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       M U S I C          T H E O R Y         O N L I N E

                     A Publication of the
                   Society for Music Theory
          Copyright (c) 1994 Society for Music Theory
| Volume 0, Number 11    November, 1994    ISSN:  1067-3040   |

  All queries to: mto-editor@husc.harvard.edu
AUTHOR: Krims, Adam P.
TITLE: Bloom, Post-Structuralism(s), and Music Theory
KEYWORDS: Bloom, critical theory, post-structuralism, Straus

Adam P. Krims
University of Alberta
Department of Music
Fine Arts Building
Edmonton, Alberta
Canada  T6G 2C9

ABSTRACT: A number of music scholars have adapted
the work of literary theorist Harold Bloom for
their own use. This article examens Bloom's
relation to post-structuralist critical theory in
general, and then considers how music-theoretical
adaption may slant that relation. It concludes by
asserting that music scholarship tends to
emphasize the more traditional aspects of Bloom's
work. This, in turn, may allow music theorists to
believe we are engaging the challenges of recent
critical theory, when in fact we are reinforcing
mainstream music-theoretical ideologies.


[0.1] In recent years, a number of articles in
the music-theoretical and musicological
literature have taken the work of literary
theorist Harold Bloom as part of their point of
departure.(1) (Three examples are Straus (1990),
Korsyn (1991), and Yudkin (1992).) These, along
with a vitriolic review by Richard Taruskin
(1993) of Joseph Straus' *Remaking the Past:
Musical Modernism and the Influence of the Tonal
Tradition* (1990), have foregrounded Bloom's
theories as a potential source of work in music
scholarship. The adoption of Bloom by music
theorists and musicologists concerns not only
these particular publications, but also some
fundamental issues facing us as music theorists.

1. I am grateful to David Gramit, Henry
Klumpenhouwer, and Richard Littlefield for their
helpful comments on an earlier version of this

[0.2] One aspect of music theory in North America
that separates it from most other fields of the
humanities is its relative failure to engage
post-structuralist critical theories.(2) Post-
structuralist practices nevertheless do form a
substantial part of the scholarship in most other
humanities disciplines (even if they efface the
notions of "humanities" and "discipline"). By
remaining relatively isolated from such a vast
and influential group of practices, music theory
continues to run the risk of increasing its
isolation. That isolation may not bother many
music theorists; indeed, it may serve to
reinforce desired ideological beliefs, concerning
for example, the special status of music as an
art. (Norris (1989) traces an interesting
philosophical history of this idea, 31-34.) But
it may also limit not only points of contact with
scholars in other fields, but also opportunities
for us to face important challenges that post-
structuralism(s) may hold for our premises and
methodologies. (I say this with some discomfort
that I may be hypostatizing the extremely diverse
post-structuralisms into a problematic singular.)

2. There are some exceptions, among them Kramer
(1984) and (1990), Krims (1994), Littlefield and
Neumeyer (1992), Littlefield (1994), Street
(1989) and numerous projects borrowing from
feminist theory.

[0.3] In some respects, then, the interest in
Bloom could be seen as salutary for our field,
offering challenges we too often avoid.
Therefore, it is vital that we take stock of
Bloom's theories and the use that has been, and
that could be, made of them in our field.
Although Korsyn's work would provide in some ways
an equally useful occasion for this, Straus' book
has captured more attention, in part because of
its having won an award from the Society for
Music Theory, and in part because of the
particularly harsh rebuke it received from
Taruskin. Taruskin accuses Straus of
misunderstanding (not to be confused with
misreading) Bloom and misapplying the latter's 
ideas. Although one may flinch at the
tone of Taruskin's review, his criticisms of
miscomprehension are, in my view, correct on many
counts, albeit incomplete and profoundly shaped
by Taruskin's own ideological goals. Also, it is
difficult to sanction Taruskin's insinuations of
disingenuousness. But this is not a principal
concern, here; misunderstandings of Straus'
variety, after all, are easily enough corrected.
Further, with the introduction of professional 
training in critical theory to music-theory 
curricula, mistakes of Straus' variety could 
become more scarce.

