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Abstract

“Scenes of Feeling: Music and the Imagination of the Liberal Subject” traces the aesthetic and political implications of the idea, prevalent in Western liberal cultures since the Enlightenment, that self-definition and social transformation occur as felt and visceral experiences. Since operas such as The Marriage of Figaro (1786), but also as recently as films like The King’ s Speech (2010), the endpoint of a narrative is imagined to be the moment when individual redemption and social repair converge in a scene saturated with music and feeling. I argue that the scene is a crucial aesthetic form for the liberal imagination, since it allows abstract values like self-determination and empathy to be represented in a fantasized zone of contact whose scale is visceral, bodily and intimate. Within this form, the genres can vary: different chapters explore scenic thinking in relation to romantic love, political transformation, and the aspiration to the presence of “living in the moment.”,Chapter 1 considers how feeling and expression acquired the normative burden of representing the truth of the self; it does so by tracing developments in operatic form and culminates in a reading of The Marriage of Figaro’s closing scene. Then, each of the subsequent chapters extends the analysis toward the present while also revisiting different facets of the Figaro case: Chapter 2 considers the relation between political knowledge and epiphany in two operas by Richard Wagner; Chapter 3 explores the epistemology of the soundtrack in Hollywood romantic comedy; and Chapter 4 addresses, in three films in different genres that star Colin Firth, the generality of the liberal scene in which a lyrical voice establishes the sound of a repaired social collectivity.

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