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Look Away and Listen: The Audiovisual Litany in Philosophy

This is an excerpt from a paper I delivered at the 2017 meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy.

“Compressed and rarefied air particles of sound waves” from Popular Science Monthly, Volume 13. In the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

According to sound studies scholar Jonathan Sterne in The Audible Past, many philosophers practice an “audiovisual litany,” which is a conceptual gesture that favorably opposes sound and sonic phenomena to a supposedly occularcentric status quo. He states, “the audiovisual litany…idealizes hearing (and, by extension, speech) as manifesting a kind of pure interiority. It alternately denigrates and elevates vision: as a fallen sense, vision takes us out of the world. But it also bathes us in the clear light of reason” (15).  In other words, Western culture is occularcentric, but the gaze is bad, so luckily sound and listening fix all that’s bad about it. It can seem like the audiovisual litany is everywhere these days: from Adriana Cavarero’s politics of vocal resonance, to Karen Barad’s diffraction, to, well, a ton of Deleuze-inspired scholarship from thinkers as diverse as Elizabeth Grosz and Steve Goodman, philosophers use some variation on the idea of acoustic resonance (as in, oscillatory patterns of variable pressure that interact via phase relationships) to mark their departure from European philosophy’s traditional models of abstraction, which are visual and verbal, and to overcome the skeptical melancholy that results from them. The field of philosophy seems to argue that we need to replace traditional models of philosophical abstraction, which are usually based on words or images, with sound-based models, but this argument reproduces hegemonic ideas about sight and sound.

For Sterne, the audiovisual litany is traditionally part of the “metaphysics of presence” that we get from Plato and Christianity: sound and speech offer the fullness and immediacy that vision and words deny. However, contemporary versions of the litany appeal to a different metaphysics. For example, Cavarero in For More Than One Voice argues that the privileging of vision over sound is the foundation of the metaphysics of presence. “The visual metaphor,” she argues, “is not simply an illustration; rather, it constitutes the entire metaphysical system” (38). The problem with this videocentric metaphysics is that it “legitimates the reduction of whatever is seen to an object” (Cavarero 176) and it cannot “anticipate” or “confirm the uniqueness” of each individual (4). In other words, it objectifies and abstracts, and that’s bad. If vision is the foundation of the metaphysics of presence, one way to fix its problems is to replace the foundation with something else. Cavarero thinks vocal resonance avoids the objectifying and abstracting tendencies that images and text supposedly lend to philosophy.

Similarly, in the same way that the traditional audiovisual litany “assume[s] that sound draws us into the world while vision separates us from it” (Sterne 18), Barad’s argument for agential realism in Meeting the Universe Halfway assumes that diffraction draws theorists into actual contact with matter while “reflection still holds the world at a distance” (87). Agential realism looks is the view that even the most basic units of reality, like the basic particles of matter, exercise agency as they interact to form more complex units; diffraction is Barad’s theory about how these particles interact. This litany of distance-versus-relationality and external objectivity versus immersive materiality structures Barad’s counterpoint between reflection and diffraction. For example, she contrasts traditional investment in reflective surfaces—“the belief that words, concepts, ideas, and the like accurately reflect or mirror the things to which they refer-makes a finely polished surface of this whole affair” (86)–with diffractive interiorities, which get down to “the real consequences, interventions, creative possibilities, and responsibilities of intra-acting within and as part of the world” (37). But how do we know Barad is appealing to an audiovisual litany? We know because her fundamental concept–diffraction–describes the behavior of waveforms as they encounter other things, and 21st century Western scientists and music scholars think sound is a waveform. When two or more waves interact, they produce “alternating pattern[s] of wave intensity” or “increasing and decreasing intensities” (Barad 77), like ripples in water or alternating light frequencies.

“diffracted hydrogen” by Flickr user candace, CC BY 2.0

Barad appeals to notions of consonance and dissonance to explain how these patterns interact. For example, when diffracting light waves around a razor blade, “bright spots appear in places where the waves enhance one another-that is, where there is ‘constructive interfer­ence’-and dark spots appear where the waves cancel one another-that is, where there is ‘destructive interference’” (Barad 77). This “constructive” and “destructive” interference is like audio amplification and masking: when frequencies are perfectly in sync (peaks align with peaks, valleys with valleys), they amplify; when frequencies are perfectly out of sync (peaks align with valleys), they cancel each other out (this is how noise-cancelling headphones work). Constructive interference is consonance: the synced patterns amplify one another; destructive interference is dissonance: the out-of-sync patterns mask each other. Both types of interference are varieties of resonance, a rational or irrational phase relationship among frequencies. Rational phase relationships are ones where the shorter phases or periods of higher frequencies are evenly divisible into the longer phases/periods; irrational phase relationships happen when the shorter phases can’t be evenly divided into the longer wavelengths. Abstracting from waveforms to philosophical analysis, Barad often uses resonance as a metaphor to translate wave behavior into materialist philosophical methods. However, even though most of Barad’s examples throughout Meeting the Universe Halfway are visual, she’s describing what scientists call acoustic relationships.

