Signal & Noise
Why does a chapter nominally about “vibration, animal, music, sex” begin with a long discussion of philosophy, what it is and what it does? Is this evidence that “music” is really just philosophy’s other, its negative? Are the “outlines of an ontology of music” (25) she provides really an alternative ontology for philosophy, or an alternative concept (insofar as philosophy = production of concepts in EG’s Deleuzian universe) of ontology? This isn’t an “ontology OF music” so much as an ontology grounded in a specific concept of music as a dynamic, emergent system. “Music” here doesn’t tell us much about, erm, music--which isn’t surprising because Grosz doesn’t examine any; there’s nothing resembling music analysis or musicology in this book. “Music” is just a metaphor for “a practice the living perform on chaos to extract some order and predictability” (26), that is, for an evolutionary ontology premised on finding the signal in the noise.
What Grosz calls “chaos” is the background conditions of existence. Chaos is full on, unmediated, undifferentiated noise:
Chaos is not the absence of order but rather the fullness or plethora that, depending on its uneven speed, force, and intensity, is the condition both for any model or activity and for the undoing and transformation of such models’ (26).
Or rather, chaos is the unfiltered listening situation in which all signals are vibrating in competition with one another, everything is out of phase and nothing locks into phase. It’s chaotic because nothing is recognizable as signal.
“Life” is the dynamic emergence of signal from this noise. Left to run their course, eventually some frequencies will fall temporarily into phase; life is the practice of maintaining this phase-pattern (a pattern of “consistency, intensity, predictability” (28)), of filtering out what would put this signal out of phase.
Vibrations, waves, oscillations, resonances affect living bodies, not for any higher purpose but for pleasure alone. LIVING BEINGS ARE VIBRATORY BEINGS: vibration is their mode of differentiation” (33).
Life, for Grosz, is sound, vibration. Life is signal. Which begs the question: if life is signal, the location of predictable, consistent phase patterns amid infinitely complex and deafening noise, what does this concept of life as signal do for a theory of biopolitics? If biopolitics is the governmentality that takes ‘life’ as its object, how does thinking about ‘life’ as signal flesh out how biopolitics works in conjunction with contemporary data technologies? What does it mean to think of biopolitics as the style of government that maximizes some kinds of signals by filtering out other, more noisy ones?
If musical becoming-other is a means of harnessing individual variability, how does this relate to contemporary political economy, which seems premised on harnessing individual variability as a means of surplus value extraction? Moreover, is “music”’s dynamic emergence comparable to the adaptability of algorithms, which can always adjust to find signal as the noise changes? I mean, algorithms are the way we mathematically represent vibrations, right? When Grosz talks about “rhythms, regularized patterns of vibration or resonance” (55), it seems more accurate to call these algorithms than musical rhythms (mainly bc musically/sonically this would be more like meter or frequency?). “Vibrations are oscillations,” that, in their periodicity from apex to nadir, mark out a pattern; from this pattern we abstract “the promise of a future modeled in some ways on the rhythm and regularity of the present” (55). Insofar as we currently use algorithms to model future behavior on past performance (“customers also purchased…” or “Germany should beat Brazil by X score”), then Grosz’s account of vibratory rhythm sure sounds a lot like an account of contemporary data culture/capitalism. (This also makes me wonder: is her reductio ad vibrato a parallel to neoliberalism’s reductio ad financialized market? Both see things in terms of algorithmic models…).
Grosz’s Darwin on music = Rousseau + sexuality?
Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages (which is really about the co-emergence of music & language from the state of nature) seems, at least philosophically, to be the unthought background of Grosz’s discussion of the evolution of music. I have no idea if Darwin read Rousseau or encountered his ideas through someone else, BUT, Rousseau’s essay predates Darwin’s Origin by a century, so it’s entirely possible and likely that Rousseau’s ideas were a direct or indirect influence.
In the Essay, Rousseau argues that in the “north,” music and language arose out of need--life is hard, and people needed to communicate to survive. In the “south,” on the other hand, music and language arose out of pleasure and excess--life is easy, so people gathered around the watering hole began speaking/singing out of the desire for all sorts of intercourse. Northern language is accurate and precise, because that maximized survival; southern language is affectively and sensorially moving, because that maximized pleasure. That’s ROUSSEAU’s argument….which sounds a lot like Grosz’s gloss on Darwin: arguing “music...belongs more to the order of sexual than natural selection” (32), Grosz echoes Rousseau’s distinction between northern necessity and southern pleasure (which, to be sure, is a totally racist distinction). And, just as Rousseau thinks that southern language’s origin in pleasure and social intercourse makes it is more affectively powerful, Grosz thinks that “it is the sexual origins of language that explain its affective force, rather than its descriptive or designatory capacities that enable it to refer and transform affects and emotions” (31n7).
So, I wonder: is Grosz’s Darwinian account of music Rousseau plus the then-newfangled (i.e., in Darwin’s time) concept of “sexuality”? Or at least Rousseau plus sexual difference?
Tired Old Stereotypes
Grosz argues: “of all the arts, music is the most IMMEDIATELY moving, the most VISCERAL and contagious in its effects, the form that requires the least formal or musical education or background knowledge for appreciation” (29). I’m very concerned by Grosz’s claims that music is more immediate and primitive. First, this plays into old and sexist/racist stereotypes that music’s capacity to do be more primitive and immediate results from its femininity and its racial non-whiteness. Second, Grosz’s claim here isn’t even really about music as such. It’s about dynamic emergence or algorithmic patterning--i.e., about the practice of signal-finding. Is that really more primitive and immediate than propositional epistemologies? Are algorithms more primitive than symbolic/propositional representations? (Um, no.) What is Grosz’s--or rather, what is her ontological program’s--investment in positing dynamic emergence as more primitive and immediate than representation/propositionality?
