Wagner and the Subject of Redemption: Politics, Erotics, and Religion in the Music Dramas

Collaborative Group

Dr. Andrew J. Mitchell, Dr. Kevin C. Karnes




Richard Wagner fashioned his music dramas not as operas meant to entertain the audience, but as works of philosophy meant to transform it, aiming at nothing less than a wholesale change in conceptions of human subjectivity. This collaboration between philosopher Andrew Mitchell and musicologist Kevin Karnes investigates Wagner’s deep and tangled legacy to philosophical discourse, and argues that performance itself is a means of philosophical engagement. Where musicologists largely have neglected recent inquiries by philosophers into Wagner’s work, and philosophers typically have shied away from engaging Wagner’s musical scores, this project seeks to bridge disciplines and methods. Regarding Wagner’s musical texts as integral components of his philosophical contributions, this study brings philosophical argument—ranging from nineteenth-century writers such as Ludwig Feuerbach, Mikhail Bakunin, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche to more recent thinkers like Theodor Adorno, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Slavoj Žižek, Jean-Luc Nancy, Peter Szendy, and Alain Badiou—to bear upon Wagner’s scores. At the same time, it tests and elaborates these philosophers’ arguments against Wagner’s performative art. The study is oriented around a perennial concern in philosophical engagements with Wagner, reading and hearing his statements as reflections on subjectivity, what it means to be an individual and what constitutes a self. It argues that Wagner’s concern for subjectivity is bound to his longing for “redemption,” a break with those aspects of tradition or society that stifle creativity, isolate the self, or deny the ecstatic character of existence. Drawing on Wagner’s scores and writings alongside the work of his philosophical interlocutors and previously unexamined archival materials, the project reveals and critiques Wagner’s changing positions on subjectivity and redemption with respect to political, sexual, and religious concerns. The research, which will culminate in a coauthored monograph and new co-taught undergraduate and graduate courses, understands Wagner’s visions as integral to his virulent anti-Semitism, and, in that light, inquires into the notion of redeemed subjectivity itself and asks whether such a notion can exist without being grounded in exclusionary politics. Award period: August 1, 2016 through July 31, 2017