For example, Barad argues that “diffractively read[ing]” philosophical texts means processing “insights through one another for the patterns of resonance and dissonance they coproduce” (195; emphasis mine). Similarly, she advises her readers to tune into the “dissonant and harmonic resonances” (43) that emerge when they try “diffract­ing these insights [from an early chapter in her book] through the grating of the entire set of book chapters” (30). As patterns of higher and lower intensity that interact via ir/rational phase relationships, diffraction patterns are a type of acoustic resonance. Appealing to acoustics against representationalism, Barad practices a version of the audiovisual litany. And she’s not the only new materialist to do so—Jane Bennett’s concept of vibration and Elizabeth Grosz’s notion of “music” also ontologize a similar idea of resonance and claim it overcomes the distancing and skeptical melancholy produced by traditional methods of philosophical abstraction.

“Painter” by Flickr user Flood G., CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There are also instances of the audiovisual litany in phenomenology. For example, Alia Al-Saji develops in the article A Phenomenology of Critical-Ethical Vision” a notion of “critical-ethical vision” against “objectifying vision,” and, via a reading of Merleau-Ponty, grounds the former, better notion of sight (and thought) in his analogy between painting and listening. According to Al-Saji, “objectifying vision” is the model of sight that has dominated much of European philosophy since the Enlightenment. “Objectifying vision” takes seeing as “merely a matter of re-cognition, the objectivation and categorization of the visible into clear-cut solids, into objects with definite contours and uses” (375). Because it operates in a two-dimensional metaphysical plane it can only see in binary terms (same/other): “Objectifying vision is thus reductive of lateral difference as relationality” (390). According to Al-Saji, Merleau-Ponty’s theory of painting develops an account of vision that is “non-objectifying” (388) and relational. We cannot see paintings as already-constituted objects, but as visualizations, the emergence of vision from a particular set of conditions. Such seeing allows us “to glimpse the intercorporeal, social and historical institution of my own vision, to remember my affective dependence on an alterity whose invisibility my [objectifying] vision takes for granted” (Al-Saji 391). Al-Saji turns to sonic language to describe such relational seeing: “more than mere looking, this is seeing that listens (391; emphasis mine).

This Merleau-Pontian vision not only departs from traditional European Enlightenment accounts of vision, it gestures toward traditional European accounts of hearing. Similarly, Fred Evans, in The Multivoiced Body uses voice as a metaphor for the Deleuzo-Guattarian metaphysics that he calls “chaosmos” or “composed chaos” (86); he then contrasts chaosmos to “homophonic” (67) Enlightenment metaphysics. According to Evans, if “‘voices,’ not individuals, the State, or social structures, are the primary participants in society” (256), then  “reciprocity” and “mutual intersection” (59) appear as fundamental social values (rather than, say, autonomy). This analysis exemplifies what is at the crux of the audiovisual litany: voices put us back in touch with what European modernity and postmodernity abstract away.

“Image from page 401 of “Surgical anatomy : a treatise on human anatomy in its application to the practice of medicine and surgery” (1901)” by Flickr user Internet Archive Book Images

The audiovisual litany is hot right now: as I’ve just shown, it’s commonly marshaled in the various attempts to move past or go beyond stale old Western modernist and postmodernist philosophy, with all their anthropocentrism and correlationism and classical liberalism. To play with Marie Thompson’s words a bit, just as there is an “ontological turn in sound studies,” there’s a “sound turn in ontological studies.” But why? What does sound DO for this specific philosophical project? And what kind of sound are we appealing to anyway?

The audiovisual litany naturalizes hegemonic concepts of sound and sight and uses these as metaphors for philosophical positions. This lets philosophical assumptions pass by unnoticed because they appear as “natural” features of various sensory modalities. Though he doesn’t use this term, Sterne’s analysis implies that the audiovisual litany is what Mary Beth Mader calls a sleight. “Sleights” are, according to Mader in Sleights of Reason,“conceptual collaborations that function as switches or ruses important to the continuing centrality and pertinence of the social category of a political system like “sex” (3). Sleights, in other words, are conceptual slippages that render underlying hegemonic structures like cisheteropatriarchy coherent. More specifically, sleights are “conceptual jacquemarts” (Mader 5). Jacquemarts are effectively the Milli Vanilli of clocks: sounds appear to come from one overtly visible, aesthetically appealing source action (figures ringing a bell) but they actually come from a hidden, less aesthetically appealing source action (hammers hitting gongs). The clock is constructed in a way to “misdirect or misindicate” (Mader 8) both who is making the sound and how they are making it. A sound exists, but its source is misattributed. This is exactly what happens in the uses of the audiovisual litany I discuss above: philosophers misdirect or misindicate the source of the distinction they use the audiovisual litany to mark. The litany doesn’t track the difference between sensory media or perceptual faculties, but between two different methods of abstraction.

