Neuro-Nationalism, Or Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

by Michael Beckerman [1]


The starting point for this article is a list of troubling examples of racist attitudes documented in news reports around the world, accompanied by personal anecdotes about encounters with ethnic hatred among the intellectual elite of Eastern Europe, and references to neurological theories of brain structure and emotions as source of ethnic intolerance (Paul MacLean, Antonio Damasio, Jaak Panksepp). In order to prove that “nothing in music is ever pure and authentic, all is tainted” in terms of national/ethnic ‘identity” Beckerman considers a fictitious example of a national interpretations of a song included in a wedding taking place in Mazovia in 1830. These interpretations differ when the ethnic, national, and religious identities of the singers and the participants of the ceremony are taken into account. The opposition of pure “Us” against the impure “Them” underlies all attempts at defining “national” music in terms of a putative, united identity transcending the limitations of time and space; Beckerman’s examples of this attitude include Jewish Musical Traditions by Amnon Shiloah and music critic’s Edward Krehbiel’s reception of Dvorak in America. In conclusion, he points out that “German music was so powerful as a national force that it was able to take center stage with barely a dissenting voice, and proclaim itself as universal,” while music by other European nations, especially Slavic ones became “national.”

Translated by Maja Trochimczyk


Not seven years ago and not far from here, a man named Rodney King held a press conference. Several months before home video cameras had caught the police mercilessly beating him, as he lay prostrate on the ground. His plea, taken by observers as either ironic, outrageous or deeply moving depending on their orientation, is at the core of my inquiry today. For he asked in plaintive tones against the backdrop of the L.A. riots: “People, I just want to say, you know, can we, can we all just get along?”

To this question, I’d like to append two items from a newspaper, one from the radio and two from the archive of my own experience. First on page one of The New York Times we find the story “Ethnic Albanians Recount Massacre of a Family in Kosovo” which brings up the issue of ethnic cleansing in the context of a gruesome account of the murder of 21 ethnic Albanians by Serbian forces. Page three of the New York Times featured an article “Where Russians Are Hurting, Racism Takes Root,” which begins: “Here, along Russia’s southern border, where refugees from a crumbling empire have settled in the ruins of the local economy, it does not take much to disturb the festering sores of Russian nationalism. All it takes is an enemy.” Different enemies for different folks: for the Governor of the Krasonar region, the enemy is “Zionacrats,” while for local Cossacks the enemy is Chechens, Armenians, or Turks, though I would imagine that Jews would do just as well. While I was in the middle of reading this article, National Public Radio broadcast an interview with UC Regent Ward Connerly who is afraid that ethnic studies programs, rather than fostering an open-minded discussion of race, ethnicity and identity, are forums which solidify an intractable “us” versus “them” mentality.

The next two images are personal ones. For many years I gave lectures at a particular annual conference, first in Czechoslovakia and then in the Czech Republic. One of my favorite acquaintances was the English language translator who sat in a booth translating English into Czech. A cultivated woman with a doctorate in linguistics, I had come to look forward to our yearly conversations. That is, until 1992 when her face suddenly became almost disfigured during what had been an easy going discussion on post-Revolution life: “You’re an American liberal and I know you won’t like this, but if it were up to me I’d take all the gypsies, put them in concentration camps and gas them.”

Finally this: shortly after the overthrow of the Communist government in Czechoslovakia I was talking to a young Slovak politician about a broad range of issues. I was deeply impressed by his attitude of cultivation and broad-mindedness. Suddenly the subject of Hungary came up and the man turned instantly into a raving lunatic, screaming, yelling and threatening. Taken together these five examples suggest that the answer to Rodney King’s query is a resounding “no we can’t get along,” or at best that it isn’t very easy. While it is absolutely clear that the ultimate reasons for this will continually evade our attempt to discuss them comprehensively, I will suggest one possible cause and ask what effect it might have on both the creation of and the response to so-called “national music.”

The title of my paper reveals my primary concern. We can’t get along, I imagine because, more or less, we were not designed to get along. Put another way, the structure and nature of the human brain, with its mixture of instinctive, emotional and rational layers militates against the kind of harmony for which King was pleading, both Kings if you will. Ongoing research in neurology, neuropsychology and the newer field of “affective neuroscience” has offered new models for how the brain works, and particularly, how we may understand what seem to be certain supposedly universal mammalian emotions. [2] New thinking in the field of evolutionary psychology has complemented this by creating new models for what the mind is and how it works.

