I’m fairly new to Elizabeth Grosz's work, and these are just some initial thoughts as I prepare for Monday’s grad class. Feedback is, as always, welcome. All references are to Chaos, Territory, Art.
While Grosz claims she is not orientalizingly romanticizing the role of sound in Aboriginal practices, I wonder if she isn’t in fact exoticizing and romanticizing music as the “other” of philosophy. I’m inclined to read her text as using indigenous Australian rituals as illustrations of or gestures to a sort of deep, fundamental and foundational relationship to primordial forces. Their “singing” puts/keeps them in touch with the “vibrations” that constitute and underlie life, the earth, bodies, etc. Because they sing, Aborigines have access to a quality or mode of experience that philosophers do not. So, for example, Grosz argues that
among…the traditional indigenous groups inhabiting the central western desert in Australia, there is an explicit awareness of the interplay between the constitution of a territory and the eruption of the refrain and its impulse to becoming-music, as if humans did maintain an unbroken connection with the territoriality of the animal, and based their own on the extent to which the human can become-animal…It is because there is a direct connection between the forces and features of the earth and those that produce the body, it is because the earth is already directly inscribed contrapuntally in the body, that the body can sing the earth and all its features” (49)
I’m having a number of problems with this passage. (1) “Singing” means both a vibratory relational practice that is not at all the same as what we conventionally mean by musical singing, and what we Westerners mean by musical singing. Her account of Aboriginal singing slips between the two senses of this term. I’m no Australian ethnomusicologist, but I’ll bet that indigenous Australian culture doesn’t traditionally conceive of “singing” and “song” in the way that European culture does (e.g., as a defined work of art, as a secular ritual, an object for consumption and enjoyment, etc.). In order to call what Aborigines do “singing,” Grosz has to call on the traditional European meaning—they’re performing ritualized vocal incantations, which is more or less what we mean by singing. “Singing” and “music” are European concepts that may or may not map onto parallel concepts in non-western cultures. However, it is as “singing” (ritualized vocal incantation) that these Aboriginal practices become metaphors for “Signing,” the experience of cosmic co-vibration. It seems to me that Grosz is applying a roughly European concept of “singing” to non-European practices, so that she can develop a theory of “singing” that abstracts from the traditional European sense of “singing.” So while this account may not necessarily be classically orientalist, it definitely instrumentalizes indigenous Australian culture, reducing it to and putting it in service of Western philosophy.
(2) Even if it’s not necessarily the Aborigines who are closer to primordial vibrations, “song” is (and not just song, their song practices). Grosz definitely romanticizes song/music/counterpoint:
Lest this be construed as a romantic ‘orientalism,’ a story that refs only to a romanticized native other, it needs to be made clear that the occupation of territory, whether the consequence of war or stewardship, 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 has stirred numerous past and present patriotic, as well as resistant, hearts (50-1).
Music is the most exotic thing here; it, like Whoppi Goldbeg in Ghost is the “magical Negro,” the thing that connects bodies, vibrations, and (super)natural forces. In traditional European/Western aesthetics, femininity, blackness, and the orient are what connect alienated whites back to the earth, to their bodies, etc.
In Grosz’s text, music replaces blackness and/or femininity as the romanticized “other” that represents/facilitates bodily affect, liberation, connection, etc. For example, she states that
The becoming-music of the refrain is also the becoming-excessive or the becoming-cosmic of sound, the freeing of sound from any origin or destination and its elaboration as pure movement—movement without subject or goal, aim or end” (58).
Here, music is what deterritorializes and “frees” sound to realize its potential as “pure movement.” Or, music is what gets sound out of its stodgy status quo and revitalizes it with movement. Grosz uses “song” to describe the organization of matter into bodies, their environments (I use this term loosely), and the relations among the two.
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: the earth, however rarefied and abstracted, still marks every body and is the condition for every body’s artistic capacities. It is because the earth frames and engulfs the body that the body can sing the earth and the stories of its origin” (51).
So music describes the states prior to or in excess of subject/object distinctions, Enlightenment rationality, and Western philosophy generally. Prior to and beyond traditional Western philosophical systems, “music sounds what has not and cannot be heard otherwise” (57)—i.e., it gives us access to what philosophy obscures.
So, Grosz is really just re-hashing the discourse of aesthetic receptivity (white guys/philosophers are alienated from their capacity to be sensitive to art, embodiment, etc., so they have to appropriate femininity and/or non-whiteness to re-connect to the things whiteness and masculinity deny them), but putting music, song, and sound in the place or function traditionally reserved for femininity and blackness. In this light, we can re-read Grosz’s claim that “music is always minoritarian, a block of becoming, which is also a mode of giving voice to social minorities—a becoming-woman, a becoming-child, and a becoming-animal that cannot speak or articulate itself as such” (57). Music can be so easily substituted for femininity and blackness because, at least in Western philosophy, it is itself feminized and racialized as non-white. So subbing out obviously racist and sexist categories and replacing them with music doesn’t make the conceptual move any less misogynist or racist—music is only apparently, superficially race- and gender-neutral. So Grosz’s claim that she’s not being orientalist is actually incorrect.
And, just one more thing: It’s clear that Grosz (and Deleuze, and other Deleuzians) use “music” as an alternative to “sight.” I put these in scare quotes because I’m talking about these concepts as organizing metaphors we use to theorize. Traditionally, philosophy is viz-centric: it theorizes from, through, and in terms of a very specific understanding of what vision is and how it works, which is generally an empirically inaccurate account of the physiology of sight and the physics of light. (Or rather, empirically innacurate by 21st century science, but more or less in line with Enlightenment science.) I call this the “viz episteme.” But it seems to me that in the same way the viz episteme misrepresents the physiology of sight and the physics of light, this Groszian/Deleuzian musical/sonic episteme misrepresents the physiology of hearing and the physics of sound…to say nothing of actual music.
It is clear that Grosz doesn’t care much at all for actual musical practices, and is not concerned with theorizing from them. “Music” is a metaphor for an epistemic/organizational practice, not a cultural-historical tradition. More specifically, “music is…the rendering sonorous of forces, ultimately the forces of chaos itself, that are themselves nonsonorous” (57). So Grosz is using musical terms and concepts—like counterpoint and singing, but also harmony, melody, and rhythm—as metaphors for theorizing metaphysical and ontological concepts/processes. HOWEVER. Grosz uses culturally and historically specific musical terms without reflecting on their specificity. In so doing, she brings along a lot of conceptual/philosophical baggage, effectively naturalizing the metaphysical, ontological, epistemological, ethical/aesthetic assumptions built into these musical concepts. Ironically, these assumptions include the very visual episteme Grosz is trying to move away from. Conventional Western musical concepts were codified between the 17th-19th century, and are part of the viz episteme. If Grosz is trying to use “music” to re-think traditional philosophical accounts of metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, etc., then this unreflective use of musical concepts is self-defeating. Even though she’s not trying to talk about music music (i.e., music as a cultural-historical practice), her use of musical terms and concepts brings all the cultural-historical baggage that informs Western musical practice into her more abstract, philosophical concept “music.” It’s sort of like how mainstream attempts to appropriate femininity and blackness actually appropriate white patriarchial stereotypes about women and blacks—so there’s no real interaction with “others,” just a feedback loop between the hegemon and hegemonic framings of “the other.”