Screenshot from Milli Vanilli’s video “Don’t Forget My Number”

This slippage between perceptual medium and philosophical method facilitates the continued centrality of Philosophy-capital-P: philosophy appears to reform its methods and fix its problems, while actually re-investing in its traditional boundaries, values, and commitments. For example, both new materialists and sound studies scholars have been widely critiqued for actively ignoring work on sound and resonance in black studies (e.g., by Zakiyyah Jackson, Diana Leong, Maire Thompson). As Zakiyyah Jackson argues in Outer Worlds: The Persistence of Race in Movement “Beyond the Human,” new materialism’s “gestures toward the ‘post’ or the ‘beyond’ effectively ignore praxes of humanity and critiques produced by black people” (215), and in so doing ironically reinstitute the very thing new materialism claims to supercede. Stratifying theory into “new” and not-new, new materialist “appeals to move ‘beyond’…may actually reintroduce the Eurocentric transcendentalism this movement purports to disrupt” (Jackson 215) by exclusively focusing on European philosophers’ accounts of sound and sight. Similarly, these uses of the litany often appeal only to other philosophers’ accounts of sound or music, not actual works or practices or performances. They don’t even attend to the sonic dimensions of literary texts, a method that scholars such as Jennifer Lynn Stoever and Alexander Weheliye develop in their work. Philosophers use the audiovisual litany to disguise philosophy’s ugly politics—white supremacy and Eurocentrism—behind an outwardly pleasing conceptual gesture: the turn from sight or text to sound. With this variation of the audiovisual litany, Philosophy appears to cross beyond its conventional boundaries while actually doubling-down on them.

Featured image: “soundwaves” from Flickr user istolethetv

Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She is author of two books: Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, and neoliberalism, published by Zer0 books last year, and The Conjectural Body: gender, race and the philosophy of music was published by Lexington Books in 2010. Her work on feminism, race, contemporary continental philosophy, pop music, and sound studies has appeared in The New Inquiry, Hypatia, differences, Contemporary Aesthetics, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. She is also a digital sound artist and musician. She blogs at and is a regular contributor to Cyborgology.

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Teach Me How To Dougie Like A Mediocre White Man

In the third episode of Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), we meet Dougie Jones, a new character who is, as an otherworldly being will tell him, “manufactured.” Dougie’s sonic presence on the show is primarily marked by repetition, as the majority of his dialogue involves him parroting those around him. Though Dougie has been received as a symbol of purity or a magical conduit for others’ best selves (14:53-19:00), a close listen to his repetitions suggests that he is instead what Sarah Hagi has dubbed the “mediocre white man.”

Hagi’s so-called prayer is a brilliantly concise instance of intersectional analysis that can also provide a framework for understanding Dougie Jones. In a few short words, she’s able to 1) demonstrate how white supremacist patriarchy makes her life more difficult, 2) call into question the achievements of those who hold so much power that it’s doled out to the most mediocre among them, and 3) situate the entire critique in a systemic framework. That is, though one possible reading of this tweet is that Hagi suffers from a shortcoming she is responsible to correct–a lack of confidence–the fact that she frames her critique as a prayer suggests that this confidence isn’t so much an inner belief in oneself as it is a privilege granted to some but not others. Twin Peaks: The Return offers, in the vocal interactions of Dougie, an extended meditation on the systemic mechanizations that produce the kind of mediocre white man Hagi laments.


“Twin Peaks Returns to Television in 2016” by Flickr user BagoGames, CC BY 2.0.

For readers who aren’t Twin Peaks viewers, hang on: explaining the origin of Dougie Jones requires a few sentences that may read as something bordering on nonsense outside the show’s bizarre universe. Dougie is played by Kyle MacLachlan, who also plays the show’s main character, Agent Dale Cooper, as well as The Return’s Mr C, Cooper’s evil doppelganger who overcame Cooper in an extradimensional realm in the Season 2 finale and who has been living in the “real world” ever since, while Cooper is stuck in another dimension. The show implies that Mr C has only 25 years–roughly the amount of time since the show’s first run in the early 90s–before Cooper switches places with him (extradimensional bureaucracies, amiright?). As a ploy to stay in the real world, Mr C “manufactures” Dougie Jones so that when Cooper is finally released from extradimensional detention, he replaces Dougie, not Mr C. For the bulk of The Return, Mr C continues wreaking havoc across the Midwest and Western US, while Cooper, adversely affected by his transit across dimensions, is trapped in Dougie’s life, barely able to function beyond the level of a small child. Technically, then, the character called Dougie Jones is really Dale Cooper, but Cooper’s episodes-long inability to regain control of himself leads to an extended case of mistaken identity, where everyone in Dougie’s life believes Cooper to be Dougie.

Significantly, Dougie’s family and co-workers are barely phased by his ineptitude. At worst, like when he doesn’t know how to use the bathroom, people are annoyed by Dougie. But, more often than not, Dougie’s moments of silence and often erratic behavior — including befuddlement over how to feed or dress himself — are interpreted as quirky, humble, and endearing. More than that, Dougie’s boss believes him to be a courageous and principled whistle-blower whose cryptic drawings on insurance forms outs one of his co-workers for defrauding the company’s clients.

dougie elevator awkward

Screenshot of Twin Peaks: The Return

Dougie is beyond mediocre, yet over the course of the season, he falls into hundreds of thousands of dollars, a luxury car, a family life that seems to be fulfilling for his wife and son, and the respect and gratitude of his boss. Confidence isn’t something this mediocre white man possesses; rather, it’s a trait projected onto him by everyone around him. In riffing on the way people exist in systems of inequity, Sylvia Wynter notes in On Being Human As Praxis (2015) that we end up keeping “the reality of our own agency opaque by attributing that agency to extrahumanly mandating entities” (45). Put another way, the god who would grant us the confidence of a mediocre white man isn’t a deity but a system of patriarchal white supremacy that makes itself opaque behind the  rationale that a person like, say, Dougie Jones couldn’t possibly be as successful in his life if he hadn’t earned it.

