RANCIÈRE AND AFFECT

One of the main ways I try to think about the political implications of improvisations is through Rancière. I won’t go into all of it here, but part of what this involves is linking up Rancière’s political thought with affect theory. I do this not only because Rancière’s politics make sense with the kind of ambivalent and contingent project that I am trying to develop, but also because his central concept, the partage du sensible has “sensible” right in the name–that is, not just visible or audible, but perceptible as a whole. Although Rancière himself does not speak in terms of affect, his description of the distribution of the sensible opens up ways of thinking affectively–that is, we experience power (the police), order, sense (as in “common-sense”), and our place within it phenomenologically, as mediated by the body. Affect, which is all about the force of bodies on other bodies, might be how we perceive both the police, and any opportunity for politics as well.
As I resume digging into this research, I am delighted to find that I am not the only one who has argued for thinking the distribution of the sensible through affect; Brigitte Bargetz’ excellent essay “The Distribution of Emotions: Affective Politics of Emancipation” lays out recent debates in feminist/affect theory, as well as arguments that have been made about thinking Rancière through affect. Subsequently, she develops the “distribution of emotions” in order to “shed light on a queer feminist theory of affective politics” (590). Using Rancière’s notion that politics is not separate from (but emerges within) the police, Bargetz argues that thinking the partage du sensible in terms of emotions 1) overcomes an “unsatisfactory and problematic opposition within queer feminist debates, which frame affective politics either in terms of reparation or paranoia”; 2) “marks the concept of subjectivation as a matter of emotions and thus links to queer feminist debates about the subject of feminist politics”; and 3) “builds upon the idea of equality among people rather than promoting an emancipatory politics of affect that relies on truth claims” (591-592).
Bargetz develops these ideas by turning to queer feminist scholars. Like me, she finds Ahmed (among others) useful for describing how
affect and sensation serve as starting points for describing the political in affective terms and for interrogating, for instance, how capitalism, sexism, and/or racism are inscribed in the affective bodily practices of the everyday, or how affects become a site of community formation. Viewed through such a lens, the world does not appear to be divided only into those who speak and those who make noise. Rather, the distribution of the sensible also marks a distinction between those whose feelings constitute the existing distribution of the sensible and those whose feelings are excluded (589).
On this view, both sound and emotionality are different haptic means by which the distribution of the sensible is established and perpetuated. As I try to think through the improvisation of politics, Rancière’s work is critical in setting up how we perceive and navigate contextual situations. As a self-aware and reflexive navigation of contingency–in short, as a conscious pursuit of the unknown within the known–improvisation requires a bodily perception of the distribution of the sensible and the contingency on which it rests.
Cited
Bargetz, Brigitte. 2015. “The Distribution of Emotions:Affective Politics of Emancipation”. Hypatia vol. 30, no. 3 (summer): 580-596.