[0.4] A more central issue for most of us would
be: why choose Bloom in the first place? Why has
Bloom come to penetrate what otherwise seems to
be a nearly impermeable barrier music theory has
erected against "recent" critical theory? (I put
"recent" in quotations because, after all, post-
structuralist work dates back some twenty-five
years.) And what could Straus' encounter with
Bloom teach us about music theory and critical
theory generally? A partial answer to this may
lie in the work of Bloom himself, who has always
held an ambiguous relation to other literary

[0.5] Bloom is certainly a post-structuralist, if
by post-structuralist one means simply that his
publications (at least on the "anxiety of
influence" and related topics) post-date the
heyday of structuralism: *The Anxiety of
Influence* was first published in 1973. His work,
though, bears a problematic relationship to many
post-structuralist practices (as diverse as the
latter are). In some respects, Bloom's work
complements and even overlaps the work of other
literary theorists since the 1970's; in other
respects, though, his theories of influence trace
a reaction (increasingly explicit, over the
years) *against* what, for better or worse, has
come to be regarded as the `mainstream' of post-
structuralism. Bloom himself recognizes this dual
situation of his work when he observes ironically
that "my own views are regarded as traditionalist
by Deconstructors, and as deconstructive by
traditionalists..." (Bloom (1982b), 39). We will
observe later what happens to these opposing
aspects of Bloom's work in music-theoretical
adaptation; before we do that, thought, it will
be useful briefly to articulate Bloom's dual
relationship with post-structuralism(s)


[1.1] Bloom intersects with other post-
structuralist thinkers by foregrounding
revisionism and rhetoric. Like many of his
literary-theoretical contemporaries (de Man, J.
Hillis Miller, and Geoffrey Hartman among them),
Bloom takes a great deal from Nietzsche,
including a radically skeptical view of truth and
language and a (largely concomitant) focus on
revisionism.(3) This aspect of Bloom's work is
central to the famous notion of "misreading" as a
constructive artistic force. While the
"misreading" of the poet is certainly a central
aspect of his thought, the necessary "misreading"
of the *critic*, by Bloom's account, is equally
central, and provides a link to much other post-
structuralist work. Two of his formulations of
this will suffice: "This influence-relation
governs reading just as it governs writing, and
reading is therefore a miswriting just as writing
is misreading" (Bloom 1975a, 3). Or, more
elaborately, "Reading...is very nearly
impossible, for every reader's relation to every
poem is governed by a figuration of belatedness"
(Bloom 1975a, 69). The critic replicates and
magnifies the poet's misreading; this, in turn,
suggests an indeterminacy of meaning that others
of a more `centrally' post-structuralist bent,
like de Man (1983) and de Bolla (1988), find
attractive in Bloom's thought.

3. O'Hara (1983) relates Bloom to a Nietzschean

[1.2] Another important intersection between
Bloom and other post-structuralist theorists is
his concern with rhetoric and figuration (in
principle, inseparable from the emphasis on
revisionism). (De Bolla (1988) focuses
principally on these aspects of Bloom.) Not only
the revisionary ratios, but the entire structure
of Bloom's intertexuality depends on the notion
of the poems as positioned rhetorically toward
their predecessors. By stressing the necessity to
read poems as tropes on other poems, Bloom
effectively counters traditional notions such as
the organic coherence of texts, creating another
overlap with some of his contemporaries. In
general, by centering tropes and rhetoric, Bloom
indicates a focus not altogether discontinuous
from those of, for instance, de Man, Derrida,
Hartman, and so on. Indeed, de Man's famous
review (1983) of *The Anxiety of Influence*,
while severely reproaching Bloom on some counts,
attempts to rehabilitate that book by singling
out its focus on rhetoric (not surprisingly,
recommending a shift to the linguistic realm). 
[1.3] Despite the overlaps just discussed, some
aspects of Bloom's principal theoretical work
remain radically apart from many post-
structuralist practices. In many respects, Bloom's 
work restores a rather traditional notion of the 
subject, and several related concepts, "spirituality",
"meaning", and "originality": in de Bolla's
words, Bloom promotes a certain "nostalgia for
the subject" (1988, 77). In *A Map of
Misreading*, Bloom states this bluntly:

[1.4] "(A) return to Vico and Emerson should
demonstrate that *belatedness* or the fear of
time's revenges is the true dungeon for the
imagination, rather than the prison-house of
language as posited by Nietzsche, Heidegger, and
their heirs [which, for Bloom, means primarily
"deconstructionists"]... (R)hetoric and
psychology are a virtual identity." (Bloom 1975a,
68-69; emphasis Bloom's)

[1.5] By positing this subjectivity, Bloom lays
the ground for "originality" (for example in
Bloom (1982a), 82). "Originality" here retains
the positive evaluation it has in common
parlance, closely related to the equally
evaluative Bloomian terms, "strong" and "weak"
poets. Similarly, Bloom fears that, with the
subject being effaced by language in post-
structuralism, "Criticism is in danger... of
being excessively despiritualized by the
followers of the school of Deconstruction" (Bloom
1975a, 79). Thus, Bloom's protection of
traditional subjectivity against a (largely
fictional) "school of Deconstruction" is not
merely an attempt at psychological
foundationalism: it is also a means of protecting
traditional literary-discursive values such as
"originality" and "spirituality." Not
surprisingly, Bloom's championing of the subject
as constituted anterior to (if not outside of)
language was one of the principal points of
contention with de Man (and to a lesser extent,
Derrida) over the years. (De Bolla (1988)
summarizes these contentions, especially 61-81.)

[1.6] Bloom battled "deconstructionists" not only
on originality and the subject, but also on the
status of meaning: "...I favor a kind of
interpretation that seeks to restore and redress
meaning, rather than primarily to deconstruct
meaning" (Bloom 1975a, 175). (Ultimately, this
point is inseparable from Bloom's championing of
the subject.) Bloom's re-grounding of meaning is
complex, drawing on the Kabbalistic concept of "a
Primal Instruction preceding all traces of
speech... Kabbalah stops the movement of
Derrida's `trace,' since it has a *point* of the
primordial, where presence and absence co-exist
by continuous interplay" (Bloom 1975b, 52-3;
emphasis Bloom's). Particularly notable here is
that the Primal Instruction *precedes* speech:
visible here are the linkages among Kabbalah,
pre-linguistic subjectivity, and a stable site of
meaning. The Kabbalah's nexus function may
explain why Bloom repeatedly cited it, not Freud,
as an ultimate source for his work.

[1.7] In an equally significant sense, Bloom
restores a rather traditional concept of meaning
simply by positing the poem as site of the poet's
psychological strife. Despite Bloom's insistence
that the poem itself, and not the poet, is the
location of struggle, the psychological state of
the poet -- his (not her, for Bloom!)
"interiority," to quote Foucault (1979) --
remains very much in the foreground. This, in
turn, re-centers the author as source of meaning,
establishing an interpretive stance typical of
not even structuralism or New Criticism, but
rather of nineteenth-century literary criticism.
In this way, Bloom again sets himself apart from
most post-structuralist practices, which tend to
focus on language rather than the author as the
site of meaning (however indeterminate and
infinite "language" and "meaning" may be).(4)

4. Barthes (1977) and Foucault (1979) provide
classic formulations of early post-structuralist
rejection of the "author function." 

[1.8] In later work, such as Bloom (1982b), Bloom
calls upon nationalist notions such as the
"American Sublime" to ground interpretation and
limit meaning, even going so far as to ridicule
the idea of approaching American poetry with
"Gallic Post-Structuralism" (30). Other, more
notoriously conservative aspects of Bloom's
writing -- his stubborn reinforcement of the
traditional poetic canon, his acerbic dismissals
of feminism -- are far from surprising, given his
stances on the more abstract, but still (let's
not forget) highly political issues just
discussed. None of this is to belittle Bloom's
contributions to the field of literary theory and
criticism; it is rather to highlight aspects of
his work that set it apart from the work of many
of his contemporaries.


[2.1] The foregoing greatly simplifies Bloom's
relations to post-structuralist work; for
example, his relationship with so-called
"deconstructionist" literary theorists is also a
productive one. (*A Map of Misreading* is
dedicated to Paul de Man.) The books already
cited provide a good deal more background. What
has been said, though, already indicates that to
adopt Bloom's work (to whatever extent, in
whatever form) is already to skew oneself in
relation to the bulk of post-structuralist
theories. (Young (1981) provides a good
introduction to a variety of post-structuralist
work.) In particular, Bloom's resurrection of the
subject, and of values such as originality and
meaning, presents a ready-made opportunity to
reinforce mainstream aesthetic ideologies. On the
other hand, the more novel aspects of Bloom's
work also offer opportunities for music theorists
to confront true methodological and ideological
challenges. The question is: what happens, and
what can happen, when Bloom is co-opted for
music-theoretical work?

