Welcome 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Today, Society for the Humanities Director Timothy Murray sings us back home with a meditation on the soundscapes of study at the A.D. White House this year, closing out our spring “Live from the SHC” series covering new research on “Sound: Culture, Theory, Practice, Politics.” The 2011-2012 Fellows have got to say goodbye for the summer–and sadly beyond–but we all hope that next years’ Fellows (2012-2013 Theme: Risk @ Humanities) enjoy all the good vibrations we will leave behind, and that you, Dear SO! readers, have enjoyed our broadcast! Our summer series, “Tuning In the Past,” on radio and legacy of broadcaster Norman Corwin, featuring Neil Verma, Shawn VanCour, and Alex Russo begins at the end of June. And, of course, every Monday in between and beyond, we’ll keep giving you something you can feel. –JSA, Editor in Chief (and 2011-2012 SHC Fellow)
Many thanks to Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman for hosting “Live from the SHC” on Sounding Out! What a fantastic experience it’s been to have Jennifer screening and tweaking Sounding Out! from her garret office overlooking the gardens behind the A.D. White House, the Cornell home of the Cornell’s Society for the Humanities. Readers of “Live from the SHC” have read various strains of this year’s focal theme, “Sound: Culture, Theory, Practice, Politics.” The aim of this year’s residential research project was to contemplate and analyze the resonance of historical and contemporary representations, movements, ideas, and negations of sound.
Open to study of the broadest cross-cultural range of contexts and media that cross the boundaries of time and space–from East and West/South and North–the Fellows’ research delved into the complex ways that sound abounds in visual, textual, and aural realms. From “voicing” to “listening,” sound shaped the framework of our critical and philosophical analyses of the body, affect, and social publics. Sound came to be appreciated for its shaping of the parameters of psycho-cultural imaginaries, social practice, religious ritual, and political regulation throughout history and across the globe. Just as sound differs in the global context of capitalism and cosmopolitanism, not to mention the specificities of ethnic difference and cultural diversity, “voice,” “hearing,” and “listening” frame the humanities disciplines in relation to their aesthetic properties and political ramifications.
The Fellows found themselves reflecting on several key issues. Which criteria differentiates natural from artificial sounds? Does sound challenge disciplinary distinctions between the visual and the oral/aural/tactile? Can the loud noises of industrial culture be distinguished from the synthetic sounds of electronic music, the stammerings of performance and the vibrations of philosophical manifestos? It should come as no surprise to followers of Sounding Out! that sound marks the passage of time, the correlation of the aural to the movement of the body in dance and performance, the sonic promise of cartographic projects of social movements and migrations, and the cultural and ethnic specificities of acoustic fields and rhythms in the age of sampling and mixing, not to mention the gender, racial, and ethnic import of voice and spoken narrative.
Adding vibrant texture to our year-long discussions were the three weeks spent in extended dialogue with the Society’s Senior Invited Fellows. Emily Thompson (The Soundscape of Modernity) charted the histories of the architectonic sounds of cinema houses as well as the untraceable wealth of the historical sounds of New York City as its peripheries morphed from country estate to urban zone. Brandon LaBelle came from Norway to take us on a journey of artistic imagination and phenomenological hopefulness as he cruised his writings on Acoustic Territories and Site Specific Sound while sampling the background noises of his multimedia installations. Then Norie Neumark, fresh off the release of VOICE: Vocal Aesthetics in Digital Arts and Media (co-edited with Ross Gibson and Theo Van Leewen), arrived from Australia to follow up on our 2003 online seminar on Sound Cultures. She reminded us of the deep history of sound studies down under, while focusing our attention on voicings and her own multimedia art practice that blends spoken narrative, synthetic noise, mouthed breath, and shocks in the ear. [The “Live From the SHC” logo is a piece from Neumark and Maria Miranda’s “Shock in the Ear”–ED].
Various other visitors throughout the year included multimedia artists Mendi and Keith Obadike whose “not” Afrofuturism walked us through their exciting series of performance works,“Four Electric Ghosts,” Caitlin Marshall from Berkeley who brought cyborg speech to life with her prosthetic soundings, and renowned choreographer William Forsythe, whose four-hour choreography piece “Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time“–performed amidst amidst over 150 hanging pendulums–combined dance and environment as a means of physically manifesting the process of thought. Marjorie Garber from Harvard rode our acoustic wave to reflect on the future of the humanities while Norma Coates came down from Western Ontario to sensitize us to the mixes of pop sound and culture.
In listening back to the echoes of the year past, rather than here retracing the specific projects of our Fellows (you can consult the critical tales already Sound[ed] Out! by Damien Keane, Tom McEnaney, Nina Sun Eidsheim, Jonathan Skinner, Eric Lott, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, and Jeanette Jouili), I find myself sampling the sounds, noises, and glitches that provided unexpected reverbs for the academic writing happening behind closed office doors throughout the A. D. White House.
