Come out to Show the Split Subject: Steve Reich, Whiteness, and the Avant-Garde

By Biareishyk, Siarhei | Current Musicology, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Come out to Show the Split Subject: Steve Reich, Whiteness, and the Avant-Garde


Biareishyk, Siarhei, Current Musicology


"Through the effects of speech, the subject always realizes himself more in the Other, but he is already pursuing there more than half of himself. He will simply find his desire ever more divided, pulverized, in the circumscribable metonymy of speech."

--Jacques Lacan

"I didn't want to sound Balinese or African, I wanted to think Balinese or African."

--Steve Reich

Steve Reich's Come Out (1966) begins with articulated speech--a mere sentence--and in the span of 12 minutes and 54 seconds, by way of looping and phasing, it deteriorates into utter noise. Come Out is a tribute to the Harlem Six case (1964) in which six African-American youths were falsely accused of murder. The voice in the composition belongs to one of these six men, Daniel Hamm; the noise at the end is a product of Reich's experimentation in the development of what was then a new avant-garde technique. Jacques Attali theorizes music as an "organization of noise," arguing that music is "inscribed between noise and silence, in the space of the social codification" (Attali 11;20). In order to transcend the musical tradition and its own time, many avant-garde composers appeal to this sphere of noise--a sphere identified as the "Other" of music; through the composer's intervention, such noise becomes the avant-garde's music. In Reich's Come Out, the composer ostensibly identifies the noise as the signifier in the sphere of technology, namely, in tape recordings; and yet, one must insist on the question, why is the recorded voice that of a black man--of the domain that whiteness constructs as its Other? As I will argue, this sphere of noise, for the avant-garde musician, shares functional equivalence with what Jacques Lacan theorizes as the function of the "big" Other. It is nevertheless necessary to insist that the Lacanian field of the Other is a battery of signifiers; it is the field of the symbolic order that is understood as the Other of being, which is by no means synonymous with racial Otherness. If the Lacanian Other then overlaps with racial Otherness, as I contend it does in the case of Steve Reich's Come Out and the avant-garde music more generally in a greater scope, it is a result of historical contingency and not structural necessity. But this historical contingency is a reason enough to insist relentlessly on the conditions of such historical manifestation; one must question all the more rigorously: why, in the development of the Western avant-garde music does the field of the Other fall on the voice of racialized Otherness? What is the function of this Other in reconstituting a subjectivity in crisis?

These are just a few of the questions that I address in this essay as I interpret Reich's Come Out within a ternary constellation of whiteness studies, theories of the avant-garde, and psychoanalysis. I demonstrate a functional isomorphism between the constitution of the contemporary whiteness subjectivity considered by Wiegman and the subjectivity of the avant-garde (developed through both Burger and Groys), while locating both cases as a manifestation of an ontological split in the constitution of the subject of secular modernity (Lacan). This homology is most succinctly summarized in the fact that the subjectivity in question--both the avant-garde and that of contemporary whiteness--seeks to transgress its own constitutive condition; in other words, it attempts to negate that which defines it at the most profound level. The psychoanalytic approach furthermore allows one to interrogate the necessity of such a split, yet it also accounts for the contingent and historical dimensions of the split manifested in the subject's transferential investment in racialized Otherness. A close reading of Reich's exemplary text, Come Out, demonstrates the function of racial otherness at work both in the development of the avant-garde music, as well as in the reconstitution of contemporary whiteness.

Constructing non-racist white subjectivity, retaining its privilege

In his essay "A Report from Occupied Territory," James Baldwin describes the overwhelming presence of the police as a physical means of control over African Americans and Puerto Ricans in 1964 Harlem--a situation characteristic of other major cities throughout the Unites States at that time. …

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