Tag Archive | Jayna Brown

One Nation Under a Groove?: Music, Sonic Borders, and the Politics of Vibration

SO IASPM7Welcome to week three of  our February Forum on “Sonic Borders,”  a collaboration with the IASPM-US blog in connection with this year’s IASPM-US conference on Liminality and Borderlands, held in Austin, Texas from February 28 to March 3, 2013.  The “Sonic Borders” forum is a Virtual Roundtable cross-blog entity that will feature six Sounding Out! writers posting on Mondays through February 25, and four writers from IASPM-US, posting on Wednesdays starting February 6th and ending February 27th.  For an encore of weeks one and two of the forum, click here. And now, get up and get ready for Marcus Boon, because there’s no parking on the dance floor at Sounding Out!–JSA

What borders remain when it comes to thinking about sound today? The field of sound studies has exploded in so many far-flung directions in the last few years.  However, I argue that what is still somewhat off limits in the field is a consideration of the ontological status of sound: in other words, what it means to understand our own being in the world as a sonic phenomenon. Out of attempts to approach this sonic ontology, comes the realization that there are prohibitions, perhaps universal ones, on thinking about sound in this way, and from that emerges what I call the politics of vibration.

For those, such as myself, who have grown up as a part of sonic subcultures, it is not difficult to ponder sonic ontologies, for the simple reason that many of the most intense and powerful experiences we have had have occurred on dance floors or at clubs, as DJs, musicians, clubbers and/or listeners.  I still remember the moment of first hearing Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove” blasting through the speakers at a Pop Group gig at the Electric Ballroom in London in the late 1970s: tumbling polyrhythms, polyphony, polysexuality, polyeverything.  The feeling was: “wow, the universe contains this!  And it contains other people who know what it is!”  And contrary to the warnings of Slavoj Zizek concerning the “autistic jouissance” to be found at the limits of language, here we all were: high; the histories of Afrodiasporic displacement and solidarity echoing off the walls; our own implication in those histories illuminated; flickering between utopia and shame.

To quote Eric Satie: “When I was young they told me: You’ll see when you’re fifty. I’m fifty. I’ve seen nothing.”  Me too.  But I’ve heard a lot and I still experience that same power of sound in more or less the same way.  If anything, sound’s power is more intense and surprising, each time it appears.  Partly because I have learned how to be a social being through sound—how to love and be loved—enabling me to be more open to its impact than I was as an awkward youth.  It makes me sad the way in Canada and elsewhere in el Norte people seem to lessen their involvement in the more intense aspects of sound cultures as they hit 30 or 40.  It makes me sad that my four-year-old son rarely gets to hear a real sound system.  I look for music at carnivals, weddings, community centers, on the beach. . .anywhere that those age barriers are ignored.  Even as a DJ, I increasingly look for new or different kinds of publicness than that of club or dancehall.

Marcus Boon DJ-ing image by JSA

Marcus Boon DJ-ing, image by JSA

Still, I do wonder.  Was the movement into sonic subcultures that my generation (and those that followed) made–especially in the UK where music (and intoxicants, and immigration) were one of the few escape routes from the brutalities of Thatcherism–a mistake, precisely because we accepted as ontological, a structure that in fact was smoothly integrated into the operations of late capitalism?  From the Factory and Paradise Garage to Berghain or Ministry of Sound. . . how will history look on the era of the mega-club?

Although one could argue that the Internet put an end to the idea of subculture, since it breaks down the locality and secrecy around which particular subcultural communities grow, in fact what seems to be happening is an acceleration in the generation and dissolution of subcultural formations.  Hip-hop has adapted very quickly to the internet.  The cassettes or CD-Rs sold out of DJ Screw’s record store in Houston, Texas, for example, morph into the world of online mixtapes, Youtube clips and Twitter battles; the gray market availability of samples sounds a lacuna of time, appearing for a day on a hosting site rather than flying below the radar in some particular geographical location.  At the same time, sonic subcultures are expanding around the world.  If Jacques Attali was right that sound is prophetic, then #idlenomore was announced by Ottawa Native dubstep crew A Tribe Called Red; Tahrir Square by Chaabi and North African hip-hop.

