Jean-François Lyotard argued repeatedly that the biggest challenge a musician or composer faces is emancipating sound from the tyranny of grand narratives. They labor not in the service of expression but in the exploration of radical methods that constitute what Lyotard terms the “musical act”: a supervening decomposition of subjectivity through a sonic fold in space-time-sound. Thus composers work through and against musical customs to render audible what was once inaudible (or, simply, to render musical what was once noise). With varying degrees of exception, Lyotard's musical theory is conducive to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's assertion that music “deterritorializes the refrain.” In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari argue that music enacts a becoming-minority that is, by its expressive deterritorializations, subversive to conventions of the categorical imperative. Music's essential building block, according to Deleuze and Guattari, is the nonmusical refrain. However, whereas Deleuze and Guattari diagnosed music's radical becoming as an expressive deterritorialization, Lyotard considered music as a political act by virtue of its nonexpressive desubjectivation. Had Lyotard abandoned his own straw man of romantic expressionism and instead adopted a Deleuzean expressionist aesthetic, his prescriptions for the political/musical act might have spanned beyond the domain of the European composers who remained virtually his only musical reference point. The solely unfortunate aspect regarding each thinker is precisely this myopic reliance on European high art music to illustrate their respective concepts. My elucidation of Lyotard's and Deleuze and Guattari's musical philosophy will contend that other composers located in the historical discourse of “popular music” would serve the concepts under discussion with more efficacy. Specifically, the music of Wesley Willis executes such a political/musical act through deterritorializing refrains that are expressed directly through the profane repetitions of musical technology.
“Say Rawr!”: Lyotard, Deleuze/Guattari, and the Refrains of Wesley Willis
Mickey Vallee is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. He mainly researches the intersections between music, media, and subjectivity. He has published on phonographs, mashups, and nostalgia, respectively, in the Journal of Historical Sociology, Popular Music and Society, and Tonya K. Davidson, ed., Ecologies of Affect: Placing Nostalgia, Desire, and Hope (2011).