The Composition of Posthuman Bodies

I’ve just submitted the revised manuscript for my article on ‘The Composition of Posthuman Bodies’, for a special issue of the International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media on ‘Bodily Extensions and Performance (Avatars, Prosthetics, Cyborgs, Posthumans)‘. The article focuses on Ferneyhough’s music and posthuman theory. This is scheduled for publication in autumn 2017.

I’ll also be presenting on this topic at the Tenth Biennial International Conference on Music Since 1900 at the University of Surrey in September.

Abstract: The composition of posthuman bodies

A collision of two thoughts on prostheses provides a point of theoretical ignition for this article: the first is that ‘the musical instrument is a prosthetic augmentation of the human body, enabling the body to exceed itself’ (Johnson 2015); the second that ‘the posthuman view thinks of the body as the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate’ (Hayles 1999). I consider how musical prostheses critically bring into focus the cultural and material conditions of recent modernity. Brian Ferneyhough’s Time and Motion Study cycle (1971-77), in which the composer entangles performers with technological networks, provides a principal frame of musical and historical reference.

The body, Rosi Braidotti (2011) writes, ‘emerges at the center of the theoretical and political debate at exactly the time in history when there is no more single-minded certainty or consensus about what the body actually is’. I suggest that by compositionally engineering bodies in posthuman terms, one may dissolve the body into its nonhuman extensions, such that it may be, paradoxically, located therein; through engaging, for example, cyborg identities, bodily extensions enable for the body’s possession, in transformed terms, during a historical moment when the embodied nature of the subject is in crisis.



Upcoming RMA Music and Philosophy paper

Here’s the abstract for my upcoming paper at the 6th Conference of the Royal Musical Association Music and Philosophy Study Group.

Adorno’s concept of musical material during and after the New Materialisms

Materialist thinking has enabled the reappraisal of music and its associated cultural and aesthetic practices (e.g. Born 2011; Cox 2011; Dolan 2013). Simultaneously, scholars outside of the musicological frame have sought to develop ‘new materialist’ perspectives in the context of myriad cultural and artistic phenomena (Coole & Frost 2010; Dolphijn & van der Tuin 2012; Bolt & Barrett 2012). However, these latter contributions’ potential relevance to our thinking about materiality and musical aesthetics is as yet underappreciated.

I consider these developments in the light of Theodor W. Adorno’s concept of ‘musical material’, read in the context of these new materialisms. Correspondences and tensions are explored within and between Adorno’s materialism and contemporary materialist perspectives, which are brought into dialogue. Particular reference is made to Jane Bennett’s ‘vital materialism’ (2010), on which the impact of Adorno’s materialism is apparent.

Through a dialoguing of Adornian and contemporary materialisms, three interconnected issues are considered critically. First, by reading Adorno’s work through these materialisms, it is argued that musical materials and materialities might be more fully articulated as potentially active forces in compositional processes (building on DeNora 2003, Paddison 2010, and others); they are not mere passive resources shaped by compositional activity. Second, in contrast with the monism present in many contemporary materialisms, it is argued that by reading these materialisms in light of Adorno’s thinking dialectics proves to be a productive force in thinking through the particularities of musical materials. Third, the question of compositional agency is explored. It is suggested that agency may not be solely the “possession” of the composer – it is also observed in manifold material and historical relations.

Practice as Research, Research as Practice, Practices of Research

The discussion of practice as research at today’s LCDS research group got me thinking about its relation to “traditional” academic research. In particular, this converged with a thought that echoed Judith Butler’s discussion of the place of philosophy in non-philosophical disciplines, explored in her Undoing Gender (2004). So, I thought I’d sketch out a couple of ideas.

Butler, in her chapter on ‘Can the “Other” of Philosophy Speak?’, suggests that philosophy transformed into something other in its influence beyond (what I will crudely paraphrase as) “philosophy proper” – that is, what happens in philosophy departments, what happens within the conventionalised boundaries of philosophy as an academic discipline conceived narrowly. She points out that some of the most productive and probing philosophical thinking happening is taking place within departments other to philosophy: within comparative literature departments, to cite one example. (I would add music departments to her list; these have added a great deal to philosophical thought – and not only about the aesthetics of music.) This other philosophy now doubles back onto its its presumed “source”, institutionalized philosophy; it is conceived of in relation and tension to it and, ultimately, renders the concept of philosophy as dialogic and polyvocal. The other persists in its problematization and destabilization of the presumed disciplinary norm: ‘Institutionalized philosophy has not been at one with itself for some time, if ever it was, and its life outside the borders of philosophy takes various forms. And yet, there is some way that each is haunted, if not stalked, by the other.’ (Butler, 2004, p. 242)