In his book 1989, Joshua Clover describes popular music in the period of neo-liberal globalization as the sound of ideological containment.  It’s true that popular music is full of ontological claims about sound, of music that celebrates setting us free. . .but which fails to actually do so. A quote from Ray Brassier just came up on my Twitter feed:

Screen shot 2013-02-03 at 11.05.15 AM

If true, this would suggest that the intensity of moments of sonic jouissance does not necessarily mean anything in terms of ontology or the truth about what’s Real.  It could be entirely delusional.

All of which might be true. We might come to realize that, to put it in Heideggerian terms, we’ve been thrown into this, and that maybe there’s not much difference between being thrown and being played.  But somehow I think people on dancefloors already know this.  The dramas of seduction, commitment and loss are at the core of disco, and many other kinds of popular music too.  To quote the disco classic “Lost in Music” by Sister Sledge (later covered by post-punks The Fall):

We’re lost in music; caught in a trap.
No turning back. We’re lost in music.
We’re lost in music. Feel so alive.
I quit my nine-to-five. We’re lost in music.

Other examples are not lacking.

Perhaps sound and music border on a vibrational ontology,  rather than being truly the core of one. This is why, as Michael Taussig, Jayna Brown, and others have suggested, they can be concerned with healing.  Perhaps any practice that is meaningful — and sonic subcultures are certainly a matter of practice, as Julian Henriques indicates in his book Sonic Bodies — must necessarily work at the boundary of a space that it can never entirely inhabit as a practice, but which it can push one towards, and also receive one from.  The anticipation, fear, desire before one goes out, for example, but also the blinding daylight, the sensation of cool air on exposed skin when one leaves a dancehall or a party.

Lasers in a dance club, image by flickr user gabriel.jorby

Lasers in a dance club, image by flickr user gabriel.jorby

Sound studies has not truly begin to explore these moments of exposure to and abjection from the vibrational core of sound.   No doubt, Steve Goodman performed heroic work in Sonic Warfare—which sets out a proposal for a vibrational ontology in the midst of the commodification and militarization of the sonic —as have various explorations of the phenomenology of sound, such as those in Salome Voegelin‘s Listening to Noise and Silence.  Yet in both cases, a full consideration of sonic ontology is in the end foreclosed.  In Goodman’s case by Sonic Warfare’s emphasis on the militaristic applications of sound and vibration that are appropriated by sonic art and subcultures, which gives the violence of sound and vibration something like ontological status, while the aesthetic and cultural “uses” of the same have only a secondary, somewhat parasitic status.  Conversely, in Voegelin’s work, an emphasis on the phenomenological rendering of the moment or event of sonic relationship forecloses a broader investigation of sonic ontology, because it “brackets” (to use Husserl‘s term) considerations beyond that of the subject-object relationship. In both cases, the sonic thing in itself, or indeed an ontology of vibration, risks being lost.

The recent turn to the speculative and to realism in philosophy has yet to make an impact in sound studies, despite the fact that the object of sound presents a provocative and very intimate entry point to that problematic.  One of the more intriguing and improbable hypotheses emerging from the speculative realist movement is that of Quentin Meillassoux, who, in After Finitude, makes an argument that speculative knowledge of the real, unmediated by correlation with the Kantian subject, is possible through mathematics.  It is roughly Alain Badiou‘s thesis in Being and Event too.  As much as music is clearly about the contingency of sonic experience, there are strong arguments, going back to Pythagoras and beyond, about the relation of music to mathematics.  Natural harmonics, rhythm: the elements of music express mathematical relationships.  I am not interested in reducing music to a kind of vulgar scientism.  But what if when we listen to music, we are exposed to a mathematical ontology and at the same time, the contingency of an unprecedented event?  What if music is speculatively real?  The word “speculative” here would refer not to philosophical propositions, but to the uncanny movement across subject/object individual/collective borders that the sonic matrix offers when “we” listen to “it.” Music not as the source of a  speculative discourse on the real, but a speculative practice in which order and contingency meet.

