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 might still be just beginning, at least in sound and music studies. I’m sure that there is a lot of work and debate on this subject that I don’t know about yet. But I need to look into it, given that I also find myself caught up in such questions insofar as 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.


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“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.

BRIEF THOUGHT ON THE HIGH/LOW DISTINCTION

Brief thought: most cultural studies scholars, perhaps excepting those coming from a more rigid, Frankfurt-school perspective, accept that the modernist distinction between high and low art has completely collapsed.

Question: is this collapse so forceful as to have inverted the equation?

Follow up: particularly with the question of radical politics, it now seems that the avant-garde is precisely the genre of music that is incapable of mounting any sustained critique. It is, by contrast, the successful commercial genres that articulate and mobilize social justice and even (at times) anti-capitalist positions. This would appear to be the mirror inversion of the outwardly stated political goals of the avant-garde and popular genres of the modernist period.

Alternative question: we can still identify, aurally, those musical genres that identify themselves as avant-garde. But what do these genres generally stand for in 2019?

SMALL MUSIC (?)

Right now I’m thinking a lot about music that doesn’t reach many people.

For many music scholars, one of the key reasons that music is important to study is in how it contributes to the battle over hegemony or the contestation over meaning. Music articulates what we might call its “meanings” (but which are complex combinations of vibrational/culturally coded affects) in many ways simultaneously: historically, musically, formally, semiotically, stylistically, and so on. In the weird bundle of forces that constitutes a piece of music, a cultural articulation is sounded into a discourse, a field, or a space where others can be affected by it. In reaching people, in forming intimate publics 1 music creates a shared sense of the world among certain groups of listeners. That shared sense can become the precondition that leads to action (political, say) or not; it can create or disallow possibility, or neither.

But what happens when the music that we are talking about doesn’t reach a lot of people? It’s obvious, for example, that Beyoncé’s music is having an impact on society, an impact that we can analyze through various lenses (critical race, feminist, and so on) even as we track its political economy. But what about music that we might similarly read as feminist, but which not many people know about or hear? If it doesn’t contribute to the broader cultural landscape, what is the significance of this small music?

Ethnographers will document the impacts that music has on people’s everyday lives and the contributions it makes to people’s sense of their own subjectivity. But as a methodological question, does a music’s limited or non-existent impact (culturally, broadly) mean that we can’t read it in the affective/semiological way that we can read truly popular music? What if a group’s reach is too small to actually create an intimate public? Beyond individuals who may nevertheless listen to this small music and may indeed be affected by it, what can we say is significant about it on a cultural scale? Is there a certain threshold of popularity required for a cultural phenomenon to form an intimate public? Put another way: of course we can still read small music for its meanings and affects. But the question is, do these meanings and affects matter or function in the same way as music that can be considered widely popular? Is there value in popular music scholars studying music that isn’t all that popular? Or is music’s very popularity its main indication that it has something significant to say about how our culture(s) construct and reflect meaning, to others and to ourselves?

One reason that I’m thinking about this is because there seems to be a ton of excellent indie-rock happening right now, specifically indie rock with women at the center. I’m wondering if one of the very reasons that this music seems to be flourishing right now is because “rock” as a genre (the white male rock of rockism) is no longer the world’s dominant popular music. Is there something about the diffuse and localized scene that indie-rock has become that is allowing certain kinds of musical and social possibilities to emerge?


1. I am referencing here Lauren Berlant’s well-known elaboration of “intimate publics” as “affect worlds” in which “one senses that matters of survival are at stake and that collective mediation through narration and audition might provide some routes out of the impasse and the struggle of the present, or at least some sense that there would be recognition were the participants in the room together.” Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 226. What interests me here in particular is the way in which the notion of an intimate public is caught up in a certain level of visibility. Berlant writes, “You do not need to audition for membership in it. Minimally, you need just to perform audition, to listen and to be interested in the scene’s visceral impact.” [Ibid.] And again just later, “But [participants] do not have to do anything to belong. They can be passive and lurk, deciding when to appear and disappear, and consider the freedom to come and go the exercise of sovereign freedom.” [Berlant, 227.] My question about small music is this, fundamentally: because it is not broadly popular, does it require a different level of participation in order to create a shared sense of public-ness, however small? Can participants afford to be passive if their passivity results in the dissolution of the sphere itself? Or, on the other hand, if a given band/song/scene corresponds with a much broader genre space that exists independently of that given band/song/scene (e.g. “girl bands” or “feminist rock”), is the intimate public maintained in any case, so long as the genre exists? Can a participant still afford to be passive if the genre will maintain itself irrespective of any particularly performed acts of fandom and belonging? Can you access an intimate public through any number of entry points?

M/Bake Yourself

People say that baking is scientific, but I don’t think that’s an accurate way to describe baking bread. Baking bread is improvisatory, in that it requires knowing the process well enough to be able to respond when circumstances change.

The state of your starter, the temperature outdoors and in, the time you have available, and other such variables set certain parameters within which to work. You can guess and do alright, but to really consistently perform the way you want to, you have to have practiced enough times so that your muscle memory and intuition can take over. How the dough looks, smells, and feels will tell you if it needs to ferment for a few more hours, or if you need to change the ambient temperature. Even though the process is a continuous, daily practice, it’s never quite the same from time to time.

One of the most significant reasons why I am attracted to activities like this is that they are impossible to do without developing a sustained relationship with the process. There is a kind of intimacy between one’s instrument and one’s self, where, after you’ve spent enough time with each other, you know what it is going to do before you hear it done (and it knows what you are going to do, as well). This is one of the places where our membranes as subjects is the thinnest, when we are most prepared to let things in, to blur the distinction between ourselves and the outside world, which is inside us as we are in it. People can cause this boundary crossing (is there really a boundary?), but so can objects: when you are playing music, you are yourself but also your instrument (as it, by sounding is partially you).

There is no such thing as a single unitary individual; we are incomprehensibly multiple, but there are at least some parts of us that we can know about and reflect on. Choosing what objects to use and what activities to perform with them–very much like choosing which people we spend time with–is a way to intentionally alter some of the multiples that constitute us as humans in the world. Even as I work on my future self by learning how to bake, I am partially becoming my past self each time I eat what I have baked and am made to remember this or that event, or any number of conversations where bread was present, tying itself to my mind.

Allowing other people to experience this as well is one reason to bake two loaves.