The primary marker of the mechanization of Dougie’s confidence is a sonic one: we can hear his ascendence in moments of repetition. Twin Peaks is a show comprised of overlapping aural and visual loops, recurring sounds, and doubled and tripled characters, so keying in on the sound of Dougie’s repetition fits into the series’ aesthetic. Early in Dougie’s presence in the series, when Cooper is fresh from the other dimension, his repetition is delayed, partial, and generally out of synch with regular patterns of conversation; people react to this repetition with concern. The following scene occurs in the moments just after Cooper has replaced Dougie Jones; his scene partner, Jade, was in the shower when the switch happened.

This clip is cut so that the phrase “Jade give two rides” happens back-to-back, but in the episode, there’s over a minute of a screen time between Jade saying (a grammatically correct version of) it and Dougie repeating it. Dougie’s imprecise and ill-timed repetition suggests to Jade that something may be wrong with him, and she rightly advises him to find some help. A similar interaction occurs in Episode 6, which opens with Dougie standing outside his work at night, unaware of what people do when work is over. When a police officer tries to shoo him away, Dougie is able to repeat back information he had heard several days earlier, and his delayed reaction again elicits concern from the person he’s with. A few scenes later, “Jade gives two rides” returns.

As the season progresses, however, Dougie begins to repeat back exact phrases or words that have just been spoken to him. The effect is one of understated agreement or even prescience, as if he’s repeating something he’s known for some time and has been waiting for others to realize, too. Note the way Dougie responds in the following two videos. In the first, he’s asked a question, which rises in pitch in the final syllables, and Dougie repeats the phrase with a falling pitch figure, which his conversants interpret to be confirmation. In the second, he’s given advice, and he responds by repeating the last word in uptalk, which his conversants interpret as a hilarious joke rather than the limitations of a person whose interdimensional travel has left his verbal skills lacking.

 As Dougie’s repetition locks into a quicker, more immediate responsorial pattern, the people around him no longer worry about his well-being and, in fact, begin to project onto him a confidence he’s incapable of possessing. This repetition, the kind that immediately plays with or confirms what his boss or potential murderers say, suggests a couple different theoretical constructions of repetition. Butler, in describing the performativity of gender, notes that gender norms are “the stylized acts of repetition through time,” the rehearsed and rehashed ideas that we ascribe, in this case, to white men: well-timed humor on the one hand, and wise confirmation on the other (520). Sara Ahmed underscores a similar idea, noting that “compulsory heterosexuality” is “the accumulative effect of the repetition of the narrative of heterosexuality as an ideal coupling” (145). Here, Dougie’s white masculinity isn’t all that makes him the target of others’ projections of confidence and competence; his nuclear family also marks him as a productively repetitive person, a person capable of reproduction. To modify Hagi’s tweet a bit, the world projects onto Dougie the confidence of a mediocre, white, reproductive man.

Both Butler and Ahmed also gesture toward distinctly sonic phenomena present in Dougie’s repetitions. Repetition accumulating over time becomes not just distinct events happening in succession but a discrete, singular thing unto itself. When thinking in terms of systemic oppression like white supremacy or cisheteropatriarchy, the repetitive privileging of white masculinity congeals into a continuous power flow. In musical terms, we hear the accumulative, rapid retriggering of a sound as pitch rather than many distinct events. Timing matters here: if the repetition is delayed or metered just so, we can perceive instances of the same events as moving in concert either melodically or harmonically. The shift in Dougie’s repetitions over the course of The Return is the sound of institutional privilege tuning white masculinity, retriggering moments of repetition–which sounds like a rise in pitch as the repetitions move closer together, a literal ascent–until those around Dougie stop worrying about him and start believing that this mediocre white straight man must have earned the success he seemingly enjoys.

Though a perusal of Twin Peaks: The Return analyses and recaps demonstrates that viewers and critics have been far more interested in the archetypal Jekyll/Hyde duality of Dale Cooper and Mr C than they have been in the nature of Dougie Jones, Dougie’s relative lack of drive or desire offers the opportunity to hear how white male mediocrity is made. The Return checks in on Dougie regularly from his introduction in the third episode until he transforms back into Cooper, then is remanufactured and sent home to his family in the sixteenth and eighteenth episodes. What we’re privy to in that time is a different kind of manufacturing, where Dougie is constructed by his surroundings to be wise, caring, attentive, upright, and brave, though we know he’s none of those things. The slow burn of Twin Peaks: The Return means that we’re stripped of any easy excuses for Dougie’s upward momentum in the season beyond the obvious explanation that the gods of mediocre white men have gifted him with treasures out of reach for others. Dougie repeats what he hears, and what he hears is that his mediocrity is good enough.

Featured image: Screenshot from “‘Dougie’ Cooper – All Phrases (Twin Peaks Compilation)” by Youtube user AKA.

Justin Adams Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his book, Posthuman Rap, is available now. He is also co-editing the forthcoming (2018) Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies. You can catch him at and on Twitter @j_adams_burton. His favorite rapper is one or two of the Fat Boys.

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In Search of Politics Itself, or What We Mean When We Say Music (and Music Writing) is “Too Political”

Music has become too political—this is what some observers said about the recent Grammy Awards. Following the broadcast last week, some argued that musicians and celebrities used the event as a platform for their own purposes, detracting from the occasion: celebration of music itself.  Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted:

I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that the daily grind of a U.N. ambassador is filled with routine realities we refer to as “politics”: bureaucracy, budget planning, hectic meetings, and all kinds of disagreements. It makes some sense to me, then, that Haley would demand a realm of life that is untouched by politics—but why music in particular?

