Deleuze and Pop Music

by Ian Buchahan

© all rights reserved

Responses to this article has been received from Charles J. Stivale and Andrew Murphie.

It seems clear to me that philosophy is truly an unvoiced song,
with the same feel for movement music has.

Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations.

Rightly or wrongly, Deleuze has been labelled a snob for his high-brow taste in music, art and literature. For the most part, Deleuze depicts the popular as the undesirable other, or worse, an enormous homogenising machine depriving art of its place and value in contemporary society. 1 In this respect, at least, Deleuze is very much like Adorno, utterly modernist.

Yet I believe Deleuze’s work, despite his personal taste, can account for the peculiar events and phenomena of popular culture if we can disentangle popular cultural texts and practices from the amorphous matrix of capitalism Deleuze identifies them with, and treat them with the same respect and affection he accords to Kafka’s writing, for instance. This would amount to the discovery and articulation of a form of creativity unique to mass culture.

Rather than contrast art and popular culture, and rehearse a procedure Deleuze is known to have loathed, what needs to be found is a way of avoiding such distinctions altogether, something Deleuze himself made his life’s work. His way out of dialectics was abstraction, or the discovery of the artistry of any text. This is particularly necessary in the case of popular music, because to many it is nothing but a giant exercise in money-making, and thereby completely devoid of aesthetic value. 2 In other words, it stands in need of abstraction.

While it may be true that Kafka never intended publishing his work, and can rightly be said to have written for himself not profit, it is nevertheless also true that he wrote from within a capitalist milieu. Kafka could not avoid thinking about capitalism, no matter how much he might have tried. The most important claim in the whole of Deleuze & Guattari’s book on Kafka states Kafka was intrinsically anti-capitalist in his mode of writing. 3 What it does, which I cannot but find curious, is subordinate Kafka’s writing to gesture, namely his refusal to publish; curious because it deforms the complexity of Kafka’s response to his environment in a way that it is against the grain of Deleuze’s thought.

To begin with, it makes the artist all but impervious to the vagaries of everyday life in a socio-historical sense, as though to say, not only did Kafka write for himself, but he also worked from within himself; this, in turn, allows Deleuze and Guattari to pursue the psycho-dynamic indices in Kafka’s writing with the same relish and hermeneutic flexibility Freud enjoyed (and which they chide him for). In the end, this excision puts too much emphasis on the significance of capitalism and not enough on the relation between the writer and his world.

I do not think Deleuze would allow that Kafka’s means of escape from the constrictions of capitalism is available to just anybody, much less to teeny-bopper fans of pop, and this makes capitalism into a monster of godly proportions and capabilities. This becomes obvious when his esteem for the peculiar creativity of minor cultural producers like Beckett, Messiaen, and Klee, who are valuable because of the lines of flight, or escape, they each have conjured, is compared with the mindless conformity Deleuze attributes to producers of mass, or major cultural objects such as pop videos, whose chief failing is precisely that they take us nowhere despite their promise. Majority for Deleuze is any model you have to conform to, thus it is everybody and nobody, and it is this blanching effect that art must resist. 4

Pop culture, in so far as it does induce, command or otherwise result in conformity, clearly cannot fulfil the essential promise of art and deliver us from the homogenising manipulations of the market. In other words, it can never result in the new, in the modernist sense. His low regard for the popular notwithstanding, Deleuze does however provide several useful critical tools for its analysis and it is these that I am going to try to bring into the light via a discussion of popular music.

The effect of music, or any piece of art, is what it sets in motion for a particular listener. Already we have seen that for Deleuze the effect of pop is conformity, while for non-pop it is escape. What I do want to challenge is the negative value conformity is coded with. The privilege accorded to originality is undoubtedly the most persistent and in many ways pernicious (from the point of view of popular culture, at least) legacy of modernism and is at the heart of what it has to say about the social effect of art. The privilege bestowed on the original is at once ideological and methodological and although they are mutually supporting, the two strands of this particular web can be separated.

In this century alone, the new or different has been prized by modernists and Marxists alike for the fact that it makes plain that the shape of present society is due to historical shifts, not natural or inevitable forces, and can always be changed further, perhaps for the better. Both schools hold that the new is under constant threat of absorption by the capitalist system, a fear readily appreciated when one considers the centrality of rarity in the exchange system, but neither is able to see that such absorption may in fact be positive rather than deleterious. Yet such absorption is not only inevitable, but also desirable in so far as it implies collective change. I would argue that the conformity inherent to pop is an effect of its newness, and that such newness has an affirmative side to it that is the equivalent of a line of flight.

