On madness and eros: Tentative thoughts on an arrested present – Fellows’ seminar by Carina Venter

23 May 2023

“I’m reporting tentatively on a project I’ve only started very recently,” said Carina Venter of the Department of Music at Stellenbosch University. “It looks carefully at the one-on-one relationship between the master and student in the context of music pedagogical spaces – unpacking the kind of intimacy and abuse, subjectivity and resistance that it embodies. I’m also looking historically at the values and ideas with which this pedagogy is imbued, which were largely formulated in the previous century and, I suspect, marked in certain ways by apartheid thinking.”

The project builds on Venter’s earlier work on music and violence, and “is born of the politico-ethical imperative to break the silence surrounding structural violence and abuse in institutionalised spaces devoted to music pedagogy: the lecture room, the teaching studio, the community project, and professional settings such as orchestras and productions,” she explained. “This project will document narratives of abuse in these settings.


Iso Lomso Visiting Scholar Carina Venter

For her seminar she read one account from an interviewee (one of six interviews completed thus far) in which experiences of mainly emotional abuse in music pedagogy were described. She hopes to understand in more detail how, for this participant, the study of music moved from personal fulfilment and social capital to increasing isolation and feelings of imprisonment resulting in giving up music.

“My reading of this account follows two discursive trajectories, one that narrates the potential held in the relation between master and student in the language of mentorship, friendship, freedom, and self-realisation, the other narrating that same relational potential in the language of madness and the asylum,” she said.

“How do we understand this extreme metamorphosis of the music department into a place of isolation and madness?” she asked.  “And, how might we hear this account in the arrested present of post-apartheid South Africa?”

Venter offered two provisional responses. “First, the emotional abuse described enacts a foreclosure of the erotics of pedagogy and knowledge, an erotics I theorise with recourse to the work of George Steiner, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks, amongst others,” she said. “Second, the failure to which this pedagogical encounter leads, a failure at the practice of Western art music which, in apartheid South Africa, marked out the cultural preserve of whiteness, constitutes a very particular kind of failure that puts bodies in those places assigned them by apartheid.

Eros and pedagogy

Venter explained that eroticism and Eros is fundamentally interwoven in teaching and pedagogy. Bringing together mastery and discipleship, teaching is, amongst other things, about persuasion. And, as Steiner has formulated, “the teacher solicits attention, agreement and collaborative dissent through the dynamics of shared communication, coherence in meanings, passions and refusals,” she explained.

Venter explained that in the intensely intimate world of a one-on-one teaching encounter in music, specifically with recourse to the account given her by the interviewee,  the student is trying to ascertain what it is that the teacher wants and how ‘the master’ wants him/her to sound. She understood her participant’s account through a Lacanian reading, in which the subject is trying to understand what the other, the master, the pedagogue, wants from them, a process that is also formative of the subject’s own desires.

She  explained it is not about sexual expectations at all, but about intimacy, agency, self-discovery through sound and a space susceptible to control and refusal of knowledge, which can lead to emotional abuse.

All of this is complicated in a post-apartheid South Africa. “Desire has a long history of policing in South Africa,” explained Venter. “Apartheid was a “counterattack on desire” as J.M. Coetzee has argued persuasively – an entire value system based on policing desire. That desire was in the first instance for ‘mixing,’

But this language of desire and prohibition was also displaced onto discourses about music. The church organ, for example, was designated a “insluiper,” a “sneaker in” to the realm of pure church music, contaminating and corrupting.

“Afrikaner culture also assumed European practices of Western culture and music in the quest to form a superior identity.”

“The practice of Western art music provided a means of being European in culture and sensibility, a strategy of differentiation that was indispensable for the Afrikaner, a people of mixed blood, to shore up apartheid’s fantasies of purity,” she said.

Returning to her interviewee’s account, she noted: “Failure at Western art music, even that artificially created through pedagogy, becomes a pornographic denial of feeling and knowledge”. Here, Venter understood the pornographic with recourse to the work of Audre Lorde, as sensation stripped of feeling and thought. Again returning to the account of her interviewee, she argued: “The master signals intimacy through playful speech and bodily proximity. This intimacy leads not to self-knowledge and discovery, which is Steiner’s point about effective pedagogy. It leads instead to mechanical repetition and precisely the foreclosure of knowledge.”

“Is this not the meaning of the pornographic in music pedagogy? The reduction of sound to a play of sensations, stripped of feeling and that potentiality of transformative knowledge and instruction?,” asked Venter.

Venter, noting that her interviewee who identified as brown and queer was clearly an exceptional student, argued that “artificially induced failure in music historically reserved to do the work of cultural segregation, is a failure then, in which the raced body recognises the familiar practice of subordination that could use Western art music as a means to put bodies in those places assigned to them by the mind of apartheid.” As her interviewee explained, “There is a violence in saying this is the way the music should be and this is how you should do it.  Western music is best and you don’t understand it as a poor, brown person.” “The response of the master ultimately refuses entry into this world, returns bodies to their preassigned places – the same isolation practiced by apartheid,” argued Venter.

“Taken together, the account and these provisional responses, although not providing an exact replication of the affective disorder (Froneman, 2023) of apartheid which relies for its operations on race and racism, show how that affective disorder is sedimented pedagogically as a renewed affront on desire, on the erotic uses of power and knowledge.”

In conclusion, she pointed out that although such pedagogy can enact a counterattack on a desire for self-realisation, it’s responsible use can transform the relationship into self-knowledge and political agency.  (And she hopes to include interview examples of encounters where this was achieved.)

“Education that shapes desires in a certain way is still in the grip of apartheid thinking,” she said. “Pedagogy is a site for grappling with desire in the long shadow of apartheid. We are looking for freedom and ways to desire and hope differently.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph:  Ignus Dreyer

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