From this perspective, ethnomusicology looks positively empirical & decolonial :/
I’ve already discussed some of the problems with Grosz’s extremely poor and offensive handling of Aboriginal “music” in this post. I want to flesh out some further thoughts on the role of Aboriginal sound culture in Grosz’s text. She uses Aboriginal “singing” as the quintessential example of the ontology she’s theorizing in the book. However, the text on which she bases her discussion of aboriginal ‘song’ is Bruce Chatwin’s songlines--which is not an ethnomusicology text, but a quasi-fictional memoir. Ethnomusicology, like all ethnography, isn’t innocent of orientialism or coloniality. BUT, it would definitely give a better account of Aboriginal ‘musical’ practices that some untrained white dude’s half-fictional memoir.
Even though ethnomusicology can, at its worst, be an ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’ version of the same racism than underlies Chatwin’s and Grosz’s accounts, at its best it locates musical/sonic practices in thick cultural context and accounts for these practices (as much as possible) in their own terms. Ethnomusicology, in other words, wants to figure out the music. Grosz’s avoidance of ethnomusicological methods or research suggests to me that she’s just not interested in actual music. “Music” is a metaphor for something else: an ontology.
Except here, in the case of the Aborigines, their actual musical practices literalize the metaphor Grosz uses to theorize (“Western”?) ontology….sorta like how all those Native Americans literally existed the state of nature that the European social contract theorists treated as merely a metaphor for the origins of (European) civil society (Rousseau, for example, doubted the state of nature ever really existed...except in the Americas). This split between the literally musical Aborigines and the metaphorically musical philosophical ontology “we” all experience is most evident in this odd passage:
Lest this be construed as a romantic ‘orientalism,’ a story that refers only to a
romanticized native other, it needs to be made clear that the occupation of territory...requires a kind of binding of bodily forces to the natural forces of a territory that music best accomplishes: music has led troops into countless wars and stirred numerous past and present patriotic, as well as resistant, hearts...Every people sings the earth and their own bodies into existence only by identifying those earthly elements that tie into or counterpoint their bodies and bodily needs...It is because the earth frames and engulfs the boy that the body can sing the earth and the stories of its origin (51).
Grosz defends her project against accusations of “romantic orientialism” by arguing that it’s the ‘music’ that’s primitive, not the people. But oddly here is the one place where the literally musical (war songs, marches) and the metaphorically musical (territorialization) collapse into one another. Why does Grosz think the best, most immediate representatives of the metaphorical musicality of territorialization are the literal practices of Australian Aborigines? If we are all ontologically musical, why are the Aborigines the ones who do it literally, in primitive form, rather than in the more complex and opaque ways ‘we’ do it?
A few remaining questions
- Is EG anthropomorphizing birdsong, sorta like how people anthropomorphize animal ‘sexuality’ (I’m thinking of Jack Halberstam’s discussion of such anthropomorphism in The Queer Art of Failure)?’
- This seems like it is equally a problem with Deleuze & Guattari as it is with Grosz: When artsitic deterritorialization happens in uneven power relations, isn’t that just cultural appropriation? Deterritorialization rips a practice out of the material/social context in which it emerged, defunctionalizes it. By “defunctionalize” I mean: these practices are both informed by and function as a conduit of implicit, non-propositional knowledge. Ripping a practice out of context means it can no longer function in this way. It’s just affect. Think about white appropriation of black aesthetics: how many musical practices--from blue notes to swung notes to signifying to sampling to antiphony to “into the red” to cutting and looping to dub...how many lose their critical punch in “translation” to mainstream white aesthetics? Not only does this account seem ignorant of the politics of deterritorialization, it also seems to imply that originating cultures can’t be musical or artistic. If a cultural practice becomes affective/expressive only when it is detached from its work as implicit knowledge, then those who use it as implicit knowledge (ie for survival, not just for pleasure) aren’t making ‘art’?
- Is the organism the little entrepreneur of the free market that is its milieu? “Its milieu is not a determinant in the elaboration of the qualities of the organism, which emerge randomly; rather its milieu is an ongoing provocation to the organism to utilize its randomly emergent qualities maximally...It is not an effect or product of its environment, but is a master of its Umwelt, through which it can occupy and be part of an environment...the milieu is a pregiven counterpoint with which the living being must harmonize if it is to survive” (44).
- Does Grosz understand evolution as a Reichean ‘gradual process’--one in which the ‘note-to-note’ details and the overall form are co-emergent? “If nature can be seen as the contrapuntal relation between at least two biologically connected musical themes, the harmonious note-by-note connections between at least two different melodies, then milieu or environment is not entirely separate from our outside the living organism: it is already mapped or composed in terms of the musical cadences available to that body” (45); “the operations of evolutionary elaboration entail that the organism of individual variation already contains within itself something of the score or resonance the milieu has chosen to highlight and perform through this organism” (46).
- For Grosz, it seems like ‘music’ is actually the making of signal into noise (and ‘life’ the making of noise into signal): “Music, whose vibratory force is perhaps more immediate, more visceral, more neural than all of the other arts, consists in deterritorializing the voice, deterritorializing sound, making each resonate with a different set of vibrations than those (chaotic forces) the refrain attempts to ward off” (53).