Sounds of glee, delight, and play first arrived on the scene at the end of August with gaggles of laughing and screaming kids running wild and climbing trees in the gardens, surrounded by bemused adults and envious dogs. Accompanying partners brought to the mix the diverse soundings of African film, suspicious packages, software beats, performance art, critical geography, and real estate hawking. No wonder the assembled Fellows strayed so readily, if not unconventionally, from the promised strictures of already exceptional research projects that brought to our weekly seminar table the street sounds of Egypt, Turkey, Korea, early modern Germany, contemporary Islam, American hip hop, contemporary art, circuit bending, gaming, German, Irish, U.S. and Latin American radio, voices of performers, animals, and posthumans, urban soundscapes, and, here making a loud call out to one Stoever-Ackerman, sonic color-lines.
Resounding throughout the year to give cadence and timbre to our serious ponderings were the spontaneous soundings that seemed always to give ample depth to the provocative interstices of intellectual life. There were the noises of glitch, circuit-bending, and Guitar Hero that stretched and extended the purpose of music and machinics. There were spontaneous voice lessons that turned anxious performers into wild choreographic objects. Singing above in the hidden alcoves–when not streaming through the high Victorian ceilings of the A. D. White House–were our flying mammal friends whose echolocation extended beyond the reach of our mere human ears. Then were the sudden noisy reminders of the vulnerability of our corporeal organs. Who could forget the reported imaginary of the crunch of human leg against car as two of our Fellows found themselves under assault from a crazed pizza delivery guy – luckily no lasting damage?
Our fellows will carry away the subliminal lacings of the lighter sounds of improvisation and camaraderie. There were the poundings of feet and slappings of bodies dancing late into the night after hours of laborious conferencing to the beats of DJs Marcus Boon, Art Jones, and Earmuffs.
At the end of the year, Fellows grooved to the beat of Tom McEnaney playing bass with The Vix Krater out at the Rongo in Trumansburg, NY (down the road from the home of Moog), before retreating to the bowels of the A. D. White House basement for another dusty, late night jam session with drums, synthesizer, guitars, bass, and various acoustics, led by the ultimate sound blogger herself, the guitar heroesse, Jenny S-A. [Well, I’m learning. So far I know E-Minor. It was Trevor that really broke my strings in! –ED].
And, yes, there was always the accompaniment of the clinks of glasses and bottles bearing the liquid life blood of any noisy crew.
The French philososopher, Jean-Luc Nancy, reminds us in Listening (2007) that the shared space of noise and sound entails “a totality of referrals: from a sign to a thing, from a state of things to a quality, from a subject to another subject or to itself, all simultaneously. Sound is also made of referrals: it spreads in space, where it resounds while still resounding ‘in me'” (7). What resounded and referred this year at the Society for the Humanities was the very immaterial and inchoate touch of sound, which is a-live in intensity and force. But who would have imagined the intensity of the noise of referral that remained so constant throughout the year to envelop the solid academic work of our Fellows in the wilding vibrations of jouissance? Indeed, perhaps the best lesson of the year, at a moment when the humanities finds itself threatened and in transition by the supposed certainty of metric and assessment, is that the Society’s scholarship in sound was driven by the relentless noise of referral and the unpredictable delight of the commune.
Featured Image Credit: Brandon La Belle, Duck Duck Goose Installation, Ausland, Berlin
Timothy Murray is Professor of Comparative Literature and English and Curator of the Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art. He is the Cornell Principal Investigator of the Central Humanities Corridor, generously supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and he sits on the International Advisory Board of the Consortium of the Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI) and the Steering Committee of the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC). He is Co-Moderator of the –empyre- new media listserv and the author of Digital Baroque: New Media Art and Cinematic Folds (Minnesota 2008); Zonas de Contacto: el arte en CD-ROM (Centro de la imagen, 1999); Drama Trauma: Specters of Race and Sexuality in Performance, Video, Art (Routledge, 1997); Like a Film: Ideological Fantasy on Screen, Camera, and Canvas (Routledge, 1993); Theatrical Legitimation: Allegories of Genius in XVIIth-Century England and France (Oxford, 1987). He is editor of Mimesis, Masochism & Mime: The Politics of Theatricality in Contemporary French Thought (Michigan, 1997) and, with Alan Smith, Repossessions: Psychoanalysis and the Phantasms of Early-Modern Culture (Minnesota, 1997). His curatorial projects include CTHEORY MULTIMEDIA and Contact Zones: The Art of the CD-Rom.