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Where is the voice without its body?
A virtual quest into musical embodiment
Michelle Oosthuyzen 3611205 January 2012 *** Course: Digital Music Cultures Teacher: Dr. Isabella van Elferen
Page Introduction: a voice without a body ..................................................................................... 4 1. Music: a way of being ............................................................................................................ 5 2. Reconfiguration of the human source .................................................................................... 7 3. Musical embodiment in a (virtual) reality .............................................................................. 8 Conclusion ............................................................................................................................... 10 Literature ................................................................................................................................ 11
Introduction: a voice without a body
“In the phonographic realm of the dead, spirits are always present. (…) How terrible it is to hear this copper throat and its sounds from beyond the grave! It is more than a photographic, or I had better say cinematographic, something; it is the voice itself, the living voice, still alive among carrion, skeletons, nothingness” (Kittler 1999, 53, 72)
There is no such thing as a voice without a body; at least this was the popular assumption before the arrival of the phonographic moment. After Thomas‟s Edison‟s invention of the phonograph in 1877, the voice could now be transmitted to a medium and therefore be reproduced independently of the body. The phonographic moment resulted in feelings of disembodiment as a result of what the Canadian composer and scholar Murray Schafer coined in 1969 as schizophonia: the separation of sound from its original source. In his book Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1999) Friedrich Kittler describes how the phonograph was primarily perceived as a medium to record and listen to the disembodied voices of the dead. According to Jonathon Sterne, researcher in the field of communication technology, sound recording could similarly be perceived as “a product of a culture that had learned to can and to embalm, to preserve the bodies of the dead so that they could continue to perform a social function after life” (Sterne 2003, 292). Richard Middleton acknowledges and philosophically explores this disembodied character of recorded music and provokes by claiming that recorded music is dead and that “all the voices here have, strictly speaking, left any body behind” (Middleton 2006, 4). Simultaneously, recorded music is perceived as less lively and/or less authentic as opposed to the live performance. According to Middleton‟s initial point of view, recorded music is physically disembodied as a result of schizophonia. With this in mind, Middleton successfully continues his quest by asking the daring question: “Was the body ever really lost? Or, to put it another way, hasn‟t it always already been „lost‟?” (Middleton 2006, 21). Even though the phonographic moment does put the traditional idea of a whole, natural and physical body in a state of crisis, it made explicit what was happening all along: the becoming of the body into more than just its physical, material form. With the concept of the vocalic body, originally coined by Steven Connor, Middleton further explores the embodying rather than disembodying effects of recording technology and thereby accomplishes a new understanding of the body “formed and sustained out of the autonomous operations of the voice” (Connor 2000, 80). With this essay I would like to go on 4
where Middleton left us. I will point out that the concept of disembodiment through music is actually fuelled with connotations and produces constraining presumptions about recording technology in general and embodiment in particular that is limiting our way of thinking. First I will look at how the Cartesian dualism between mind and body is reproduced within the notion of disembodiment. Afterwards I want to elaborate on Middleton‟s idea of vocalic bodies and in a similar fashion work towards a new understanding of what it means to be embodied within the context of digital reproduced music. In order to further open up the field for discussion and seek for the inner complexities, I will introduce the concept of the virtual as an object to think critically with. The aim of this essay is to move beyond the notion of musical disembodiment and focus on a new kind of musical embodiment, which in my opinion could be perceived as virtual. This leads to the following research question:
In which way does the concept of the virtual lead to new insights regarding the idea of disembodied music as described by Richard Middleton (2006) and how does this change our perception of embodiment and the body as such in relation to the digital (re)production of music.