BIG FEELINGS, QUEER PHENOMENOLOGY, AND THE OPHELIAS

I’m giving a lecture on The Ophelias next week for an entire hour. I am really excited about this, not only because I will be able to try out some new ideas for the first time in public, but also because I’ll get to talk about many of my favorite things: feminist rock, music history, Rancière, Ahmed, and affect.
My basic aim is to start thinking seriously about feminist indie rock that is not the riot grrrl movement–that is, indie rock that a) doesn’t sound like punk, b) doesn’t have an explicit politics, and c) nevertheless produces political affects through their sounds. My working hypothesis at this point is that this type of music can be thought of through a large umbrella concept I call “Big Feelings”. This is a term that aims to describe how lyrical content centering the feelings of women and girls comes together with a certain sound to create feminist affect in the absence of an overt feminist position. I am still in the process of researching what this “certain sound” is, and when/how it appears in feminist rock. But at this point, it has a lot to do (in my mind) with chord extensions.
In the early 1990s, Susan McClary famously argued that classical music contains a sexual politics in its formal qualities insofar as it a) narratively constructs a conflict that is staged and eventually overcome; and b) insofar as this conflict is gendered. Building on her analyses of opera characters and the music that helps to construct their narratives, McClary shows how chromaticism and minor-key movements are coded feminine and are presented as challenges that both male protagonists and (coded male) tonic key centers must overcome. In middle movements, where  “madwomen”, “hysterics”, or sexually deviant female characters present conflict in the narrative, the eventual triumph of the male character is musically signaled by the return and re-assertion of tonic major, read as sanity, moral clarity, masculine rationality, and so on.1 As Anne Carson writes, this dynamic stretches to the Greeks, and has to do with the way that (gendered) sound factors into the notion of sophrosyne, a certain model of virtue and sound-mindedness that translated differently for men and women.2
I see something of a similar dynamic happening in feminist indie rock. Of course, it is not expressed in the same way as in classical music, and it does not mean exactly the same things. One of the central premises of all my work (e.g. 20182020) is that music is fundamentally relational, interdependent, and contingent. Therefore, this framework of thinking gendered sounds can’t be uniformly applied to all genres, but must shift into each respective social context, changing in the process. In the context of indie rock, that means two things: 1) feminist excess will be achieved through different musical means, means that conform to the inside/outside conventions of the rock genre; and 2) each band that participates in or produces this feminine excess will do so in different ways.
My theory is that feminine excess, centered around emotionality, expresses itself in many ways, but that one of the important commonalities (in rock music) is the chord extensions that intrude on or break through the relatively diatonic sonic space of masculine rock. This excessive sonic emotionality is not only coded feminine, but is overtly expressed as such, given that it is premised from the very beginning as coming from a woman’s voice and is not necessarily subject to the same types of compositional control that feminine excess was in classical music (because, in short, this  “excessive” emotionality is appropriated and polemically deployed by feminist groups). The type of feminine excess that I call “Big Feelings” is also not the same kind of excess that riot grrrl bands produced, which had more to do with co-opting explicitly masculine sounds from punk and post-punk. The sound of Big Feelings is something different.3
I think that The Ophelias are one of the bands that produces such a feminist affect. How they do so, however, is extremely distinct. As I will address in my talk, their music produces, in my view, a sophisticated musical version of Ahmed’s “queer phenomenology” where our bodies are directed differently in (social/musical) space. That point starts to bring this post into new territory, and so I’ll leave it here for now.

1 If this sounds like a stretch to you, consider “The 1970 edition of the Harvard Dictionary of Music, for instance, [which] includes the following entry:
Masculine, feminine cadence.  A cadence or ending is called ‘masculine’ if the final chord of a phrase or section occurs on the strong beat and ‘feminine’ if it is postponed to fall on a weak beat. The masculine ending must be considered the normal one, while the feminine is preferred in more romantic styles (in McClary 1991, 9).
Later, McClary elaborates: “Similarly, chromaticism, which enriches tonal music but which must finally be resolved to the triad for the sake of closure, takes on the cultural cast of ‘femininity.’ The ‘feminine’ never gets the last word within this context: in the world of traditional narrative, there are no feminine endings” (16).
2 “Female sophrosyne is coextensive with female obedience to male direction and rarely means more than chastity. When it does mean more, the allusion is often to sound. A husband exhorting his wife or concubine to sophrosyne is likely to mean ‘Be quiet!’” (Carson 1995, 126).
3 Other bands I hear in this “different” vein include Land of Talk, Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail, Japanese Breakfast, Fazerdaze, Van Dale, Alvvays, Yuck, Girlpool, Broken Social Scene and more. One interesting challenge is to think about why this affect seems to emerge from 2010 on, and on what historical developments it is predicated (including riot grrrl, grunge, shoegaze, post-punk, etc).
Works Cited
Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press.
Carson, Ann. 1995. Glass, Irony, and God. New Directions Paperback.
McClary, Susan. 1991. Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

