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Antoine Hennion, The Passion for Music: A Sociology of Mediation

Thomas M. Kitts
p. 212-215
Référence(s) :

Antoine Hennion, The Passion for Music: A Sociology of Mediation, Surrey (UK), Ashgate, 2015

Texte intégral

1An English edition of Antoine Hennion’s The Passion for Music has been long overdue. A prominent sociologist at the Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation and a former visiting professor at Princeton and Columbia universities, Hennion has been cited widely by cultural critics and musicologists around the globe as his essays have been translated into several languages, including English. Rather curiously, La Passion musicale, one of his seminal works, however, has eluded attempts at English translation over the years—until now. First published in 1993, revised and republished in Spanish in 2003, and revised for a new French edition in 2007, the text has been revised once again by Hennion for this English debut of any of his books. Margaret Rigaud and Peter Collier are to be congratulated for their painstaking attention to detail and their efforts to produce a clear and vibrant text. Their work can only escalate Hennion’s influence and authority.

2From a sociological perspective, as Hennion notes, studying music is different from studying other arts. A painting, for example, is a fixed object, and can be considered from any number of perspectives: Is it a symbol? Does it reflect a social reality? Is it a snare or delusion? Music, however, is amorphous, “always on the verge of permutation” (291), and cannot be located in matter. It always needs to be remade, which leads to a proliferation of infinite intermediaries, interpreters, and re-producers. Even a recording is a remake—a CD, for example, may be solid and enduring, but it does not stabilize music as much as we may suppose. “Music is event and advent,” Hennion writes, “which means that it is perpetually transformed by any contact with its public, on whose listening it inevitably depends […]. It is a performance: it acts, engages, transforms and is felt” (268). His theory of mediation seeks to explain music’s reproduction, its appeal, its effects on the culture and on listeners and their passions.

3Through his theory, Hennion attempts to unravel the influence of mediators, which can be institutional, technical, economic, social, political, or individual, including, to be specific, universities, musicians, instruments, politicians, promoters, patrons, and on and on. Mediation focuses more on the construction and presentation of music than on its artistic quality or on an analytical study of the art object itself. It moves toward a reinstatement of the resources which create music and ensure its duration, allowing us to navigate among the various mediators in a circular or discursive approach, and even encouraging us to shift our method and perspective. It also helps us understand how our passion for music develops: “We do not spontaneously love music we know nothing about,” writes Hennion. “We love the music we are ready to love, or indeed the music we already love to love” (173). While the statement is not inconsistent with Adorno’s concept of standardized and “pre-digested” pop music, Hennion has none of the Marxist rancor of Adorno who blames the profit-mongering labels and consumer unawareness (Adorno, 1941: par. 16-20).

  • 1 Hennion contests Danto’s “mystery of style,” but praises it for being “beautifully written” (162).

4Hennion divides The Passion for Music into two parts. In the first part, comprised of five chapters and two brief “transitions” or connecting sections, he responds to and builds off other theorists. He turns to the beginnings of sociology with Émile Durkheim’s model of belief, which Hennion maintains, “has remained the basis for the sociological perspective on cultural objects” (3). Durkheim’s model provides a means to study the relationship between the principles of the collective and the role of objects while paving the way for a sociological perspective of art that formulates the relationship between the art object and all the mediators that affect their production and their reception. While this approach uncovers the mediators, it tends either to demystify the art object by reducing it into a mere fetish of society or to mystify the art object further by suggesting that art objects are produced outside the social sphere, perhaps as the work of genius, which Arthur Danto (1981: 206)1 suggests is the absence of mediation.

5Similarly, Hennion responds to the reductionist and regressive approaches of Girard, Baudrillard, and Bourdieu who denounce the object as an illusory belief. Baudrillard argues, for example, that objects are only signs which lose their referent as they proliferate, becoming simulacra. Hennion’s theory of mediation does not reduce art objects to a fetish or to the “empty mechanics of desire” (34). The art object, Hennion counters, is not static but is produced through an operation that “fills the world with hybrid, irreducible, composite objects” (34). He seeks to bridge the gap between “an erudite internal analysis, unconcerned with society” and the social interpreter, “who thinks nothing of selling off the works in order to achieve his aims.” For a more complete understanding of the art object and its operation, we need to adapt “a social theory which respects the mediation of the objects it interprets—or […] an aesthetic theory which knows to what extent the art object is a mediator” (59).