1. Music: a way of being
The idea of disembodiment produced by schizophonia presumes that the mind (voice) could be separated from the body and vice versa. The rhetoric‟s of disembodiment is not specifically linked to music and is certainly nothing new. The disembodying effects of technology have coloured the popular discourse surrounding new media technologies with every technological milestone. Technology seems to render the body virtual, which would enable the Cartesian subject to free its thinking mind from the constraints of its environment and body. This idea of the split between mind and body refers to the idea of the famous philosopher René Descartes and has ever since been highly criticized for privileging the semiotic or disembodied over matter or the embodied. This privileging is exactly what is reproduced within the concept of disembodiment en schizophonia where embodiment is merely portrayed as the body itself: something physical, material and human. I want to expand this idea of embodiment and suggest that the body appears in more than just its physical form. While exploring the posthuman, Katherine Hayles tries to move beyond the Cartesian dualism by making a distinction between the body and embodiment; an insightful distinction for reversing the mind/body split present in the idea of disembodiment through music: 5
“The body is the human form seen from the outside, from a cultural perspective striving to make representations that can stand in for bodies in general. Embodiment is experience from the inside, from the feelings, emotions and sensations that constitute the vibrant living textures of our lives” (Hayles 2004, 229)
While respecting this distinction, Hayles introduces the concept of the mindbody to also illustrate the interrelation between and development of the body and embodiment in a dynamic flux (Hayles 2004, 230). What Hayles successfully emphasizes is that a body is not only biologically but also culturally reproduced. The body isn‟t a given or natural entity; it is a cultural construct that rises from its interaction with its environment. This indicates a process of becoming rather than a constant state of being or existing. Understanding embodiment as “a physical object and a space of representation, a body and a message”, we can begin to understand music as the message (Hayles 1999, 27). In the 21st century our technologically rich environment increasingly mediates and shapes this message. Not only technology but also art can function as a space of representation. This way of thinking leads to useful insights regarding embodied experiences afforded by music. Understanding music as a piece of art may challenge our understanding of what it means to have or be a body. Australian feminist Elizabeth Grosz celebrates this possibility by stating: “Good art, as much as good science, presents us with the possibilities of bodies that are barely conceivable, that challenge and problematize the very stability and givenness of bodies, that force us to rethink our presumptions and our understandings of what bodies are “ (Grosz 2006, 193)
And this is exactly what music is able to do. The phonographic moment that eventually led up to digital recording and (re)production of music problematized and simultaneously changed our traditional understanding of the body and embodiment through the process of synaesthesia. A synesthetic musical experience takes place when our senses get mixed up and we see what we hear. Synaesthesia turns the body as a given, natural, physical entity into a constructed, imagined representation; an image of the voice. Again it made explicit what was happening all along: the becoming of the body in more than just its physical form. When people hear music they have the natural instinct to imagine a source, even when the music is (re)produced by a machine (Middleton 2006, 22). Because of its highly associative character, Ken Jordan argues that music will always be accompanied by a visual experience or evoke 6
visual representations. “Even our experience of the most abstract music is invariably linked to something seen, touched, smelled” (Jordan 2008, 246). Music becomes embodied not in the sense of an actual physical body but in the sense of a constructed and imagined representation fuelled by highly subjective connotations. Rather than representing a loss of being, Jordan celebrates the ways in which musical mediation comes closer to capture our “ways of being” and how digital media grants us new ways of understanding ourselves (Jordan 2008, 262-263). Music not only embodies meaning, it embodies personal meaning, it embodies our past in the future and therefore it embodies a piece of us. Like music embodies us, we embody music when considering that voices are already subjectified and gendered (Middleton 2006, 7). Like in the dynamic flux suggested by Hayles, the one exists and arises within the context of the other.
2. Reconfiguration of the human source
I argued that the body comes into existence within the act of recording by means of subjectified voices and within the act of listening through the process of synaesthesia. Besides recording technology, digital music leads to a fundamental reconfiguration of the source as physical or even human since machines can now actually (re)create sounds. Sounds can be digitally produced and/or manipulated and therefore no longer rely on a physical, human source. This is a reason for critics to describe digital recordings as less authentic than analogue recordings. The concept of authenticity is embedded in connotations and normative values regarding disembodied music. In a chainlike reaction the concept of authenticity results in the idea that a digital (re)production or copy stands further away from „real life‟ and closer to death (See figure below).
But as concluded in the previous chapter, the posthuman comes into existence beyond its material, physical form and the body isn‟t a natural given but socially and culturally constructed entity. Furthermore in posthuman times, the boundary between man and machine is increasingly blurring as famously illustrated by Donna Harraway‟s concept of the cyborg (Harraway 1991). The split between sound and its physical, human source is no longer a 7
reason to refer to digital music as disembodied and therefore less lively, less human or less authentic. According to Sterne, this presumption suggests a certain “loss of being” in the act of reproduction or mediation (Sterne 2006, 338). A work of art looses a certain lively essence, an aura that is unique to the original work. The concept of an aura is central to the work of Walter Benjamin (1936/1998) who believed that technological reproducibility of an artwork would supposably lead to a disappearance of the original aura. The aura and thereby the authenticity of an artwork is supposably grounded in its unique existence in time and space (Benjamin 1936/1998). Sterne points critically at the premise that time is continuous and in the process of reproduction or digitisation, time is segmented and the music loses some unproven relation to reality (Sterne 2006, 340). Perhaps it is more productive to think about concepts such as authenticity and aura not as a given and unchangeable characteristic unique to the original work that can disappear in the act of reproduction but like the body as always under construction. Furthermore Sterne implicitly refers to a musical experience as a form of hyperreality when he argues that a recording doesn‟t copy a live performance; it records a recording and therefore it can be seen as a copy of a copy. In our hyperreal universe of simulation described by Jean Baudrillard, one can no longer distinguish the model from the real. This means that the signs that are produced by the media are in fact simulacra and have no actual reference in the real world (Baudrillard 1994, 122). In some sense, the idea of a hyperreal reproduces the dichotomy between the original production and the fake copy and the argument that the disconnected digital reproduction, like a copy, stands further away from reality. Therefore I will continue my argument by claiming that the embodied experiences afforded by digital music through the process of synaesthesia can in fact be rendered virtual.
3. Musical embodiment in a (virtual) reality
Music can immerse the listener into its own personal musical world, into another space and time. This relocation in time and space reminds of the immersion into virtual reality, which led scholars such as Isabella van Elferen to explore music in relation to the virtual (van Elferen 2011). Like with digitally (re)produced music, the virtual is haunted by its disembodying effects that manifolds into the Cartesian dualism between mind and body. The utopian discourse surrounding the advent of the Internet delivered the promise of immersion into the disembodied world of virtual reality replacing the real and physical one we live in.