Let’s take one of these so-called universal emotions, disgust. As a primary process, affective consciousness or “raw feel” it is known from its physical appearance, common to man and animal: wrinkled nose, constricting nostrils, open mouth, tongue out. The components of the word (des-gustus) tell us that it was originally intended to represent the specific fear of incorporating an offending substance into one’s body–ingesting being the most horrific thought that a disgusting object can arouse. In the words of Steven Pinker in his How the Mind Works, “You can’t pay most people to eat fudge baked in the shape of dog feces or to hold rubber vomit from a novelty store between their lips,” nor can you get them to drink soup served in a brand new bedpan, or eat insects no matter how brilliantly cooked and meticulously sterilized they are.[3]

In order to understand how our sense of disgust completely banishes our rational response to certain stimuli, we may turn to Paul MacLean’s model of the so-called triune brain, a useful fiction which imagines the brain to be a composite of three levels: Reptilian, Old-Mammalian, and Neo-Mammalian.[4] The Reptilian brain, in this construct, is the Instinctual Motor Brain, the source of primitive emotions such as seeking, some aspects of fear, aggression, and sexuality. More sophisticated is the Old Mammalian Brain, or Limbic System, which provides a more subtle configuring of basic emotion such as fear and anger, and elaborates social emotions such competition, nurturing, playfulness, and gregariousness. At the top, in this simplified view, is the Neo-Mammalian brain, lodged in the neo-cortex. This is the seat of our cognitive rational appreciation of the outside world, which enables us to have a complex “theory of mind” in the first place, what Antonio Damasio calls “extended consciousness” in his new book, The Feeling of What Happens.[5]

Thus our reluctance to drink a glass of milk into which a sterile comb had been dipped would involve a response from the lower portions of the brain, unmediated and effectively unmediateable by the sophisticated impulses of the neo-cortex, more a primitive reflex than a thought. Many scientists are now trying to use a range of new technologies, such as brain imaging, and drawing on models from fields such as pharmacology and neurochemistry to understand which parts of the brain support such responses. For example, we know that certain “primitive” impulses are kept under control by the neo-cortex, but an injury to it can release such emotions uninhibited. Our evidence from the modern arena of nationalism seems to suggest that whether in Rwanda or Kosovo, certain theories related to “nation” or ethnicity are part of a process which, in effect, suppresses the governing function of the neo-cortex, leaving the field to other impulses more closely linked to our evolutionary past.

There is, of course, no easy agreement on this matter yet. While studying such emotions as anger and aggression in great detail Jaak Panksepp throws up his hands while accounting for the behavior of his human subjects: “The most broadly destructive kinds of human aggression – wars between nations and competing cultural groups, as well as many violent crimes – do not arise directly from brain circuits of the type discussed here. These are instrumental acts that arise as willful activities of humans.” [6] But surely he cannot avoid the circular thinking he hopes his new science has banished. What is a willful activity, and how does it so arise? It is my view that the kind of behavior we see throughout the world today and in the seemingly “irrational” responses of both my Czech and Slovak friend to the invocation of a despised ethnic group, suggests that when we deal with nationalism we are often operating with parts if the brain which, in effect, are not communicating with each other; there is a kind of mental disjunction.

This becomes evident when we plot the relationship between nationality and music. In order to give an example of how this works, I will imagine a wedding taking place in Mazovia in 1830. As part of the ceremony participants present a song. How might we configure this song along some kind if continuum of nationalism, from the lowest to the highest?

1. On one end of the scale, we might stress that this is not “music” at all, rather what we call “music” or “song” is a non-extractable component of a discrete series of rituals which are themselves not extractable from a larger context. In this strong model we maintain that anything we may gain from studying the phenomenon separately as “song” will be offset by the violence we have done it by ripping it out of its proper context. (It is noted that this view entails some small “sacrifice” since one would therefore not be able to publish in music journals. . . )

2. Another view might suggest that music is extractable – when sensitively done. This song might be considered to reveal certain qualities about the more or less specific world view of “this small group or villages” or provide us with clues about older variants. It is local village music and no more. As such, we might expect it to have more in common with music in similar villages throughout Europe than it might have with any music conceived by city-dwellers, whether or not they speak the same language.