6In the second part of the book, beginning with chapter 6, Hennion provides a series of case studies to explore his theory of mediation, demonstrating that without intermediaries we would not hear the music as we hear it. In chapter 7, “‘What Can You Hear?’: An Ethnographic Study of a Solfège Lesson,” he considers the teacher, the classroom dynamic, parents, and more, in an effort to determine how music is learned. Other chapters focus on the rock concert, opera, a classical music concert, and, perhaps most interestingly, on the resurgence of Baroque music and Bach in the 1970s and 1980s. In chapter 6, “The Baroque Case: Music Upheavals,” he looks at the rival reinterpretations and presentations of Baroque music and Bach. On the one hand, the Baroques saw early music as an object from the past to be played as close to its original presentation as possible, confident that they could reconstitute the taste for the vanished music. Conversely, the moderns took liberties with musical texts and sources, arguing that we may reclaim the repertoire of early musics according to our needs. This cultural war led to the production of two art objects or two types of music, both providing a contemporary appreciation and resuscitation of a three-centuries old music. However, as Hennion notes, the Baroques eventually “surrounded and defeated” the moderns who stubbornly ignored historical sources and played only what they wanted to hear (189). The moderns became less fashionable as a new audience was cultivated for Baroque through the mediation of radio, concert promoters, critics, and music schools, all of whom began to welcome the new/old repertoire. With this chapter, Hennion provides a fascinating glimpse into this cultural war and the development of an audience and the transformation of taste.

7At times, Hennion turns to the individual to gage how he or she responds to or participates in a musical experience. In chapter 7, he considers the “good pedagogue,” who through “the infectious impulse” of “good spirits” will defeat the indifference of his students and “mobilize his troops without drawing their attention to what he is doing” and thereby reverse the classroom dynamics in his favor (228). In one of his transitional chapters, “A Sociologist at the Zenith Concert Hall,” Hennion watches as the rock concert brings fan and performer together, transforming the former into the alter ego of the star on stage, and, later, in chapter 9, “Music Lovers: Taste as an Activity,” he recounts individuals’ idiosyncratic rituals as they prepare themselves for a musical performance which, hopefully, will lift them into the sublime and, paradoxically, enable them to lose control and give way to their passion. “It is essential not to overtake the music,” he writes (278).

8As indicated by these quotations, Hennion presents his theory of mediation in prose that, although richly dense, is nonetheless lucid, lively, and even entertaining. He describes Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory as an “odd mix of modernity and aristocratism […] a monolith on a vaster scale than any other, a greater philosophical fresco which might have been painted by a Hegel who had decided to write in black ink only” (60). And he can be pithy, as when he considers our approach to Bach: “He made use of the aesthetic to reach God: we make use of the religious to reach Bach” (255), or his comparison of live rock music to an opera: “The body in motion versus the body stock still” (263).

9In short, Hennion’s theory of mediation provides a comprehensive approach to the study of music, one which considers the training, production, and consumption of music, without dismissing its aesthetic dimension or the individual participant. Finally, we have this extraordinary work in English.

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Adorno Theodor (1941), with the assistance of George Simpson, “On Popular Music,” Soundscapes.Info, [Accessed 7 November 2015]

Danto Arthur C. (1981), The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, Cambridge (MA), Harvard University Press.

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1 Hennion contests Danto’s “mystery of style,” but praises it for being “beautifully written” (162).

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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Thomas M. Kitts, « Antoine Hennion, The Passion for Music: A Sociology of Mediation », Volume !, 14 : 1 | 2017, 212-215.

Référence électronique

Thomas M. Kitts, « Antoine Hennion, The Passion for Music: A Sociology of Mediation », Volume ! [En ligne], 14 : 1 | 2017, mis en ligne le 13 décembre 2017, consulté le 10 décembre 2018. URL :

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Thomas M. Kitts

Thomas M. Kitts est professeur d’anglais à l’université St. John de New York, et a publié John Fogerty: American Son (Routledge, 2016), Ray Davies: Not Like Everybody Else (Routledge, 2008), The Theatrical Life George Henry Boker (Lang, 1994), ainsi qu’une pièce, Gypsies: An East Village Opera (1987, Domestic Press,1994) et de nombreux articles universitaires. Il a également dirigé l’anthologie Literature and Work (2011, Pearson) et des ouvrages collectifs sur les Kinks et John Goferty. Il dirige la chaire de musique de la Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association et les revues Popular Music and Society et Rock Music Studies avec Gary Burns de l’université Northern Illinois.

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