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Dominant Positions: John Coltrane, Michel Foucault, and the Politics of Representation

Tracey Nicholls

Published: 2006-12-02

In a 1979 essay on the principles of a contemporary movement in literature, écriture, Michel Foucault quotes approvingly a rhetorical question posed by minimalist author Samuel Beckett: “what does it matter who is speaking?” (“What Is an Author?” 205). My purpose in this paper is to argue that endorsing such critical-theoretical inattention to speakers’ identities actually promotes some of the abuses of power that Foucault and the theorists he has inspired most object to. Notably, inattention to identity forecloses analysis of the speaker’s position within the discourse and, in so doing, permits both the continued dominance of socially-legitimated points of view and continued marginalization of social commentaries and critiques that oppose themselves to these dominant threads of discourse. My critique of this curious blind-spot in Foucault’s theorizing is worked out through an analysis of critical attention to John Coltrane’s ‘free jazz’ experimentations of the 1960s. One of the central points I am concerned to make in discussing Coltrane is that how artistic projects are represented depends at least in part upon the willingness of critics to take notice of issues of identity and social positioning (both their own, and that of the artists they evaluate). I choose to engage with evaluations of Coltrane, specifically, because there are certain features of his relation to his audience and his critics that demand of us an especially nuanced and complex analysis of the power jazz journalism can exert.

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