ONTOLOGY AND MUSIC

Ever since I first read it in the spring of last year, I have returned time and again to Marie Thompson’s brilliant essay, “Whiteness and the Ontological Turn in Sound Studies” (2017), not only because it lays out an incisive argument against a certain strain of thinking in sound studies, but also because of its implicit critique of the notion of “ontology” itself. In this article, Thompson considers recent turns towards questions of ontology in sound studies, arguing that they disturbingly reproduce ontology as a colonialist, invisibly white ground. I find this argument both faultless and compelling. At the same time, it (along with similar arguments, discussed below) forces me to re-evaluate my own understanding and use of “the ontological.”

By way of beginning, Thompson raises recent turns to questions of ontology across multiple disciplines, and the ways in which their “turns” are justified through a dismissal of scholarship seen to focus too heavily on questions of “the social.” Ontology, new materialism, or the focus on (for example, in sound studies) the “sound itself” is seen on this view to offer new and exciting lines of inquiry that move beyond current scholarship’s apparent fixation with questions of sociality, of meaning-making and power within discourse.

However, as Thompson notes, the ontological has historically been a fraught space for many post-colonial thinkers, precisely because of its incapacity to deal with questions of difference. She writes,

Sylvia Wynter, for example, has shown how secular ontological accounts of the human emerge with colonial conquest; and how being, subsequently, is equated with the overrepresented ethnoclass of western, bourgeois man, resulting in the obfuscation of other modes and possibilities of being (Thompson 2017, 267).

Fanon and Fred Moten are also cited as thinkers who note and extend the colonial nature of ontological projects.

For Fanon, the colonial history of race and of racialization inhibits blackness from inclusion in the white-defined realm of being. Instead, blackness and its subjects are banished to a field of non-being.The ontological, meanwhile is naturalized as universal ground, obscuring the realm of non-being upon which it is predicated. Thus where the ontological has come to signify ‘a realm of apparent liberation from the miasmas of the social world’ in much realist and new materialist thought’, Fanon regards ontology itself as ‘a mystifying form of appearance that posits itself as outside of social inscriptions of race, when in fact this very positing is integral to the dialectics of racialization itself’ (268).

Thinking in this vein, Thompson goes on to outline how recent (re)turns to ontology in speculative realism, object-oriented ontology, and new materialism obscure not only the ontological/material aspects of the “cultural” or social work against which new materialisms position themselves1, but also any consideration of the social questions involved in ontology. Thus, “The erasures of these bodies of work in the ontological turn’s origin myths have led Métis scholar Zoe Todd to assert that ‘ontology is just another word for colonialism’” (268).

Thompson then focuses on the work of Christoph Cox, who argues for a kind of new materialism in sound studies. In his work, sound art (as opposed to music) is a privileged site for thinking the ontology of sound, or for helping us to uncover the “nature of sound” in order to “think sonically.” Thus, in sound, the ontological turn described above goes like this:

Where music is thought to obscure material being of sound by virtue of its cultural, representational and meaningful content, experimental music and sound art is understood to interrogate the affective, non-representational and non-discursive dimensions of the sonic. As a result, ‘materialist’ sound art has been credited with exposing the ontological specificities of sound-itself (270).

In other words, if music represents the social, sound “itself” represents the ontological, before it becomes attached to/decoded for its connotative meanings, its affects, its cultures. And it is this type of rarefied sound that, for Cox, is dealt with in sound art practices. However, Thompson argues that this position is not actually made possible through an analysis of sound that is situated somehow “outside” of culture;

Rather, as Cox himself makes clear, it is indebted to a particular European philosophical lineage (Leibniz, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Deleuze), coupled with a Eurological and patrilineal ‘dotted line’ of sonic experimentation that stems from the ‘greatest forefather’ [sic] of sound art, John Cage (271).

In other words, the reasons that Cox turns to sound art for his ontological arguments are not because sound art in fact embodies the ontology of sound in a way that music does not; rather, Cox approaches this history precisely because it strongly inherits a specific posture towards thinking sound, a posture that emerges from a specific history that is ties to (most notably, among others) John Cage.

But this link betrays its own premise, for as any Cage scholar knows, his views on sound and music never managed to escape their Eurological 2 lineage, as evinced by his attachment to an albeit revised “work concept” and by his often-unacknowledged racial politics.3 In order to trace and identify this lineage, Thompson builds on Nikki Sullivan’s notion of “white optics”, formulating a corollary concept called “white aurality”, a concept that gives name to this particular Euroligical framework as it manifests in sound.