Let’s take another possibility with two variants:

3a. This village is made up almost entirely of people who identify themselves as Jews. Therefore this song is best understood in the context of Mazovian-Jewish musical traditions. It is Jewish-Mazovian music. [7]

3b. This village is made up almost entirely of people who identify themselves as “Ethnic Poles.” Therefore this music is best understood in the context of Polish-Mazovian musical traditions writ large. It is Polish-Mazovian, but most properly Mazovian.

Now I shall offer two different approaches to the consideration of our mythical song in the context of 19th century European nationalism:

4. We might argue that this song is replete with stylistic traits that are both Mazovian (of this place) and non-Mazovian (exotic, alien, of another place), both Polish and “not-Polish,” that everything is an admixture. Therefore, if we choose our song as an example of “true Polish music,” it is understood that what makes it “Polish” is its very combination of Polish and non-Polish elements, its mixture of unlike things. This is intellectually analogous to what Maja Trochimczyk has referred to as Górecki’s “border nationalism.”

5. More likely though, a nationalist would argue that our little song is symbolic of a much greater breadth, and in its specificity and purity is an example of (or “the source of”) “real” Polish music. Situating the song, would therefore be part of a circular attempt to define Polish-ness: Polishness is identical to the distilled essence of this song, but the tool used to distill the essence of the song is Polishness as well! Other dialects of Polish music, being perhaps more “corrupted” by outside influence are less “Polish.” (Because a particular song (our imaginary 3a) might be identified as “Jewish” it can never also be “Polish,” and should (and eventually will) be used at some point in the future, to construct a larger category called “Jewish music.”

This last approach to the relationship between song and nation is the least rational and the one which least yields itself to any “upper cortex” analysis. It is also the most common reading. As a matter of fact, almost anyone who has not devoted a good deal of thought to the subject tends to think such categories as “Polish folk music” or “Czech songs” are unproblematic. Part of the reason for this is the necessary economy which dictates the way the brain stores and retrieves information. In order to function in a complex world, we cannot be continually “unpacking” and challenging every stored concept. Yet there is another reason for a certain oversimplification, and I would suggest that it is the very intractability of the hard nationalist reading which is its main draw. More “primitive” states require the throwing of neural switches rather than any more complex procedure of decision making. As the novelist Dashiell Hammett had his detective say “for most people coming up with any opinion at all is such a struggle that they’d much rather have a wrong one than go through the process again.” Indeed, most of our present-tense opinions, those which guide our behaviors, are simply memories of former opinions, which seem to become more solidified each time we remember them (under the guise of rethinking them, which we seldom do).

Not being subject to reason, the nationalist reading offered above is much freer to evoke primitive brain responses involving such categories as “Us vs. Them” tribalism, and aggressive mid-brain disgust for the “impure” as opposed to the “pure,” the pure being “Us” the impure being “Them.” Thus in militantly nationalist circumstances, music is received as a kind of “food substance.” Ingesting pure musical “Polish” food produces a sense of deep satisfaction while anything else may be considered metaphorically “disgusting” and/or contaminated by its contact with the music of other nations or regions. Of course, when that disgust for foreign things becomes tamed and romanticized, as it did in certain places during the 19th century, we call it exotic.

Let us see what happens when even good writers allow themselves to be bitten by the nationalist bug. An example from the same part of the world, and also a different one, can be seen in Jewish Musical Traditions by Amnon Shiloah. Here is one of the main topic sentences of the book:

Although it is evident that the traditions heard today in Israel crystallized in many lands spread over the four corners of the earth, this does not necessarily rule out the possibility that far beneath the surface we may find an ancient, common core.[8]

What, a common core of purely Jewish music, untainted by the Babylonians, Assyrians, Romans and Greeks? Who would want such a thing or imagine it? As such this is related to what I call, in response to Bartok’s discussion of Hungarian peasant music, the HPP or the hypothetically pure peasant, a mythological inhabitant of the nationalist’s paradise, who, long ago and far away, was untainted by you and therefore is only us. It is my belief that only a philosophy which routinely invokes the primitive recesses of the brain could entertain such a patently irrational construct.