The fantasy of a space free from politics resembles other patterns of utopian thought, which often take the form of nostalgia. “There was a time when only a handful of people seemed to write politically about music,” said Chuck Klosterman, a novelist and critic of pop culture, in an interview in June 2017. He continued:

Now everybody does, so it’s never interesting. Now, to see someone only write about the music itself is refreshing. It’s not that I don’t think music writing should have a political aspect to it, but when it just becomes a way that everyone does  something, you see a lot of people forcing ideas upon art that actually detracts [sic] from the appreciation of that art. It’s never been worse than it is now.

He closed his interview by saying: “I do wonder if in 15 years people are going to look back at the art from this specific period and almost discover it in a completely new way because they’ll actually be consuming the content as opposed to figuring out how it could be made into a political idea.” Klosterman almost said it: make criticism great again.

Reminiscing about a time when music writing was free from politics, Klosterman suggests that critics can distinguish between pure content and mere politics—which is to say, whatever is incidental to the music, rather than central to it.  He offers an example, saying, “My appreciation of [Merle Haggard’s] ‘Workin’ Man Blues’ is not really any kind of extension of my life, or my experience, or even my values. […] I can’t describe why I like this song, I just like it.” If Klosterman, an accomplished critic, tried to describe the experiences that lead him to like this particular song, he probably could—but the point is that he doesn’t make explicit the relationship between personal identity and musical taste.

Screen Capture of Merle Haggard singing “Workin’ Man Blues,” Live from Austin, Texas, 1978

The heart of Klosterman’s concern is that critics project too many of their own problems and interests onto musicians. Musician and music writer Greg Tate recently made a similar suggestion: when reviewing Jay-Z’s album 4:44, Tate focuses on how celebrities become attached to public affects. In his July 2017 review, “The Politicization of Jay-Z,” he writes:

In the rudderless free fall of this post-Obama void […] all eyes being on Bey-Z, Kendrick, and Solange makes perfect agitpop sense. All four have become our default stand-ins until the next grassroots groundswell […] Bey-Z in particular have become the ready-made meme targets of everything our online punditry considers positive or abhorrent about Blackfolk in the 21st century.

Jay and Bey perform live in 2013, by Flickr user sashimomura,(CC BY 2.0)

He suggests that critics politicize musicians, turning them into repositories of various projections about the culture-at-large. Although writing from a very different place than Klosterman, Tate shares the sense that most music criticism is not really about music at all. But whereas Klosterman implies that criticism resembles ideological propaganda too much, Tate implies that criticism is a mere “stand-in” for actual politics, written at the expense of actual political organizing. In other words, music criticism is not political enough.

In 1926, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about this problem, the status of art as politics. In his essay “Criteria of Negro Art,” he dissects what he perceives to be the hypocrisy of any demand for pure art, abstracted from politics; he defends art that many others would dismiss as propagandistic—a dismissal revealed to be highly racialized. He writes:

Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for  any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.

Du Bois’s ideas would be engaged extensively by later authors, including Amiri Baraka. In his 1963 essay “Jazz and the White Critic,” he addresses politics in terms of “attitude.” Then-contemporary white critics misunderstood black styles, he argued, because they failed to fully apprehend the attitudes that produced them. They were busy trying, and failing, to appreciate the sound of bebop “itself,” but without considering why bebop was made in the first place.

Dizzy Gillespie, one of BeBop’s key players, in Paris, 1952, Image courtesy of Flickr User Kristen, (CC BY 2.0)

As Baraka presents it, white critics were only able to ignore black musicians’ politics and focus on the music because the white critics’ own attitudes had already been assumed to be superior, and therefore rendered irrelevant. Only because their middle-brow identities had been so thoroughly elevated in history could these middle-brow critics get away with defining the object of their appreciation as “pure” music. Interestingly, as Baraka concludes, it was their ignorance of context that ultimately served to “obfuscate what has been happening with the music itself.” It’s not that the music itself doesn’t matter; it’s that music’s context makes it matter.

In response to morerecent concerns about the politicization of popular music, Robin James has analyzed the case of Beyoncé’s Lemonade. She performs a close reading of two reviews, by Carl Wilson and by Kevin Fallon, both of whom expressly seek the album’s “music itself,” writing against the many critical approaches that politicize it. James suggests that these critics can appeal to “music itself” only because their own identities have been falsely universalized and made invisible. They try to divorce music from politics precisely because this approach, in her words, “lets white men pop critics have authority over black feminist music,” a quest for authority that James considers a form of epistemic violence.

That said, James goes on to conclude that the question these critics ask—“what about the music?”—can also be a helpful starting point, from which we can start to make explicit some types of knowledge that have previously remained latent. The mere presence of the desire for a space free from politics and identity, however problematic, tells us something important.

Our contemporary curiosity about identity—identity being our metonym for “politics” more broadly—extends back at least to the 1990s, when music’s political status was widely debated in terms of it. For example, in a 1991 issue of the queercore zine Outpunk, editor Matt Wobensmith describes what he perceived to be limitations of thinking about music within his scene. He laments what he calls “musical purism,” a simplistic mindset by which “you are what you listen to.” Here, he capitalizes his points of tension:

Suddenly, your taste in music equates you with working class politics and a movement of the disenfranchised. Your IDENTITY is based on how music SOUNDS. How odd that people equate musical chops with how tough or revolutionary you may be! Music is a powerful language of its own. But the music-as-identity idea is a complete fiction. It makes no sense and it defies logic. Will someone please debunk this myth?

