourian “connective” process of accumulating memory; a Brahmsian developing variation associated with the “disjunctive” process of synchronic cultural and historical unities. Yet for Deleuze and Guattari, the inadequacy of the binary metaphor is exactly the point: there is only a false, superficial distinction between these two modes of desiring-production. As desiring production expands into larger structural relationships of economies and cultural mores (or perhaps as we listen with an ear toward a musical whole), the content of desire itself “falls [or folds] back upon” (“se rabat sur”) the construction and inscription of identity, into large, bygone, and static spaces. Schoenberg’s music often seems to press us into those static regions of musical experience, which act as the real ideas of the piece: in place of motives, we might search for relationships that act as points of departure, making possible an illusion of infinite temporal conjunction. The emergence of this conjunctive productivity, this “something like a subject,” in fact, depends upon a conjunctive synthesis: a “so-its___!” denouement that is produced in an ambivalent movement between connective (“and…” “and then…”) and disjunctive (“either…or…or…”) modes of production.

Those already familiar with Dahlhaus’ studies of developing variation might recognize its features here: a sense of a subject that emerges from a “technique of introducing motifs or themes without any initial substantive connection between them, and then drawing them closer together.”[20]  As analytical examples will demonstrate below, the kind of music that inspires Dahlhaus’ discussion involves developmental procedures that begin with separations, or even disorientations, between ideas, and then pass over the idealized frictions of classically “contrasting” themes, to find unexpected syntheses and interdependencies, between ideas that first seemed estranged. Schoenberg’s music and thought often seems to be motivated not only by the possibility of a “conjunctive synthesis,” but also by its historical and methodological necessity. In order to give more explicit terms to its necessity, the connective and disjunctive stages of social production need to be understood more explicitly in relation to the genesis of Schoenberg’s language.


Connective synthesis and harmonic transformation

The “connective” stage of desiring-production applies in interesting and direct ways to the role of Schoenberg’s treatment of tonal harmonic progression in conventional histories of atonality. Deleuze and Guattari begin their discussion of the connective synthesis by refuting the idea, common in 19th-century developmental psychological theory, that “the drive” can be meaningfully localized or reduced to the workings of an individual’s enclosed mind. In early (pre-Freudian) notions of psychological development and psychosis, abnormalities of human behavior are viewed as individuals’ responses to repression or trauma—responses that place social and individual needs out of balance with one another.[21] Critiquing this repression/symptom binary, Deleuze and Guattari suggest partial, interrupted symptoms of a more complex and broadly repressive social reality that productively redefine those neurotic tendencies. Thus, instead of misdirected individual drives, conditions like paranoia and schizophrenia are reconceived large-scale social forces.[22] Through the artificial, institutionalized process of diagnosis, social production is falsely localized, and immobilized: the diagnosis leaves just a protrusion of the individual’s condition, severed (or perhaps seen selectively, like the tip of an iceberg) to exclude an otherwise evolving, floating massif of process and production. Deleuze and Guattari quip that this conventional notion of human development “castrates the unconscious,” leaving a barren “id” as the only visible “whole” individual, ignoring a cathexis that occurs on a larger cultural and historical scale.[23] At this larger level of production, the patient is therefore not a psychotic whose desire is mal-adjusted, and not simply an individual channel of expression for a misguided or repressive social cue, but a kind of hyper-productive agent in the tense interactions of individual and social desire. Deleuze and Guattari suggest that in the diachronic history of “schizzes and breaks” (ruptures of imposed cultural orders, and artificial unities), we are always seeing the production of an individual illness. Meanwhile, beneath such ruptures, we often detect a much more coherent social force, a kind of smooth and inevitable line of escape.

Some of the workings of this kind of conflict are evident in the “eccentricity” of the Harmonielehre: a schizoid impulse toward breaches, and smoother creative “flows” away from stylistic institutions. Dahlhaus’ suggests that Schoenberg’s “dissociation from the prevailing spirit of the age” was precisely what the spirit of the age demanded, while Simms invokes a “defective” and personal theory of phrase structure: Schoenberg, a mild schizophrenic, is “faced with an enriched harmonic language” that he cannot deploy to the purpose of proper phrase or sentence unity.[24] Haimo’s analyses describe a shattered language of musical elements that cannot be brought together, he is substantially concerned with an apparent penchant for “progressions that express no functionally integrated, tonic-defining structure.”[25] For both scholars, Schoenberg displays an incongruity of juxtaposed forces—arbitrary pairings of harmonic successions with cadences, mere simulations of tonality, lacking tonality’s sense of origin and teleology. This incongruity propels a kind of alarming thrust away from the “real” nature of tonal processes, and toward what appears to be a highly exceptional and out-of-step harmonic world. 

Dahlhaus’ description of the “esoteric” in late-Romantic culture, by contrast, suggests that Schoenberg’s post-tonal assemblages—perhaps examples of bricolage—are more than just a misguided break from accepted norms. It could be said, in fact, that Schoenberg’s dissent specifically rises to meet the needs of a resistant mainstream culture: the needs of a culture preoccupied with the alienation of artists from the mainstream. Even in the midst of its own resistance, the inertia of a traditional musical taste can be understood as a progressive and productive force; we could hypothesize that Schoenberg’s broken sense of harmony and harmonic succession is a surface expression of something much larger. For Dahlhaus, this “much larger” force is in fact a specific interplay of historical trajectories: the late-Romantic crisis in the meanings of musical forms; and it is a crisis that Schoenberg and his teacher Zemlinsky found themselves constantly embracing and renegotiating. The German ethos that Carl Dahlhaus has described as a “cult of genius,”[26] manifested in the polemics of Brahms and Wagner, exerts a strong pressure on Schoenberg’s tonal songs that precede the decisive move to atonality in Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten. However, the first aspect of these polemical pressures that motivates Schoenberg’s bricolage is what Dahlhaus situates as the “Wagnerian” side:  in which the identities of musical wholes trend toward “individuated form.”