So, looking back at the 80s, was any of the bubble-gum pop of that era, which then as now seemed as much driven by changes in hair fashion as musical innovation, really new? Yes, I would say, at the level of effect, much of it was very new. Now of course it sounds inept and raw, which is to say both technologically and culturally backward, but then it sounded of the moment. Indeed, the music of the times produced the moment as a moment by giving it a particular sound, and with it a mood, a way of dressing and something to buy.

Is there a different new for popular culture and high culture? By definition, the new has precedence over everything. Otherwise it would not shock us, it would not be new or different enough to truly make us reel if it were simply an exaggeration, or an ironisation even, of what already exists. The new excites us because it overwhelms our senses, by which we mean to say it catches us without the appropriate faculty to apprehend it. This is of course Kant’s argument, that the new is sublime, but this is an a posteriori argument relying on effect. Kant’s definition of art does not in itself explain the pleasure of the giddiness, or the thrill of the incomprehension, that sublimity provides; nor does it explain the longing we feel once it has passed. What is it about the new that captures our attention? Most obviously, it is its difference, but that does not explain its appeal and appeal, I am suggesting, underpins the recognition of difference.

The appeal of the new, I imagine, must be that it does something the old cannot achieve. The new then, is not merely the different, but that which makes difference possible, and it is this power which can only be realised in a relationship between the object and a subject that is the basis of its appeal. That this interpretation might be correct can be adduced from the fact that not just any newly cut CD qualifies as new, though it is always different (even if a duplicate), and no amount of programming can guarantee a favourable reception. The power of the new stems from the fact that it is able to institute difference in a field that seems stable, homogeneous. It is able to do this because it sets becoming in motion, which is to say the new is not acquired via some straightforward mode of consumption, but is rather activated.

The new is not the ‘merely different’, but the differenciating. It is what makes the difference characterised as diversity possible. In other words, it is not a phenomenon, but rather the noumenon closest to the phenomenon. 5 What is especially significant about this concept for my purposes is the importance it places on repetition, for popular music — and its associated nostalgia — is constituted by repetition. In every case, Deleuze argues, repetition is the power of difference and differenciation: because it condenses the singularities, or because it accelerates or decelerates time, or because it alters space. Bearing in mind Deleuze’s quite strict understanding of repetition, the question that needs to be addressed is of course whether the repetition one encounters in popular music is authentic or not?

What I want to show now, though, in advance of an answer to this question, is that popular music is a refrain. Like the tick, the refrain is composed of three functions. It comforts us by providing a rough sketch of a calming and stabilising, calm and stable, centre in the heart of chaos. 6 It is the song the lost child, scared of the dark, sings to find his or her way home. The tune also creates the very home we return to when our foray into the world grows wearisome. Home is the product of a very particular gesture: one must draw a circle around that uncertain and fragile centre one is accustomed to calling home in order to delimit it.

A housewife might sing to herself as she washes the dishes, or else have the radio playing in the background, and by so doing build a wall of sound around her to shelter a precious interiority, her self-created reserve of inner strength. A song also enables us to launch forth from the home it helped us to build. One ventures from home on the thread of a tune. With a song in our hearts we are able to extend indefinitely the secure interiority of the home; it is as though we take home with us wherever we go. The song is our future, a future of our own dreaming. To put it differently, we need not venture into the dark, chaotic world of the unhomely again so long as we have a song. The refrain is these three things at once, not in succession: it is a block of sound that is at once a way home, the very source of home, and the home in our hearts. But, Deleuze and Guattari insist, the refrain is not music, it is rather the block of content proper to music.

Deleuze and Guattari argue that music is a creative, active operation that consists in deterritorializing the refrain. The refrain by contrast is essentially territorial, territorializing, or reterritorializing, and it quickly reclaims music for itself should it ever become self-indulgent, which is to say repetitive merely for the sake of hearing an enchanting little phrase over again. To the ear, this distinction is actually quite sharp: music decodes, which means it tends toward the eradication of all codes, and the refrain recodes, or overcodes, which does not mean it restores order, as though music were chaos, but rather means it attempts to constrain variation by regulating it. A tune that sticks in your head and can be easily whistled or hummed is a refrain; a tune that requires more than one set of lips to whistle or hum is, by virtue of this inherent polyvocality, becoming-musical.

Is popular music, as refrain, actually capable of instituting meaningful difference given that it is always already a component of market capitalism? In order to see how the refrain survives its capture by capitalism we have to return its three basic functions: the way home, the creation of a home, the home in our hearts. It is the second function which is the dominant one in market capitalism, I believe. Every new type of music that manages to carve a market niche for itself in fact creates a niche in the public sphere for its listeners: its function and appeal is first of all territorial. That is, it forces a fiercely protected domain to open its doors and admit one more.