[2.2] In this sense, Straus is a signal lesson,
and perhaps a warning. What Straus retains of
Bloom, and what he leaves out, may themselves be
symptomatic of possible encounters between music
theory and this particular literary theory.
*Remaking the Past* is explicitly a book of music
history, examining aspects of musical
"modernism"; the historical assertions are, in
turn, supported by extended musical analyses. A
remarkable aspect of the latter is their close
resemblance to traditional analyses. In the first
chapter, Straus announces Bloom's theory as a
remedy for "what has become a virtual dogma in
music theory: organic coherence" (16); and yet,
Straus' own musical analyses reflect this
"virtual dogma" through and through. He
consistently discusses and analyzes pieces
according to principles of their internal
structural coherence; the Bloomian aspect, to the
extent there is one, lies in the commentary that
Straus then adds to the essentially structuralist

[2.3] Chapter 4 ("Triads") provides as good an
example as any. There, Straus shows how
superficially triadic sonorities in some post-
tonal music may be interpreted as arising from
non-triadic post-tonal processes. (Straus' own
claims are more essentialist than my wording "may
be interpreted" indicates, but let us leave that
issue aside, at least for the moment.) In doing
so, he employs analytic methods steeped in the
same tradition of "organic coherence" for which
he, in the first chapter, had cited Bloom as a
potential remedy: pitch-class-set analysis, a
method designed to maximalize the coherence of an
interpretation; and inversional symmetry, an
analytical premise that creates a coherence of
pitch-class (or, sometimes, pitch) space. If the
pieces he discusses are relational structures (as
he argues in the first chapter), then they are
relational structures only by being self-
contained structures in the first place -- the
reverse of Bloom's view.

[2.4] This is not to say that Straus' analytical
methods are "bad" or "naive" in some sense
(whatever those words could mean in this
context). Rather, it is to point out that the
Bloomian anti-organicism does not penetrate very
deeply, here. The Bloomian aspect of this chapter
is left implicit: the composers discussed must
misread tonal sonorities in order to become
"strong" composers. Fair enough. But it is only
the extremely traditional -- in other words,
highly structuralist and organicist -- analytic
work of the chapter that supports that thesis.
(Compare this to Bloom's discussions of poems,
discussions which, for all their frequent
vagueness and hyperbole, never, to my knowledge,
resort to organicist, structuralist methods.)

[2.5] We should add that this ideological tension
could hardly be laid at the feet of Straus. Here
is where Straus' encounter with literary theory
may reflect on all of us as music theorists: to a
great degree, the problems of *Remaking the Past*
are the problems that all of us may experience
when we try to integrate any post-structuralist
theory to our work. The very premises of our
field -- inventing models of musical structure
and analyzing pieces as exemplars of structure --
dissonate with that which recent critical theory
has to teach us. (Tomlinson 1993 and Kramer 1993
rehearse this conflict instructively.) Creating,
then, a work (a book, an article, a course) of
music theory that draws on post-structuralist
theory always creates a conflict of which that
work will be a trace. In the case of Straus,
organicist premises must return in order for
music-theoretical discourse to take place. This
is not Straus' fault, if one wants to consider it
a fault at all: it is an uneasy confrontation
between ideological systems that offer their own
resistances to each other.