Drawing upon Sullivan’s notion of white optics, white aurality can be understood as not just relying upon but actively producing a series of bifurcations in its ‘hearing-with’: it amplifies the materiality of ‘sound itself’ while muffling its sociality; it amplifies Eurological sound art and, in the process, muffles other sonic practices; it amplifies dualisms of nature/culture, matter/ meaning, real/representation sound art/music and muffles boundary work; all the while invizibilizing its own constitutive presence in hearing the ontological conditions of sound-itself. White aurality is not an ahistorical, unchanging perceptual schema, insofar as whiteness and aurality are both material-discursive composites that shape and are shaped by one another and in relation to a particular environment, but nor is it simply the product of individual bias. Rather, recalling Sullivan’s description of perception as shared and occupied rather than possessed, white aurality can be understood as co-constitutive with, amongst other things, Eurological histories, practices, ontologies, epistemologies and technologies of sound, music and audition (274).

Thompson then concludes (well, I’m skipping a lot in there) by arguing that sonic ontologies (among others) need not be abandoned, but should rather be situated such that they acknowledge their positionality vis-a-vis other ontologies. “Situating rather than simply dismissing sonic ontologies enables us to ask how ‘the nature of the sonic’ is determined – what grounds the sonic ground – while remaining open to how it might be heard otherwise” (278).

This position seems to me, as I said upfront, both compelling and inarguable. But if that is true, it is true because it revises my understanding of “the ontological” itself. In other words, one cannot socially position an ontological perspective in conversation with other perspectives if that ontology is worthy of its name; in order to do so, ontology itself would have to be revised into a concept that is fundamentally and inextricably social. Indeed, that seems to me to be the presumption behind Thompson’s arguments. It is also a position argued by Brian Kane in his essay, “The Fluctuating Sound Object” (2019).

At a certain point, I find myself weary of the promotion of this or that ontological position about sound. Most ontological claims are less arguments than assertions or commitments. They often smack of circularity, where this or that ontology is adopted to promote foregone conclusions. The reason this occurs–to promote my own blunt assertion–is that ontology is secondary, not primary. In contrast to the classical tradition, I do not believe that ontology describes the way the world IS. Rather, ontologies emerge by acpturing the ways that agents and actors understand, totalize, substantialize, and engage with the shared historical, geographic, cultural, scientific, and political situations in which they find themselves. But that does not make ontology irreevant. Rather, if ontology is secondary, then ontological “arguments”can be extraordinarily revealing…such assertions make legible the epistemic and axiological views of those who do the positioning.

This amounts to an argument about what the word “ontology” will identify, refer to, or signal in the future, a kind of intervention aimed at revising or revealing the term’s usage. I think that it is an argument worth having, but one which might be just beginning, at least in sound and music studies. One of the reasons that I keep returning to Thompson’s article is that I find myself needing to think about this question, given my work argues for a certain ontology of improvisation. But I’ll return to that topic later, as this post is long enough already.


1. For more on this point, see Ahmed 2008.

2. “Eurological” is George E. Lewis’ term for a kind of “musical belief system” that emerges from European musical practices, and which is ideologically, discursively, and materially constructed. For more see Lewis 2004.

3. For more see Piekut 2012 among others.

Sources

Ahmed, Sara. 2008. “Open Forum Imaginary Prohibitions: Some Preliminary Remarks on the Founding Gestures of the `New Materialism'”. European Journal of Women’s Studies vol. 15, no. 1: 23-39.

Kane, Brian. 2019. “The Fluctuating Sound Object”. In Sound Objects, edited by James. A Steintrager and Rey Chow, 53-72. Durham: Duke University Press.

Piekut, Benjamin. 2012. “Sound’s Modest Witness: Notes on Cage and Modernism”. Contemporary Music Review vol. 31, no. 1 (February): 3-18.

Lewis, George E. 2004. “Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives”. In The Other Side of Nowhere: Jazz, Improvisation, and Communities in Dialogue, edited by Daniel Fischlin and Ajay Heble, 131-162. Wesleyan: Wesleyan University Press.

Thompson, Marie. 2018. “Whiteness and the Ontological Turn in Sound Studies”. Parallax, vol. 23, no. 3: 266-282.