Individuation, as Dahlhaus relates it to us, incorporates two important aspects. The first is that ever-smaller melodic materials are responsible for ever-larger formal consequences—this aspect is typified in Wagner’s view of Beethoven’s 5th symphony Allegro as a sublime individuation of a “pregnant and implicitous” pair of four-note gestures. (When Romantics spoke of Beethoven’s accomplishments, few examples drew more attention than the notion that a short two-part tonal sequence could be sufficient gestation for a grand symphonic destiny.[27]) The implications of this view in turn support a second aspect of individuation. When distinct and recognizable motivic signifiers are judged for their seed-like capacity to produce lengthier formal implications, they likewise require a minimization of “periphrasis,”[28] that form-building material derived from something apparently external to a basic originating shape. In the late orchestral music of Liszt, the mature language of Strauss, Dahlhaus shows that periphrasis—manifested as rooted diatonic sequences and cadential formulae—are stylistically devalued. This devaluation is itself a force in “musical subjectivity.” In Wagnerian “musical prose,” a musical form is a thing of the immediate future, given to a listener only by forces set in motion by the work’s initial developmental origins. By contrast, the immediate past, in that compositional space, is an abyss to escape; redundancy of material within a piece, or even in relation to a more distant musical past, was—in this “cult” of perpetual originality—a formal liability. And yet, when prose transcends its wandering sensibility and approaches the cultic ideal of individuation, there are hopes for an expressive unity, founded in its own unrelenting teleology: everything in the present seems to re-synthesize its relationship to an evolving incompleteness.



[A complete bibliography of the paper is in the comment list below.]

[1] Bryan Simms, “New Documents in the Schoenberg/Schenker Polemic,” in Perspectives of New Music 16 (1977), pp. 110-24.

[2] Carpenter and Neff, “Commentary” : “Comprehensibility and Coherence,” in The Musical Idea and the Logic, Technique, and Art of Its Presentation, 2nd ed., by Arnold Schoenberg, ed. and trans. by Patricia Carpenter and Severine Neff (Bloomington: Indiana, 2006), p. 21.

[3] Ibid., p. 20.

[4] Arnold Schoenberg, “Idea,” in ibid., p. 99 [pages dated 1936].

[5] Ibid., “The Laws of Musical Coherence,” p. 120 [footnote, in pages dated 1934].

[6] See Schoenberg, “Linear Counterpoint,” in Style and Idea, p. 288, in which subject and object are related tentatively to masculine and feminine positions in a narrative.

,[7] Carpenter and Neff, eds., Schoenberg’s The Musical Idea…, pp. 103-104.

[8] Schoenberg, “Linear Counterpoint,” p. 288.

[9] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1983 (Originally published as L’Anti-Oedipe [Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1972]), pp. 7, 10-12.

[10] Ibid., p. 7. Deleuze and Guattari attribute the metaphor to Claude Levis-Strauss’ (1966) The Savage Mind, but apply their purposes in the metaphor—to suggest an emblem of excess and incoherence in a specifically schizophrenic social production—are not precedented in Levis-Strauss’ invocation of the term.

[11] Ibid., p. 42.

[12] Mark Seem, “Introduction: schizoanalysis and collectivity” in ibid., xxii.

[13] The notion of desiring-production in Anti-Oedipus is interspersed with a broader interplay of agents and figures in the psychosocial world, many of which rest on the foundations of specific prior discourses—particularly Lacanian “repetition,” Nietzschean “eternal return,” and Marxist base and superstructure—that are not immediately useful here. Individual and social activities in and around a wide range of desiring-productions are associated with machines, reducible to sucking/drawing, cutting/interrupting, flowing/extruding, and later “celibate” and “miraculating” machines. Activities of desiring machines oscillate between paranoiac and schizophrenic poles, representing broad fields of social investment, rather than familiar categories of mental illness. The critical aim of these structures is “schizoanalysis,” a process by which nature, the family, the unconscious, Capital, and subjectivity can be understood as partial and intersecting flows in a larger system.

[14] See ibid., pp. 10-12, 70-72, and 73 for preliminary discussion of the connective synthesis of “producing production”; see pp. 12, 16-17, and 75-79 for the disjunctive synthesis of “production of recording”; and pp. 16-17, 18, 20, 32, and 84-85 for the conjunctive synthesis of “production of consumption.” The three concepts are reiterated and developed frequently, and summarized, by way of introduction to schizoanalysis, on pp. 110-112.

[15] Ibid., p. 14.

[16] Ibid., pp. 16-18.

[17] Ibid., pp. 16, 18-20.

[18] Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, pp. 5, 68-69.

[19] Ibid., pp. 12, 75-76.

[20] Carl Dahlhaus, Schoenberg and the New Music, p. 133.

[21] George Makari, Revolution in Mind: the Creation of Psychoanalysis (New York: Harper Collins, 2008).

[22] Ibid., pp. 22-26, 60-68.

[23] Ibid., p. 60.

[24] Simms, Atonal Music, p. 13.

[25] Haimo, “The Origins of Atonality,” p. 75.

[26] Carl Dahlhaus, “Issues in composition,” pp. 42, 53.

[27] Ibid., pp. 41-42.

[28] Ibid., p. 43.