When punk smashed its way onto public radio in the late 70s it changed the very meaning and sound of popular music. So did the Beatles when they rose to superstardom in the mid-60s. And before them there is a long line of innovators that can be traced right back to the halcyon days of Tin Pan Alley.

The effect of this, is precisely the third function of the refrain: the enfranchisement of its faithful listeners. This usually means giving a voice to teenagers who in most senses of the word do not otherwise have one. What they actually do with this voice corresponds to the first function of the refrain, in that listeners to popular music use the voice it gives them to enunciate themselves differently and in so doing make habitable the objective conditions of their existence; in other words, what popular music does is set in motion a becoming-minor – or, what amounts to the same thing, a becoming-public of the otherwise private individual – which as Deleuze and Guattari have said, is the initiation of a line of flight that is an escape. 7

The simplicity of popular music is not a sign of the deformation of culture, nor the symptom of a deterioration of cultural ear, but evidence that its function is not thinkable in purely aesthetic terms. It is worth noting that cultural studies has already shown that popular music is a refrain, deeply connected with the rhythms and possibilities of everyday life and not some infantilising drone. It has also shown that it is territorial: its variegated strains serve at once as the rallying cry of individual subcultures, and the trigger that leads to their formation. For instance, it has been claimed that Yothu Yindi have, in Australia at least, by virtue of the enormous popularity of their product, created a market for Black Australian commodities, generally. By making Black Australian marketable, they have in fact created, or re-created a Black Australia.

If popular music really is a refrain, then there is strong case to be made that nostalgia, in practice, is an instrumentalisation of the refrain. Nostalgia, I want to suggest, is inbuilt in the refrain itself. The very structure of popular music, its inherent repetitiveness in other words, makes it an especially potent nostalgia-inducing agent. My implication is that nostalgia does not only concern the distant past, nor indeed is it only a matter of memory (sometimes memory does not come into it all). It is manifest in the present as repetition, and its function is not simply mnemic.

The increasingly narrow definitions applied to popular music by its practitioners and aficionados alike, which are as much assertions of cultural identity as musical distinction, suggest that internal variation is diminishing in desirability, not only possibility, which means the very success of groups like Blackbox and the Technotronics is due to the fact they made an artform out of what Bourdieu has called diversity within homogeneity: sounding different while sounding the same.

Evidence for this is to be found throughout popular music. When you look at the really early rock music, like Chuck Berry’s, it can be seen that it was the mastery of repetition that lead to its invention. Popular music is not really about ‘being heard’, but rather about ‘being heard again’; and ‘being heard again and again and again’ is what really popular music is really about.

To my mind, it is its very amenability to ‘being heard again and again and again’ which corroborates the claim that pop music is a refrain, for one of the defining features of the refrain is its inexpressiveness. Deleuze & Guattari say the refrain is pure content that awaits expression. Pop is like that; it too awaits expression.


Ian Buchanan lectures in English at the University of Tasmania and is the editor of a special edition of the journal Social Semiotics on Deleuze. For further information email:[email protected]

Responses to this article has been received from Charles J. Stivale and Andrew Murphie.


1. Deleuze G 1995 Negotiations: 1972-1990 Trans M Joughin, Columbia University Press New York.

2. Attali J 1985 Noise: The Political Economy of Music Trans B Massumi, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

3. Deleuze G & F Guattari – 1986 Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature Trans D Polan, University of Minnesota Press Minneapolis

4. Deleuze G 1995 Negotiations: 1972-1990 Trans M Joughin, Columbia University Press New York.

5. Deleuze G 1994 Difference and Repetition Trans P Patton, Athlone Press London

6. Deleuze G & F Guattari 1987 A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia Trans B. Massumi, University of Minnesota Press Minneapolis

7. Deleuze G & F Guattari – 1986 Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature Trans D Polan, University of Minnesota Press Minneapolis.

Deleuze and Guattari internet resources
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Related Conferences
Cultural Values and Cultural Capital of Pop Music in Asia, Edith Cowan University, Western Australia
The impact of globalisation on music culture: a conference, February 4-6, 1998, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, India
In 1996, Ian Buchanan convened: Deleuze: a symposium, “Will this century be known as Deleuzian?” Abstracts of papers given at the conference can be viewed at the UWA site.
Ian is currently organising De Certeau: a symposium which will be held in Hobart in January, 1998.

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