A cymatic image, made by sound vibrations on a visible medium by flickr user evan grant

A cymatic image, made by sound vibrations on a visible medium by flickr user evan grant

Genres, styles form around places of cohesion, of transport, of passage.  Not an instrumental mathematics (though it can be that too), but a speculative one that seeks out locations of collective affect, of resonance between micro and macro spheres.  It matters little whether a specific knowledge of mathematics is invoked here, since many traditional musics find their way to structures that, according to scholars such Alain Danielou, already express mathematical relationships.  And in this way, music and musicians can be said to participate in a sonic ontology.

Reluctantly perhaps. Ready or not. The question remains: how many institutional, historical, disciplinary, intellectual, social and political barriers remain in order that a cultural artifact like “One Nation Under a Groove” can be considered to have ontological significance?  That is what I mean by the politics of vibration, and in terms of borders, it’s an important set of borders for researchers in sound studies to consider.

Tyler, the Creator crowdsurfing, image by flicker user choe.brandon

Tyler, the Creator crowdsurfing, image by flicker user choe.brandon

Much of my current work focuses on tropes of abjection in recent hip-hop and RnB music, notably that of Odd Future members Tyler, the Creator and Frank Ocean, artists like Azealia Banks, and a new generation of queer rap MCs emerging out of New York City such as Zebra Katz, Le1f and Cakes Da Killa.  All of their work is bracingly obscene, funny, violent. . .a tumbling deck of cards of performances of gender, race, sexuality, class and more.  Of course, cursing to a beat is nothing particularly new, but the way in which these artists multiply and collapse identities to an ever more minimal, humming beat perhaps is.

Katz’s remarkable “Ima Read” and its equally remarkable video is a case in point.  Although Katz occasionally claims dryly that the song is “pro education,” the “reading” in question mostly refers to the drag queen balls of the Harlem ballroom/voguing scene of the late 1980s/early 1990s, where to read meant to verbally trash, i.e. abject, someone at a ball. The song is rapped by male and female voices, crisply denouncing a “bitch” who they are going to “take to college.”  The violence of the song is ironic, as much a marker of queer community and Eros as of sexual difference, of racial and trans-racial solidarity as much as racialized violence. It is performed over a minimal beat with a humming, in-your-face bass drum that is the only recognizable tonal element.

Why make the leap to talking about ontology in discussing this admittedly awesome Youtube clip?  Both Judith Butler’s famous elaboration of the performativity of gender, one of the bases of queer theory, and Katz and friends play with taboos concerning gender, sexuality and race in contemporary hip-hop emerge from that moment of the ballroom scene.

But what if Butler’s emphasis on performance actually covered up or abjected the ontological nature of experiments at the balls?  Perhaps we need to rethink why the ultimate ball anthem is Cheryl Lynn’s “Got To Be Real.”  What is sonic ‘realness’?   In restoring the sonic dimension to the ballroom scene, and learning, from Zebra Katz, to face that constitutive abjection that Kristeva amongst others has pointed us towards, we can begin to feel for ourselves what a vibrational ontology is.

My thanks to Catherine Christer Hennix, Steven Shaviro, Kevin Rogers and Ken McLeod for conversations that helped me in thinking this through, and to Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman for luminous remix skills.

Featured Image by Flickr User depinniped

Marcus Boon is associate professor of English at York University in Toronto, and was a Fellow at Cornell’s Society for the Humanities in 2011-12. He is the author of The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs (Harvard UP, 2002) and In Praise of Copying (Harvard UP, 2010). He writes about contemporary music for The Wire. He is currently co-editing a book on Buddhism and critical theory, and a new edition of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s The Third Mind. He is also working on a book entitled The Politics of Vibration.

Reading the Politics Of Recorded Sound


Just released this past month, Social Text 102: The Politics of Recorded Sound is the latest special issue to take the temperature of the field of sound studies. Answering the provocative question posed by Michelle Hilmes in a 2005 review essay for American Quarterly (which will soon have its own special issue on sound), “Is There a Field Called Sound Culture Studies? And Does It Matter?” with a resounding “yes! and yes!”, the issue elegantly captures both the rigorous possibilities and the vexing challenges of this now-emerged interdisciplinary field. ST 102 is edited by Gustavus Stadler, Associate Professor of English at Haverford College, and the issue curates interdisciplinary essays by David Suisman, Mara Mills, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman (yours truly), Stadler, Alexandra T. Vasquez, and Jayna Brown that challenge traditional technology-driven narratives of recording history by excavating the multiple, conflicted, and sometimes generative ways in which sound recording is tangled in networks of power like an old cassette tape gone wrong.