Wobensmith suggests that a person’s “musical chops,” their technical skills, have little to do with their personal identity. Working from the intersection of Klosterman and Tate, Wobensmith imagines a scenario in which the abstract language of music transcends the identities of the people who make it. Like them, Wobensmith seems worried that musical judgments too often unfold as critiques of a musician’s personality or character, rather than their work. Critics project themselves onto music, and listeners also get defined by the music they like, which he finds unsettling.

That same year, in an interview published in the 1991 issue of the zine Bikini Kill, musicians Kathleen Hanna and Jean Smith addressed a similar binary as Wobensmith, that of content and technique. But they take a different view: in fact, they emphasize the fallacy of this dualism in the first place. “You just can’t separate it out,” said Hanna, questioning the possibility of distinguishing between content—the “music itself”—and technique on audio recordings.

Female-fronted bands of this era were sometimes criticized for their lack of technique, even as terrible male punk bands were widely admired for their cavalier disregard of musical rules. Further still, disparagement of women’s poor technique often overlooked the reasons why it suffered: many women had been systematically discouraged from musical participation in these scenes. Either way, as Tamra Lucid has argued, it is the enforcement of “specific canons of theory and technique,” inevitably along the lines of identity, that cause harm if left unexamined.

All of these thinkers show that various binaries in circulation—sound and identity, personality and technique, music and politics—are gendered in insidious ways, an observation arrived at by the same logic that led Du Bois to reveal the moniker of “propaganda” to be racialized. As Hanna puts it, too many people assumed that “male artists are gonna place more importance on technique and female artists’ll place more on content.” She insists that these two concepts can’t be separated in order to elevate aspects of experience that had been implicitly degraded as feminine: the expression of righteous anger, or recollection of awkward intimacy.

Bikini Kill at Gilman Street, Berkeley, CA, 1990s, Image by Flickr User John Eikleberry, CC BY-NC 2.0

Punk had never pretended not to be political, making it a powerful site for internal critique. Since the 1970s, punk had been a form in which grievances about systemic problems and social inequality could be openly, overtly aired. The riot grrrls, by politicizing confessional, femme, and deeply private forms of expression within punk, demonstrated that even the purest musical politics resemble art more than is sometimes thought: “politics itself” is necessarily performative, personal, and highly expressive, involving artifice.

Even the act of playing music can be considered a form of political action, regardless of how critics interpret it. In another punk zine from c. 1990, for example, an anonymous author asks:

What impact can music have? You could say that it’s always political, because a really good pop song, even when it hasn’t got political words, is always about how much human beings can do with the little bag of resources, the limited set of playing pieces and moves and words, available […] Greil Marcus calls it ‘the vanity of believing that cheap music is potent enough to take on nothingness,’ and it may be cool in some places to mock him but here he’s dead-on right.

But music is never only political—that is, not in the elections-and-petitions sense of the word. And music is always an action, always something done to listeners, by musicians (singers, songwriters, producers, hissy stereo systems)—but it’s never only that, when it’s any good: no more than you, reader, are the social roles you play.

The author persuades us that music is political, even as they insist that it’s something more. Music as “pure sound,” as a “universal language” seems to have the most potential to be political, but also to transcend politics’ limitations—the trash, the propaganda. Given this potential, some listeners find themselves frustrated with music’s consistent failure to rise to their occasion, to give them what they desire: to be apolitical.

Kelly Clarkson performed at The Chelsea on July 27, 2012, image by Flickr User The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, CC BY-NC 2.0

In an interview during the recent Grammys broadcast, pop singer Kelly Clarkson said, “I’m political when I feel like I need to be.” It’s refreshing to imagine politics this way, like a light we turn on and off–and it’s a sign of political privilege to be able to do so. But politics are, unfortunately, inextricable from our lives and therefore inescapable: the places we go, the exchanges we pursue, the relationships we develop, the ways we can be in the world. Thinking with Robin James, it seems that our collective desire for a world free from all this reveals a deeper knowledge, which music helps make explicit: we wish things were different.

I wonder if those who lament the “contamination” of the Grammys with politics might be concerned that their own politics are unfounded or irrelevant, requiring revision, just as many white people who are allergic to identity politics are, in fact, aware that our own identity has been, and continues to be, unduly elevated. When Chuck Klosterman refuses to describe the reason why he likes “Workin’ Man Blues,” claiming that he “just does,” does he fear, as I sometimes do, not that there is no reason, but that this reason isn’t good enough?

Fortunately, there are many critics today who do the difficult work of examining music’s politics. Take Liz Pelly, for example, whose research about the backend of streaming playlists reminds us of music’s material basis. Or what about the astute criticism of Tim Barker, Judy Berman, Shuja Haider, Max Nelson, and others for whom musical thought and action are so thoroughly intertwined? Finally, I think of many music writers at Tiny Mix Tapes, such as Frank Falisi, Hydroyoga, C Monster, or Cookcook, for whom creation is a way of life—and whose creative practices themselves are potent enough to “take on nothingness.”