[2.6] Equally instructive for music theorists are
the elements of Bloom's work that simply do not
appear in the book. We saw earlier that Bloom
regarded misreading as an activity not only of
poets (in Straus: composers) but also of critics
(in Straus: music theorists and/or historians).
In fact, critics, for Bloom, are even more
subject to misreading, since their predecessors
include both poets and other critics. As
mentioned before, the critic's misreading creates
the gap between reader and text that makes
reading "very nearly impossible." And yet, this
gap, so characteristic of post-structuralist
views of reading, does not exist in Straus'
version of Bloom. The analyses are glimpsed and
discussed as if in `full view'; the analytic
statements that are made are not presented as
problematic -- Straus is not a misreader of the
pieces he discusses. Again, the ideological
grounds of music theory and critical theory are
in conflict. As music theorists, we are still
accustomed to attributing a certain ontological
status to our analyses and theories -- this IS
the structure of atonal music, this IS a five-
piece, and so on. This status is incompatible
with the critic as misreader -- we must, as music
theorists, be capable of divining the essences of
music in a more traditional subject/object
relationship. Bloom's stance, though, despite the
many traditional aspects of his work, comes more
by way of Nietzsche, positing the reader as a
revisionist fully as much as the composer. This
more typically post-structuralist aspect of Bloom
disappears, almost by necessity, in its
confrontation with music theoretical work.

[2.7] We have seen, so far, two of Bloom's more
post-structuralist stances -- the figurative
intertextuality and the critic as misreader --
either compromised or eliminated in Straus'
reading. In that sense, the more traditional
methodologies of music theory win out. But what
about the more conservative, traditional aspects
of Bloom's work? Specifically, what about the
restoration of the subject, originality, and the
composer as the site of meaning? Perhaps not
surprisingly, these survive very well not only in
Straus' work, but more generally in the work of
other music scholars who, in one way or another,
have adapted Bloom for their own purposes, such
as Korsyn (1991) and Yudkin (1992). In each of
these, a canonically `great' composer's struggle
against the past becomes the site of meaning for
the piece(s) in question; the originality (and,
similarly, the `strength') of the composer(s) is
commended because of his successfully negotiating
the various (and varying) revisionary ratios; and
documents from the composer's life are marshalled
to back up the claims and concretize the posited
subjectivity. In other words, values from
traditional music theory and musicology are
reinforced by the versions of Bloom being used
here, not challenged. In this sense, Taruskin's
polemics get out of hand when he claims that
"Bloom is simply irrelevant to Straus' methods
and purposes" (126); Straus' version of Bloom,
although certainly a selective one (as he himself
seems to acknowledge in Straus 1994), is by no
means entirely removed from the ideological
strains of the original theory. (What stock one
should put in the value of "fidelity to the
original theory" is itself another, and much
bigger, question.)


[3.0] A lesson we can take from Straus, then, is
the surprisingly high degree to which Bloom may
be fitted to mainstream music-theoretical
ideology. This in itself may also account for the
proliferation of scholarship based on his work:
certain aspects of his influence theory can be
embraced wholeheartedly, without a great deal of
discomfort, while others (the more
characteristically post-structuralist) can be
effectively side-lined. Otherwise put, Bloom
allows us mainly to continue what we are doing,
changing the slant of our discussion a bit, but
not questioning (or transforming) the very
premises of our activity. This is not to impugn
the motives of those who use Bloom's theories.
Straus, for example, has never claimed that his
work is post-structuralist; so the basic
conservatism of *his* Harold Bloom is not
necessarily a reproach to him.

[3.1] At the same time, critical theories,
especially the post-structuralist ones, have
often carried with them a aura of prestige (or
vogue). Bloom is in the field of literature --
which we all know to have provided much impetus
for critical theory. And his influence theory,
invoking Nietzsche and Freud and being published
post-1970 (by a Yale professor, no less), may
carry with it the implication of more
`progressive' work. 

[3.2] Because of this, it is possible for us to
convince ourselves that by adopting his ideas, we
are coming to terms with post-structuralist
literary theory generally. This would be a
mistake, and a potentially costly one. The more
semiotic-informed post-structuralist work
(including but not limited to the various
"deconstructions") may provide some of the
greatest challenges to us as music theorists, as
unsettling as those challenges may often be. 