Yet this is a normal characteristic of Shiloah’s book, and almost every book on some kind of “national” music. Looking through his index we find “Gentiles, Germany, and Great Tradition” but no “Gypsies,” while under “R” we find “Romance, Romancero, Romanelli, and Romansa,” but no “Roma.” This, despite clear connections between “klezmorim” and many groups of Roma (Gypsies) and other musicians in Eastern Europe. The “Jewish” Eastern European sound is Jewish the way smoked salmon is Jewish. Jews ate it, but so did lots of others.

Even Shiloah’s definition of music is self-fulfilling, lending itself unabashedly to the kind of Jewish national approach he wants to construct: “Music is generally recognized as the language of those emotions that are buried deep in the subconscious of an individual steeped in any given cultural tradition . . . music is a latent catalyst that at all times and all places stimulates the memory and precipitates recollections of remote events, thereby reminding people of their original roots.”[9] So do I hear the studied semitisms in Bloch’s Schelemo and start thinking about the Second Temple and the Babylonian exile? I don’t think so. Or rather, I might only make such associations if I was under the spell of a certain kind of nationalist thinking.

When Shiloah applies this approach to the question of Spanish-Jewish romances, the conclusions are predictable: although he quotes Israel Katz to the effect that despite the fact that their texts date back to late medieval Spain “there is no guarantee that the melody does so as well.”[10] Shiloah nevertheless argues that “the contemporary musical repertoire of the ballads can be considered essentially a direct offspring of the romanceros created in Spain before the expulsion.” Throughout the book, there is a tendency to assume that things which seem to be “exclusively” or “purely” Jewish, or descend from such things have greater value than “tainted” things.

If writing about nation and music so often plunges into the battle between purity and primitive disgust, what of our experience of the music itself? To what extent do so-called “nationalist” compositions encourage us to partake of this primitive search for clan, purity, and aggressive centering? This is a difficult question, but at the outset I should say that the relationship between the music and its audience is not necessarily the same as that between composer and the music. The audience of Smetana’s Vysehrad, those who cared about it at any rate in 1875, could be divided into three groups: an “in-group” whose relationship to the music was deeply affected by the notion that it was about “them,” the Czechs, an “out-group” who may have been expected to treat the work as something charming, precisely because it was not about them, and a hypothetical third group who either as a result of ignorance, beatific avoidance of the issues, or just plain chance, managed to receive the work as “international music.” For many in the first category, the experience evoked that rush of tribal belonging at the core of nationalism. Of course, since I wasn’t there at the time, I have relied on contemporary reports, but certainly there was such an atmosphere in the hall more than a century later when the returning hero Rafael Kubelik played the piece at the opening of the Prague Spring just after the Velvet Revolution.

However, the potential cunning of the national composer should never be completely overlooked. The same nationalist cues which caused Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances to fly off the music store shelves in Prague, made the work attractive in Germany as the quaintly primitive efforts of “our little Czechs.” And these composers found ways with tunes, chord combinations, and programmes to instantly grasp and manipulate the imagination of the listener.

Our visceral responses to musical stimuli in the context of certain larger thought systems is illustrated perfectly as I am working on this article. My 5-year old daughter runs into my study, goes over to the electronic keyboard and presses a random button. Out comes a pre-programmed fragment of Mendelssohn’s wedding march on the pseudo-organ. Instantly her aspect changes, she smiles coyly, blushes, and assumes the caricatured stance of a bride: “that’s music for weddings Daddy, look I’m throwing flowers.”

But does Smetana’s immersion in the irrationality of nationalism color his approach, or heighten the intensity of his music? Was he mining a unique emotional vein? This question might not have seemed misplaced at the time the work was composed. After all it was customary to argue that national composers were purveyors of emotions. Witness this response to Dvorak’s arrival in America by the critic Henry Krehbiel in 1892:

The answer [to the cry for new directions in musical development] has come from the Slavonic school, which is youthful enough to have preserved the barbaric virtue of truthfulness and is fearless in the face of convention . . . Its characteristics are rhythmic energy and harmonic daring.