Does practice as research, I asked myself – in some sense at least – echo this other that is beginning to speak? Does it produce a notion of “research” that is not ‘at one with itself’? For me, someone who undertakes “traditional” academic research, I find this idea tantalising. I am cast in the position similar to that of the (disciplinarily conventional) philosopher to whom an other philosophy speaks; I am a researcher to whom other researches speak. Returning to the source, from which it formerly divided itself, this other research engages it dialectically. In so doing, in the attendance of practice as research to the notion of practice as such, it marks out that (“conventional”) research is itself a practice: research as practice. Put another way, by coming out of itself, into practice, it seems that practice as research could potentially change the model of academic research from which it originally grew, and from which it formally articulated itself in terms of oppositional difference. ‘Practice as research’ is hence not merely an additional way of doing research. A dialectical conception of research lets us consider if the very notion of research has been changed by a doubling that could destabilize and change the practice of research as such.

Thoughts on ‘Sound Studies: Art, Experience, Politics’

10th July 2015 [final day of the conference]

Yesterday I attended the final day of the excellent conference, Sound Studies: Art, Experience, Politics, held at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Cambridge. (I couldn’t make the previous two days due to other work commitments.) I wanted to record some notes on what I found particularly productive about the presentations and the day in general.

As a general point, it’s worth mentioning that this was an interdisciplinary conference at its best. Interdisciplinarity was something that just seemed to “just happen”, instead of being – as is much more often the case – a fetishized ideal imagined as a cure-all to perceived intradisciplinary limitations; no one felt it worth mentioning or evoking how “interdisciplinary” they were being. The genuine disciplinary mix of delegates also contributed to a very open atmosphere for discussion. Those asking questions after papers actually seemed to want to hear the answers(!), to know more, or to contribute to the discussion of work in progress; there was, as far as I saw, no posturing by those seeking to sure-up their name or position within their own disciplinary area.

The first of four sessions included papers on sound and embodiment. In his paper, Professor John Levack Drever pointed to an important and central notion that underpins much of our thinking about sound: that sound studies, and sound design more broadly, tends to presume a normative or idealised listener. He introduced the term auraltypical (as comparable to neurotypical) to describe this listener; he argued that we need to recognise the “hearing needs” of those who do not fit this presumed universalised hearer. Dr Caleb Kelly then gave an excellent paper in which he explored work under development as part of his forthcoming book on Gallery Sound. He discussed a number of contrasting artworks in which gallery spaces, in their sonic capacities, were foreground as embodied spaces. Simply put, this was done through the silencing of the space or the overwhelming of the audience/listener through excess noise. Importantly, he moved a step further to consider what this said about art practices and their place within late twentieth-century and contemporary cultures – e.g. the experience of art as revelatory, pseudo-religious practice, or as entertainment, as commodification of “the experience”.

In the second session, Professor Karin Bijsterveld presented findings from ongoing work about the role of sound as means of study (as opposed to being the object of study) – the classic example would be the doctor using his or her stethoscope as diagnostic tool. She presented a typology of different listening strategies. She also showed how information/data has been undergone “sonification” (made into sound) in order to be understood or presented to new audiences. For me, however, there was a pressing question about the politics of different forms of sonifying, which could have been addressed more explicitly – although, to be fair, it was perhaps beyond the scope of this presentation. Scientific data can be presented as music. But this is a very specific – aesthetic – form of sonification; it is very different from the sonification of pulse on the ECG. For me, such aestheticizing projects of sonification also invite questions about the role of composer: the re-presentation of “objective” data as music seems to me at least as an attempt to withdraw the “subjective” aspect of composition from the compositional process – i.e. it refigures the composer as a filter for the data, and reduces their compositional “choices” to deciding the manner in which data is translated into sound. This aestheticizing sonification re-presents abstract data as a form of revelation: to be experienced “directly” through the imagined directness of music itself.