“Music is never only political,” as the anonymous ‘zine article author argues above, but it is always political, at least a little bit. As musicians and critics, our endeavor should not be to transcend this fact, but to affirm it with increasing nuance and care. During a recent lecture, Alexander Weheliye challenged us in a lecture given in January 2018 at New York University, when listening, “To really think: what does this art reflect?” Call it music or call it politics: the best of both will change somebody’s mind for real, and for the better.

Featured Image: Screen Capture from Kendrick Lamar’s video for “HUMBLE,” winner of the 2018 Grammy for “Best Music Video.”

Elizabeth Newton is a doctoral candidate in musicology. She has written for The New Inquiry, Tiny Mix Tapes, Real Life Magazine, the Quietus, and Leonardo Music Journal. Her research interests include musico-poetics, fidelity and reproduction, and affective histories of musical media. Her dissertation, in progress, is about “affective fidelity” in audio and print culture of the 1990s.

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Re: Chuck Klosterman – “Tomorrow Rarely Knows”–Aaron Trammell

This is What It Sounds Like . . . . . . . . On Prince (1958-2016) and Interpretive Freedom–Ben Tausig

becoming a sound artist: analytic and creative perspectives

Recently, in a Harvard graduate seminar with visiting composer-scholar George Lewis, the eminent professor asked me pointedly if I considered myself a “sound artist.” Finding myself put on the spot in a room mostly populated with white male colleagues who were New Music composers, I paused and wondered whether I had the right to identify that way. Despite having exploded many conventions through my precarious membership in New York’s improvised/creative music scene, and through my shift from identifying as a “mrudangam artist” to calling myself an “improviser,” and even, begrudgingly, a “composer” — somehow “sound artist” seemed a bit far-fetched. As I sat in the seminar, buckling under the pressure of how my colleagues probably defined sound art, Prof. Lewis gently urged me to ask: How would it change things if I did call myself a sound artist? Rather than imposing the limitations of sound art as a genre, he was inviting me to reframe my existing aesthetic intentions, assumptions, and practices by focusing on sound.

Sound art and its offshoots have their own unspoken codes and politics of membership, which is partly what Prof. Lewis was trying to expose in that teaching moment. However, for now I’ll leave aside these pragmatic obstacles — while remaining keenly aware that the question of who gets to be a sound artist is not too distant from the question of who gets to be an artist, and what counts as art. For my own analytic and creative curiosity, I would like to strip sound art down to its fundamentals: an offering of resonance or vibration, in the context of a community that might find something familiar, of aesthetic value, or socially cohesive, in the gestures and sonorities presented.

Rehearsing for “Meena’s Dream” (2013) by playwright Anu Yadav – original score by Rajna and Anjna Swaminathan and Sam McCormally.

I have spent most of my musical life wondering how the sounds I produce intersect with specific vectors of social belonging. The sounds emanating from my primary instrument — the mrudangam, a South Indian drum — are situated within a complex lattice of social difference, resonating within and across communities as disparate as the predominantly privileged-caste audiences of Chennai’s elite Karnatik sabha-s and the cosmopolitan connoisseurs who show up to find a home in New York City’s myriad intercultural and experimental music spaces. The sounds I produce are also inflected by the multivalent referentiality of my own socially situated body — as a queer, privileged-caste, Indian-American woman — simultaneously slicing through and answering to sonic environments organized around particular notions of rigor, virtuosity, and beauty.

For me, what began as a creative path rooted in the mimesis of an artistic lineage eventually settled in a versatile expressive voice, shaped by a decade of aesthetic (and ethical) nomadism. From my vantage point as a female percussionist in the South Asian diaspora, I have always been aware of the cracks in the veneer of tradition and other normative structures, and perhaps this fueled my musical vagrancy. Over time, my sound has accumulated the resonances of Karnatik music, ‘jazz’ drumming, bharatanatyam footwork, and Afro-Cuban rhythms, among others.

The author performing with Vijay Iyer, Graham Haynes, and Marcus Gilmore. The Stone, NYC. July 2013.

Certainly, this convergence of sonic layers is mediated by the rich specificity of interpersonal relationships and positionalities within larger networks. Power and positionality mediate the shape, audibility, and versatility of sounds as they become coupled with the implied (or actual) encounter of socially situated bodies. Yet, sounds somehow continue to exist in excess of the mechanisms and bodies that attempt to explain, produce, and contain them: idiom, tradition, space, culture, nation, race, gender, and sexuality. Therein lies their potency and mystery, and I intend to briefly explore the sensation of sonic excess in the hopes of honing a more sensitive analytic and creative perspective.

I am yet to become comfortable thinking in terms of sound, due to the longtime privileging of structure and technique in my musical upbringing. However, this is beginning to unravel as I am forced to deal with sound, particularly the sound of what Patrice Pavis and Jason Stanyek have called the “intercorporeal” aspect of intercultural performance. The predominantly improvised sounds that resonate through my mrudangam often emerge on the edge of my dynamic embodied consciousness, arranging themselves chaotically in real-time, interacting with others’ emergent soundings and sensory yearnings. Some of it may be mediated by parallel perceptual and idiomatic forms, but achieving a core interactive flow involves a fundamental immersion in sound.