Given space limitations and my own vested excitement over the issue, my writing here will be more preview than review, slicing you off a tantalizing tidbit rather than chewing it all up for you. It really is something that critical sound studies heads will want to mull over on their own, and toward that end, I include links to each piece that take you to Social Text’s newly-revamped website where you can read the abstract, listen to hand-selected audio supplements, and download the article if you have an institutional subscription. My analog peeps can order hard copy of the issue here. Readers in the New York area can celebrate the issue’s release on Friday, April 30th @ NYU’s Tisch Center.

Gustavus Stadler’s “Introduction: Breaking Sound Barriers” takes the supposed transparency of recording technology to task and asks readers to consider not only what recording has enabled but what it has foreclosed. Eschewing technological determinism, Stadler writes, “what matters here is learning how to hear what power, history, culture, and difference sound like. Those categories are, ultimately, the ‘technology’ of sound recording” (10-11).

David Suisman’s “Sound, Knowledge, and the ‘Immanence of Human Failure’: Rethinking Musical Mechanization through the Phonograph, the Player-Piano and the Piano” recounts the forgotten history of the player piano, which once battled it out with the phonograph for the title of sound playback technology du jour. After reading Suisman, the ways in which scholars have tuned out the player piano will seem utterly surprising, given its importance as a forerunner of digital modes of reproduction.

Mara Mills’s “Deaf Jam: From Inscription to Reproduction to Information” tackles the complex history of the telephone, arguing for a more prominent place for telephony in media studies and exposing the submerged history of the use of disabilities within technoscience. Though deaf participants were invaluable in the quest to make speech more “streamlined,” scientists and marketers eventually redacted deaf populations themselves in the name of “efficiency.”

My “Splicing the Sonic Color-line: Tony Schwartz Remixes Postwar Nueva York” introduces readers to Tony Schwartz, sound artist and audio thinker, and reads his 1955 Folkways recording Nueva York as symptomatic of the ways in which listening experiences both reflect and generate ideas about racial difference and American citizenship. Using archival methods to reconstruct the soundscape of 1950s New York, I theorize the presence of what I call the “sonic color-line” in the U.S., linking sound and listening to bodily codes of race.

Gus Stadler’s “Never Heard Such a Thing: Lynching and Phonographic Modernity” explores the quiet-as-its-kept rumors of on-site lynching recordings made in the nineteenth century, using archival methods to expose their falsehood even as he notes how the presence and circulation of lynching (re)productions reveals another edge of the centuries-long white obsession with black voices and the marketability of black pain. Stadler very powerfully connects the “cheapness and tenuousness” of cylinder inscriptions with the “cheapness and tenuousness of black lives as shaped by the white supremacist turn-of-the-century United States” (103).

Alexandra T. Vasquez’s “Can You Feel the Beat”? Freestyle’s Systems of Living, Loving, and Recording” takes us into New York’s recording studios in the 1980s to amplify the suppressed experiences and unsung professionalism of Freestyle’s leading divas: Nayobe Gomez, Judy Torres, Cynthia. Vasquez’s critical labor enables us to hear these singers anew, exploring their work as theorists of the everyday, crafting pleasure, pain, and experience into a set of “bad ass armaments” for their listeners (122).

And finally, Jayna Brown’s “Buzz and Rumble: Global Pop Music and Utopian Impulse” reimagines both “world music” and “utopia” in her provocative essay on digital music’s newfound (and decentered) possibilities: to subvert national boundaries, evade corporate control, and heal bodies torn apart by capitalism and seemingly perpetual war. Tracing the complex links between Congotronics, Buraka Son Sistema, M.I.A. and kuduro music in Angola, Brown’s essay is not only a resonant reminder of the liberatory potential of music, but of scholarship as well.

JSA

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