Professor Kate Lacey stepped in at the last moment to give a paper in place of a speaker who had unfortunately fallen ill. Lacey’s paper was simply excellent, in my opinion. She considered the ‘auditory capital’ associated with different modalities of listening and of making sound. (This “auditory capital” refigured Bourdieu’s “cultural capital”, for sonic practices.) Beside her central thesis, I was also struck by her observation about the politics of ‘giving a voice’ to some material, of making material sonically active while implicating a denigration of the passive. This act we see in the attempts ‘to haul mute subjects into the lively world of sound’. Unfortunately I didn’t have to time to ask how this idea sat in the context of broader contemporary debates about nonhuman materials and subjects; Lacey seemed to suggest that all forms of materials “speaking up” was a form of anthropomorphisation, of subjectifying them in some way. I am honestly not sure where I stand on this idea, but I do know that many would object to this.

In the third session, Dr J.R. Carpenter gave a lecture-performance about the ocean as a sonic space. Some aspects of her presentation were, I thought, very successful. What I liked in particular was her discussion of air and water figured as “in betweens” – as mediums that are themselves considered as intermediary spaces (she developed this idea from Aristotle). Dr Kate Galloway then presenting on projects broadcast on Canadian radio in the 70s. After this talk, I’d be very interested to hear in full some of the broadcasts that were discussed – in particular, a programme presented by R. Murray Schafer that engaged the listener directly, guiding them through the practice of new ways to listen.

Professor Steven Connor gave the keynote address, on ‘Acousmania’ [available on his website]. Focusing on and questioning the “discipline” of sound studies, Connor explored the idea of an imagined ‘cohering force’ behind different studies sound – he called this a fantasy. The most problematic aspect of this fantasy is the alleged assumption that sound and sonic culture are immediate, dynamic, and ‘alive’ (as a opposed to the static, dead, representationalism of visual culture). Sound is always secondary, he argued; when writing (e.g.) histories of sound we are in fact writing histories of the production of sound. I thought he presented a wonderful and engaging talk. His main thesis was made very effectively, although I did disagree with a few details of his argument. The point that sound is indexical or secondary to something other is a fair one. But I thought that this was at times a little overstated. Connor argued for instance that sound is always an epistemology rather than an ontology; it is always secondary to something else, and is a manner of knowing this something. There is no “is” in sound, he said. I asked a question about this (one which, to be honest, could have been better communated after a long day!): can’t epistemologies and ontologies be regarded as in some form of relationship – don’t ontologies get produced epistemologically, for instance? (We could go further down this line of questioning and ask why one couldn’t take a position on the ontology of sound as itself relational – i.e. a relational ontology….) What I was struck by was that despite the talk’s focus on the imagined immediacy of sound there was, as far as I could tell, no mention of the word mediation. Surely this term could let us effectively navigate this relationship between epistemology and ontology, between the production of sound and fantastical imaginings of “sound itself”? However, these points should be taken in the context of what was a thought-provoking and far-reaching presentation.

‘Legacies of the Immaterial in the Arts and Practice’ stream at London Conference in Critical Thought 2015

I’m running a stream for this year’s London Conference in Critical Thought. In the last couple of weeks the conference committee has made its selection from the many paper proposals received, and sent out the notices of acceptance. My stream, ‘Legacies of the Immaterial in the Arts and Practice’ called for papers that ‘ask[ed] what renewed interests in materiality mean for immateriality. In particular, [those that consider] how this issue is critically negotiated through artistic, everyday, and socio-cultural practices’ (quoting the CFP). Three interdisciplinary panels will make up the stream (I’ll update the finer details here once the presenters have all confirmed their attendance).  When organising these panels, I’ve made a conscious attempt to cut across assumed boundaries of disciplinarity, and of theory and practice:

  • The first session explores immateriality, labour, and artistic production. It will bring together those discussing and theorising these themes in socio-cultural fields, as well as practitioners who develop these themes in their own work.
  • The second session will engage with questions of representation. In particular, it will focus upon reading, writing, and producing critically diverse forms of representational practices. I’m sure that questions of mediation, medium, and material will surface here. Again, theorists and practitioners will present.
  • The final panel links closely with the second: it focuses upon language and signification. However, in this last panel, critical perspectives are offered that engage with critiques of materiality and the immaterial through linguistic and poetic practices.

It goes without saying that I’m very much looking forward to hearing the discussions that emerge from these sessions! I should also note that this year’s programme (again, finer details TBC before publication) includes a large number of sessions that explore aesthetic concerns and issues in the arts. I imagine that themes that emerge in my stream will spark connections and debates with many other topics to be discussed at LCCT 2015.

LCCT 2015 – Call for papers [deadline: 16th March]

The call for papers for the London Conference in Critical Thought 2015 has been released!