Despite Krehbiel’s divisions of the musical universe into national and international zones, there has been much attention, particularly in the past half-decade, paid to the fact that the original national music in Europe was not Russian or Norwegian, but most certainly German music. Indeed, German music was so powerful as a national force that it was able to take center stage with barely a dissenting voice, and proclaim itself as universal, the ideal of any aggressive group. Thus, all music in the 19th century may be construed as being national in some way, whether one invokes the traditional nation-laden images of Chopin, Grieg, Smetana and Glinka, or supposedly “neutral” figures like Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms and of course, Wagner.

How are we to resolve the issue or national music — whether in the countryside or the concert hall — and the powerful emotional world which surrounds it? Two years ago, a group of scholars at the American Musicological Society in Boston were arguing whether or not Shostakovich unequivocally opposed Communism. One group insisted that the power of his music depended on its categorical rejection of Communism. Ethnomusicologist Margarita Mazo, who had been in Russia during the last years of the composer’s life responded that Shostakovich was so powerful not because of his purity but because “his hands were dirty like all of ours.

“At the end, this may stand as a metaphor of the musical condition, for despite our primitive tendency to categorize by “us” and “them,” despite our disgust for things which challenge deeply held images of national purity, nothing in music is ever pure and authentic, all is tainted. Those who are either unaware of or in disagreement with this view pose no threat whatsoever to civil society; so long as they remain within the confines of a concert hall. It is when they leave such protected spaces and apply their notions of purity to a broader realm that the problems begin.



[1]. Professor Michael Beckerman is the author of Janacek as Theorist, Janacek and Czech Music, and Dvorak and His World. He has also written many articles on the subject of national music, is currently finishing New Worlds of Dvorak, to be published by Norton, and is translating Dusan Holy’s Song of Accusation — about the music of Czech Roma. Professor Beckerman has organized festivals and symposia throughout the United States (most recently at Lincoln Center in New York), and lectures around the world. This essay, written for the final panel discussion of the USC conference, was published in East European Meetings in Ethnomusicology 7 (2000): 91-100. Reprinted by permission. [Ed.] [Back]

[2]. See especially Jaak Panksepp’s Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Behavior (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). [Back]

[3]. Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York: Norton, 1997), p. 378. The section “Food for Thought” on pages 378-85 is particularly pertinent. [Back]

[4]. See Panksepp, pp. 42-43. [Back]

[5]. Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1999). See Chapter 7. [Back]

[6]. Panksepp, p.188. [Back]

[7]. This kind of thing does not easily lend itself to being disentangled. In a recent concert in Santa Barbara, Muszikas described Hungarian Jewish music as “100% Hungarian and 100% Jewish.” Even though this was told as a kind of truthful joke, it creates a climate where metaphysics departs from all rational and logical constructions. We might refer to such overstuffed baggage as “200% music.” [Back]

[8]. Amnon Shiloah, Jewish Musical Traditions (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992), p. 18. [Back]

[9]. Shiloah, p. 190. [Back]

[10]. Shiloah, p. 193. This is a fascinating issue, since it is clear that music takes on local characteristics fairly quickly. [Back]

Prof. Michael Beckerman is a specialist in Czech music, 19th-century music, and national music. The author of Dvorak and His World (Princeton University Press, 1993), Janacek as Theorist (Pendragon Press, 1994), and New Worlds of Dvorak (Norton, 1999). he received his Ph.D. in 1982 from Columbia University and is a member of the musicology faculty at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Professor Beckerman serves as the President of Czech and Slovak Music Society and is a recipient of the Janacek and Dvorak Medals from the Czech government. In 1989 he received the MLA Publication Award. He was the Chair of the Program Committee for IREX in 1993 and now serves as a Council member of the American Musicological Society. His articles appeared in The Musical Quarterly, 19th-Century Music, Notes, and The New York Times. Recent research subjects include a study of the Gypsy culture in Eastern Europe and transnational-ethnic issues. He has conducted interviews with NPR, BBC, and PBS television and continues to contribute to “public musicology” in newspapers and on television.