Mat Maneri, feat. Rajna and Anjna Swaminathan

Tongues Series, curated by Amirtha Kidambi

ISSUE Project Room — June 18, 2016

For instance, take this impromptu piece presented by violist Mat Maneri, violinist Anjna Swaminathan (my sister), and me in 2016. It took place in the wonderfully resonant vaulted space of ISSUE Project Room, in front of an unsuspecting audience that had convened to hear the back-to-back juxtaposition of two improvisational “tongues” — a set of Maneri’s rich microtonal experiments, followed by a Karnatik concert of voice, violin, and mrudangam. However, this impromptu ludic exchange of sonic offerings — particularly Maneri’s incredible, chameleon-like ability to confound the sounds of Karnatik ornamentations with his own microtonal reflections — guided attention away from comparison and toward the sounds as they bounced eerily around the resonant architecture. Faced with the technically daunting Karnatik repertoire that Anjna and I were to play subsequently with vocalist Ashvin Bhogendra, the echoes of our interstitial collaboration allowed us to reorient ourselves and breathe a little easier.

From an analytic perspective, it is irresponsible to distill these sounds, to capture and conceptualize them as distinct from the bodies, histories, and discourses that participate in their co-creation and interpretation. Yet, riddled as they are with generations of power asymmetries and complex emotions, it is clear that these resonances have a secret life of their own. As musicians, we are not often given the opportunity to explore these clandestine, almost Baudelairean, correspondences, except perhaps when we discover them by accident. For instance, sonic ambiguities like those spun during the trio encounter play on sonic excess to spur new ways of listening and relating, with a direct ethical impact on the ensuing music.

Performing in Vijay Iyer’s large ensemble project, “Open City,” named after Teju Cole’s award-winning novel. October 2013.

John Blacking’s definition of all music as “humanly organized sound” is perhaps an early articulation of this idea, although the word ‘organized’ contains a bias toward formal structure and stability. To be sure, organizing principles always exist at the local level of socially situated perception and expression, which Nina Sun Eidsheim calls the ‘figure of sound.’ However, the kind of sound art I’m proposing revels in excess, or as Eidsheim puts it — “not only aurality, but also tactile, spatial, physical, material, and vibrational sensations [that] are at the core of all music” (5). We can even turn to how Jacques Attali poetically describes composition — as “a labor on sounds, without a grammar, without a directing thought, a pretext for festival, in search of thoughts,” a practice wherein “rhythms and sounds are the supreme mode of relation between bodies once the screens of the symbolic, usage and exchange are shattered,” one that neither marks nor produces the body, but allows for “taking pleasure in it” (143). By focusing on the multi-sensory, pleasurable valences of sound, and on the ways in which sonic excess allows for new patterns of coexistence, we can outline a ‘sound art’ practice and analytic that aren’t circumscribed by Western institutional definitions and technological/perceptual biases.

Thinking in this way about sound and vibration helps to eradicate the mind-body problem that continues to plague certain areas of music studies and music making. Sound forms an elusive common denominator that doesn’t rely heavily on colonial taxonomies of form or hierarchical theories of art. It even accounts for the subversive or incommensurable resonances that tend to emerge at the unstable threshold between so-called ‘producers’ and ‘receivers’ of music. After all, sound is in the ear of the beholder, and social asymmetries are embedded in the way we hear and listen. Through the notion of vibration, we are further attuned to the visceral space in which it reverberates, and the ways in which its echoes live on in the bodies of those who experience it.

performing at the Banff International Workshop for Jazz and Creative Music. June 2013. Photo credit: Don Lee, Image courtesy of author

Finally, there is the other definition of sound in English, which indicates a level of trust and holism. Taking this path to becoming ‘sound artist’ focuses attention on the artist. I don’t intend to focus on the ‘chops’ conventional to a field of aesthetic practice. Rather, I am interested in the more obscure meaning: a ‘sound artist’ as one that ethically occupies space as an artist.

How might this emerging sound art, as analytic and creative practice, work to interrogate the very ethics and politics of art, while succumbing to the contingency and volatile excess of sound? I don’t claim to hold the answers, but if we are in any way sounding out against the grain of dominant modalities, then at some level we must attend seriously to sound: in its excess, as it overwhelms bodies and spaces, and as it stretches the realm of the known.

Featured Image: “The great Rajna Swaminathan,” from Teju Cole tweet, 5 October 2013.

Rajna Swaminathan is an accomplished mrudangam (South Indian percussion) artist, a protégé of mrudangam legend Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman. She has performed with several renowned Indian classical musicians, most notably mentor and vocalist T.M. Krishna. Since 2011, she has been studying and collaborating with eminent musicians in New York’s jazz and creative music scene, including Vijay Iyer, Steve Coleman, Miles Okazaki, and Amir ElSaffar. Since 2013, Swaminathan has led the ensemble RAJAS, which explores new textural and improvisational horizons at the nexus of multiple musical perspectives. Swaminathan is active as a composer-performer for dance and theatre works, most notably touring with the acclaimed company Ragamala Dance and collaborating with playwright/actress Anu Yadav. Swaminathan holds degrees in anthropology and French from the University of Maryland, College Park, and is currently pursuing a PhD in cross-disciplinary music studies at Harvard University.

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Gendered Soundscapes of India, an Introduction –Praseeda Gopinath and Monika Mehta

Tape Hiss, Compression, and the Stubborn Materiality of Sonic Diaspora–Chris Chien

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