A VERY PRELIMINARY IDEA

I am curious to know when and how extended chords1 appear in rock music, specifically from the 90s onward. Chord extensions are certainly not unheard-of in rock, but nor are they standard or even common, depending on what sub-genre we’re talking about.2 And that’s the curiosity that I have: when, where, and why do extended harmonies appear? Are there common uses or chords (I△7 for example) and uncommon ones (ii-9)? Do they perform a specific type of affective work when they do appear? In other words, are extended harmonies summoned for particular purposes? And if we tracked these purposes and compared them to one another, would a picture emerge regarding how extended harmonies function in rock music? Of course, when I say “function”, I mean: culturally, affectively, semiotically, emotionally–that is, how they function in our social world, not how they function from the perspective of tonal harmony.

What would I find if I followed extended chords around, noting where they appear in the space of this genre? If what we know from popular music studies is that sounds carry both affective (pre-conscious) and semiotic force, this means that certain chord qualities (both functional qualities such as dominant or minor as well as expressive qualities like timbre) accrue social meanings, values, connotations, and functions within the space of a given genre (and its associated meanings, and so on outward). My question is: does the intrusion of an extended chord introduce a new element into a genre space in which such sounds are still the exception rather than the rule? Put another way: we are used to thinking about musical genres as a set of (musical/social/stylistic/philosophical/aesthetic/political) conventions, which are both expressed and partially constituted through sound. From a certain perspective, extended chord qualities can be understood as “unusual” for the genre of rock. And if that’s the case, do they constitute a kind of rupture or momentary irruption when we hear them in the context of rock? For me, the idea of some songs purposefully introducing an external element into their own genre space is a compelling possibility.
1. Because of rock’s firm grounding in the power-chord, I consider “extensions” here to include the 7th.

2. Obviously, the dominant 7th chord is the major exception, given rock’s ties with the blues. But that’s the exception that proves the rule: are we as accustomed to hearing any other extended chord quality in this genre?

HGTV 2

“In melodrama, the soundtrack is the supreme genre of ineloquence, or eloquence beyond words: it’s what tells you that you are really most at home in yourself when you are bathed by emotions you can always recognize, and that whatever dissonance you sense is not the real, but an accident that you have to clean up after, which will be more pleasant if you whistle while you work. The concept of ‘the soundtrack of our lives’…is powerful because it accompanies one as a portable hoard that expresses one’s true inner taste and high value. It holds a place open for an optimistic rereading of the rhythms of living, and confirms everybody as a star. Your soundtrack is one place where you can be in love with yourself and express your fidelity to your own trueness in sublime conventionality, regardless of the particularity of the sounds.”

—Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 34-35.

HGTV

is an entire channel devoted to cruel optimism. What’s interesting to me is how neatly its form of cruelty fits into a seemingly prescribed genre of American mythology about home-ownership and upward mobility. As these notions become increasingly fanciful for more and more Americans, the teary-eyed “reveal” of HGTV becomes increasingly uncanny.

What I would really like to do is trace the background music used during the “reveal” scenes in shows like Fixer-Upper. My suspicion is that their material histories correspond with the affective work that they do. The music is always generic, no doubt produced like a font, for any number of media contexts. This music, which is used to relay the sense of “having arrived” at one’s new house (new life) via capitalist miracle (akin in this sense to the dream of winning big on a game show), sounds the same as music that is also used to stitch together notions of the good life in other media contexts, particularly advertisements. Beyond sounding the same, what I mean by “material histories” is that–given its generic character–it seems likely that such music is actually produced in the same way, at the same handful of studios, or is stored in the same databases–in other words, that it comes from the same genre not just stylistically, but in terms of its production.

If that could be proven, the question then would be: what is the significance of the fact that the same type of tune (or the same tune, or a different tune by the same or similar producers) is used in a reality TV show and in a pharmaceutical ad? How does such distributed use connect affects together, and does this connection across contexts add up to some larger effect on American life?