back to



Music has no value. That is both the problem as well as the foundation for a broad stream of observations to follow here on the utopian character of music. The idea that music does not have—or has ceased to have—any value may be assessed in different ways; it may be regarded as good or bad. Of course, one may also legitimately object to the idea that music can even drop out of the economy at all, but this depends on whether the economic valuation of music is bound to an object—such as a score or recording—or whether it is not.

A central tenet of Marxist thought is built around the distinction between exchange value and use value, the most well known interpretation of which formulates it as a critique of exchange value’s dominance over use value. However, it has been repeatedly pointed out—and with good reason—that such a glorification of pure use value has dreamed itself, ideologically, into a state in which the total immediacy of use assumes a unity that cannot exist in any society characterized by some degree of functional differentiation. Yet even such a romantic conception of use value remains a value nonetheless—a use that is not immediately realized. Value becomes an attribute of a thing that can be stored, reused, or realized sometime in the future, whether through use or exchange. For a thing to have value, it must possess a permanence or iterability with respect to how that value is realized in use or exchange. In the broadest sense, it must be a thing, an object.

There are things that die as they are used, and their description is usually couched in utopian metaphors. A famous example is the life of birds, which—as described in Matthew 6:26 and recalled to us by an old drunkard in the Hitchcock film The Birds—“neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns and yet are fed.” The same is true of the land of milk and honey, where things appear on the table, as they are needed, without any labor of storage or preparation. Yet even in all these examples of ideal conditions, these free and effortless processes of consumption remain dependent on a providential nature and a natural form of production. It is not we ourselves who produce all these things for our immediate use and consumption in response to our slightest wishes and whims, but other instances and authorities of an enchanted world: the gods, a magic spell, or nature. Alongside this, music’s basic situation becomes even more utopian.

I pick up a musical instrument and produce a sequence of tones. These tones enchant my surroundings and me as I produce them. At some point I grow tired, the tones cease, and the enchantment passes. My favorite quotation about this phenomenon can be heard on the Radio Hilversum recording of Eric Dolphy’s last concert, which took place in 1964, just before he died because no one could treat his particular type of diabetes, one that occurs only in people of African descent. Dolphy said: “When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone in the air; you can never recapture it again.” What I produced has vanished without a trace; it created no value—nor, however, did it depend on a providential nature and the miracles of the land of milk and honey. It was me. I myself, using my talents and abilities—that which belongs to me as a human being and sets me apart from the animals—gave expression to something; that is, I lent inner states, which are also exclusively mine, and yet whose form is familiar to all other human beings from their own internal, subjective states, a form that was understandable to others and may thus have been beautiful. I realized myself as a human being in the dialectic between my nature as a unique individual and my nature as a social and collective being, and I did so entirely without economy, without reification, without the creation of value, without storage, costs, or profits, without the calculation of future time and hence without speculation, without interest or the creation of secondary value, and without valorization.

Read the full article here.