The CFP is a document made up of various thematic streams. Participants are invited to propose papers/presentations to a given stream, or to a ‘general stream’ (without theme).

I am coordinating a stream entitled ‘Legacies of the Immaterial in the Arts and Practice‘, addressing what renewed interests in materiality mean for the concept of immateriality (in the arts and socio-cultural practices). The full list of streams is as follows:

  • The Return of Actor Network Theory
  • Art and its Externalities
  • Bad Language, Wrong Signification
  • Eating as Encounter
  • Legacies of the Immaterial in the Arts and Practice
  • Interruptions
  • The Politics and Practice of “Just Making Things”
  • Music and Sound at Work
  • Re-thinking Political Violence, Memory and Law
  • The Digital 1: Noology and Technics: Algorithmic governmentality, automation and knowledge in the age of the digital economy
  • The Digital 2: ‘Questioning the Digital’: Critical Approaches to Digital Worlds
  • Theory Lessons: Theorizing the Classroom
  • Radical Transfeminism
  • Truthful Politics

Full details can be found on the London Critical website.

Music and Psychoanalysis study day

University of Liverpool, 13th November 2013

This week I presented a paper about music analysis and dream analysis at the excellent Music and Psychoanalysis study day. This event brought together a number of interesting speakers and delegates. There was a sense of a (re)emerging subdiscipline within musicology; the speakers and methodologies encountered were diverse nonetheless. We heard papers that referred to both popular music (and culture more widely) as well as to more traditional repertoires, and both theoretical and clinical work (Rachel Darnley-Smith’s excellent paper on music therapy). Some focused on artist-producers (Henry Zajaczkowski on Tchaikovsky), others the products/artworks, and still others on consumers and listeners.

Lacanian thinking is clearly making its mark within some sectors of musicology. The day ended with a roundtable discussion, the panellists being David Bard-Schwarz (University of North Texas), Bruno de Florence (ICONEA, London), Freya Jarman and Kenneth Smith (both University of Liverpool). All these panellists freely made reference to a host of Lacanian ideas. There was some excellent discussion from the floor with regard to the emergence of “Lacanian musicology”.

However, I shouldn’t give the impression that there was a unified agreement from the attendees on how and what psychoanalysis might bring to studies of music (or, conversely, of music to psychoanalysis). I’ve my own reservations about some (uses of) Lacanian concepts and critical frameworks, for instance. There are three immediate examples I’d like to put forward, some of which were discussed at the study day itself:

–      First, I’d advise caution regarding the privileging and deploying of particular concepts. For example, while the Lacanian concept of ‘The Real’ might be useful on occasion, it’s my impression that it sometimes seems too easy an explanation for the complexities of expression, anxiety and trauma that arise during some aesthetic experiences. (“Why do we feel this way?” – “Because it’s an encounter with the Real!”)

–      Second, the basic functioning and disfunctioning of subjectivity is, for Lacan, linguistic. I wouldn’t posit music in counterposition to language; instead, I’d say that elements of it tend towards the pseudo-linguistic. This tension within music is itself a site that is productive of meaning, or if not “meaning” in its linguistic sense, then of aesthetic significance. Hence, this is not to say that nothing can be said about music from such (Lacanian) perspectives, but it is to underline an awareness of our own methodologies and assumptions about subjects’/language’s (dis)functioning, which have been taken into them.

–      Third, and this is something Freya Jarman raised during the roundtable, we should be aware of the “doing” of subjectivities, not only their “being” in certain forms (Jarman raised this point in relation to Queer Theory and the politics of musicology). This connects with a larger question regarding psychoanalysis and music: should we be cautious about implying the ahistorical nature of subjectivity in certain forms of discussion, especially when we fall back on particular models of how subjectivity “operates”? Sometimes the positing of psychoanalytic frameworks for the discussion of musical subjectivities seems to gloss over the cultural and historical particularities of given situations; these frameworks sometimes seem to assume ahistorical bases and, accordingly, so do the bases of musical identities and aesthetic experiences. This concern is echoed in Judith Butler’s critique in Gender Trouble of Julia Kristeva’s thinking[1] – here I’m gesturing towards caution over the essentialising of “how subjectivity functions” and a new emphasis on performativity and the cultural and historical particularities of given musical and music-aesthetic discourses.

[1] Butler, Judith 2006: Gender Trouble, Abingdon: Routledge. See the section ‘The Body Politics of Julia Kristeva’, pp. 107-126.