Beyond Representation—Origins of Lyric Reflection in Nothing

Lyric is language enamored of itself as language. Lyric epitomizes the “poetic function” of language, in which the signifier calls attention to itself as signifier rather than directing attention to something else beyond itself, something that it means, namely, “the signified.” Linguistic structures of self-reflection and self-enclosure become dominant in lyric, which thereby becomes a self-positing or self-manifesting—and even a sort of absolutizing—of language. Language becomes an end in itself or a showing of itself more than a means to refer to an external domain of objects.

Put crudely, pure lyric represents an absolute degree of linguistic selfreference, where representationality disappears and the signifier’s meaning is absorbed into its immediate physical presence as sound. Language becomes, in some sense, music. It can embody and be its meaning rather than only abstractly signifying it. This does not preclude its still relating to the world—but the world as internal to itself and as originating in and from language. What is surpassed is only language’s relating to the world as purely external to it. Language can become, instead, a world of its own—or, more exactly, a mode of access to what can only subsequently be apprehended as world.

The idea of music as absolute expression or signification was to be developed concertedly in the Romantic era by Arthur Schopenhauer and then often with reference to Richard Wagner. Nietzsche recognizes music as originary expression exceeding meaning and rupturing representation in The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music (Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik, 1872). Still sifting the peculiar hyper-significance of music and resorting to an explicitly theological vocabulary likely suggested by the work of Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno’s criticism presents music as being meaningful like language, yet without ever achieving determinate meaning. It is rather a meaningless form, like a proper name, but one that expresses the whole—in effect, the Name of God.


Theodor W. Adorno, “Fragment über Musik und Sprache,” in Quasi una fantasia in Musikalische Schriften I-lII, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 16 (Frankfurt am Main:

In lyric, so understood, language, like love, tends to become no longer a form of mediation of a separate object so much as an absolute presence existing in its own right. Love, too, in the lyric takes a self-reflective turn. The lyric “I” turns out to be in love simply with its own being in love, and the lyric love poem consists most essentially of love of the poem itself. In lyric, on this account, language is enamored of nothing but language itself. Love and language alike become intransitive, objectless forces. They are supposed, instead, to express an outpouring of immediate feeling, the immediacy of “inspiration.” Love emerges as an unconditional act of the subject, just as language in lyric becomes a direct, unmediated embodiment of subjective affects of joy or pain.

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