[3.3] This is not to say we have an innate
obligation, as music theorists, to adopt
uncritically some of the central tenets of post-
structuralism(s). We may, if we wish, choose to
prefer the more comfortable and traditional
stances of Bloom; or we may choose to ignore
critical theories altogether, in the belief that
we are embarked on a project (or projects) to
which they bear no relevance. We should simply be
careful *not* to believe that by adopting (and
adapting) Bloom's influence theory we are
necessarily coming to terms with the bulk of the
challenges that post-structuralist theories hold
for us. We may, instead, be producing work-as-
usual, with the belief that we are doing

[3.4] On the other hand, as long as we are aware
of what we are doing -- as long as we do not
convince ourselves that using Bloom will bring us
face to face with the vast bodies of post-
structuralism -- then why not incorporate his
work? Certainly, if we are to talk about
influence, notions of rhetorical evasion and
misreading will be invaluable to our work. And,
indeed, if we wish to rest securely with
mainstream music-theoretical ideologies, Bloom
can easily be adopted to our use. There is room
for applying Bloom's ideas, so long as we do not
allow ourselves to believe that thereby we have
grappled with most of the critiques that recent
critical theory holds for us. To begin the
latter, more daunting project, we will have to
consider not only Bloom, but also those whose
names may far more disquiet us.


Barthes, Roland. 1977. "From Work to Text," from
*Image - Music - Text* (London: Fontana), trans.
Stephen Heath.

Bloom, Harold. 1973. *The Anxiety of Influence: A
Theory of Poetry* (New York: Oxford University

Bloom, Harold. 1975a. *A Map of Misreading* (New
York: Oxford University Press).

Bloom, Harold. 1975b. *Kabbalah and Criticism*
(New York: Continuum).

Bloom, Harold. 1982a. *The Breaking of the
Vessels* (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Bloom, Harold. 1982b. *Agon: Towards a Theory of
Revisionism* (New York: Oxford University Press).

De Bolla, Peter. 1988. *Harold Bloom: Towards
Historical Rhetorics* (London: Routledge).

De Man, Paul. 1983. "Review of Harold Bloom's
Anxiety of Influence," from *Blindness and
Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary
Criticism* (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press), 267-276.

Foucault, Michel. 1979. "What is an Author," from
*Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-
Structuralist Criticism* (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press), 141-160, trans. Josue V.

Korsyn, Kevin. 1991. "Towards a New Poetics of
Musical Influence," Music Analysis 10, 3-73.

Kramer, Lawrence. 1984. *Music and Poetry: The
Nineteenth Century and After* (Berkeley: 
University of California Press).

Kramer, Lawrence. 1990. *Music as Cultural
Practice, 1800-1900* (Berkeley: University of
California Press).

Kramer, Lawrence. 1993. "Music Criticism and the
Postmodernist Turn: In Contrary Motion with Gary
Tomlinson," Current Musicology 53, 25-35,

Krims, Adam. 1994. "A Sketch for Post-
Structuralist Music Theory," paper delivered to
the Fifth Congress of the International
Association for Semiotic Studies, Berkeley,
California, July 1994.

Littlefield, Richard and Neumeyer, David. 1992.
"Rewriting Schenker: Narrative - History -
Ideology," Music Theory Spectrum 14.1, 38-65.

Littlefield, Richard. 1994. "Listening,
Narrative, and Signification," paper delivered to
the Fifth Congress of the International
Association for Semiotic Studies, Berkeley,
California, July 1994.

Norris, Christopher. 1989. *Deconstruction and
the Interests of Theory* (Norman: University of
Oklahoma Press).

O'Hara, Daniel. 1983. "The Genius of Irony:
Nietzsche in Bloom," from *The Yale Critics:
Deconstruction in America* (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press).

Straus, Joseph N. 1990. *Remaking the Past:
Musical Modernism and the Influence of the Tonal
Tradition* (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Street, Alan. 1989. "Superior Myths, Dogmatic
Allegories: The Resistance to Musical Unity,"
Music Analysis 8.1, 77-123.

Taruskin, Richard. 1993. "Review of Joseph
Straus' Remaking the Past," Journal of the
American Musicological Society 46.1, 114-138.

Tomlinson, Gary. 1993. "Musical Pasts and
Postmodern Musicologies: A Response to Lawrence
Kramer," and "Tomlinson Responds," Current
Musicology 53, 18-24 and 36-40.

Young, Robert. 1981. "Post-Structuralism: An 
Introduction," from *Untying the Text* (London:
Routledge), 1-28.

Yudkin, Jeremy. 1992. "Beethoven's `Mozart'
Quartet," Journal of the American Musicological
Society 45.1, 30-74.


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