Anne Balsamo, expert on the relation between technology and culture, describes this utopian discourse as follows: “VR in its celebrated media form seems little more than an escape from conventional reality, a way out for those who confront the severe limitations reality imposes in the form of (…) the physical body itself” (Balsamo 1996, 122)
Within this rhetoric of disembodiment the virtual is still opposed to the real and carries similar negative connotations as the digitally (re)produced as opposed to the live performance and/or analogue recording. In order to disregard these connotations and dichotomies I will explore the digital (re)production of music by the concept of the virtual beyond the idea of physical disembodiment and focus on musical embodiment. Van Elferen successfully tries to work around the dichotomy between the virtual and the real and argues that through its personal connotations and emotional associations, music creates its own version of virtual reality; a highly immersive musical virtuality (van Elferen 2011, 31). Although this immersion into one‟s own personal soundscape reminds us of the disembodying character of the virtual, van Elferen assigns musical virtuality another state of reality: “an alternate reality that is neither strictly virtual nor entirely real in the ordinary, dayto-day sense” (van Elferen 2011, 32). With this conception of the virtual in mind I will work towards my own understanding of virtual musical embodiment. Throughout the years, our perception of the virtual has indeed changed in relation to our post humanistic existence and increasingly technological mediated lives in which aspects and experiences of our day-to-day reality are being simulated. The virtual is now often linked to the images and simulations in cyberspace that intervene in our everyday life (Shields 2003, 46-47). When the virtual becomes the image, the images that come to mind through the synesthetic experience of music; the image of the voice and the personal images of our past, can be interpreted as virtual. Philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet also acknowledge the virtuality of memories and describe a memory as “a virtual image coexisting with the actual perception of the object” (Deleuze & Parnet 2007, 150). Music is embodied with the virtual memories of our personal past and therefore musical embodiment can be seen as virtual. Following this line of thought, I want to continue to refute the virtual versus real dichotomy by arguing that the musical embodiment has an actual effect on our real lives and therefore the virtual is no longer opposed to the real. Rob Shields argues that the virtual is no longer perceived as “an incomplete form of reality” but as an alternative to and manifestation 9
of the real (Shields 2003, 46). These thoughts correspond with Deleuzes famous interpretation of the virtual as opposed to the actual instead of the real (Deleuze 1991, 96). The synesthetic musical experience is indeed very closely linked with the „real‟ and material experiences of our day-to-day life. How a person experiences music when for example walking through the city, depends not only on the personal connotations this music evokes but is also influenced by the listeners‟ mood, the time of day, the environment, the weather and so on. Steve Bryson, researcher in the field of virtual reality technology, indicates the „realness‟ of the virtual with the following words: “Virtual Reality means to have the effect of having concrete existence without actually having concrete existence” (Bryson 2001). Musical embodiment actually penetrates reality through the process of synaesthesia “as it always-already allows ghosts of meanings past to haunt the present” (van Elferen 2011, 35). Now that I have concluded how musical embodiment can be perceived as virtual and that the virtual is not opposed to the real, I want to take my conception of musical embodiment one step further by taking in consideration the words of Deleuze en Parnet that “the virtual image never stops becoming actual” (Deleuze & Parnet 2007, 150). I will indicate how musical embodiment becomes actualized in the present. According to Shields the subject is able to convert the virtual into “actual sequence of becoming” (Shield 2003, 27). This corresponds with my conclusion in the previous chapters that the body isn‟t a given entity but in a constant process of becoming. As Jordan states: “Technology prompts new modes of subjectivity into being” (Jordan 2008, 263). Subjectivity is located within the body and is influenced by embodied experiences created by images of the virtual; images created by music. Music recalls the past and these recollections “continue to be evoked, to be embodied in distinct images, that is, to undergo the translation and rotation that characterize the first moments of actualization” (Deleuze & Parnet 2007, 150). In other words, the body becomes virtual through the process of subjectivation within music and “this virtual effect then posits itself as the actual ground” (Colebrook cited in Shields 2003, 28). What Colebrook means here is that the semiotic actually affects the real in the same way as subjectivation affect the subject, embodiment affects the body and therefore music through its virtual embodied experience affects the material body. Music enables new ways of actually being a body; a vocalic body. Music virtually embodies a piece of us and in reliving personal memories in a synesthetic music experience, the past is revived in the future and the virtual has become actual.
Within this study I have tried to counter the idea of disembodiment and explain how digital music can serve as a space of representation for the body. I have pointed out how the concept of disembodiment through music generates presumptions about (digital) recording technology and the body that allows discriminating between the real, material and human versus the virtual, fake and non-human. While acknowledging the physical disembodiment of the voice from its source made possible by recording technology, I continued exploring the virtual embodying effects of music. Even if the source is not human and a machine can produce music, I conclude that music can afford embodied experiences in which the body comes into existence. Descartes' idea that mental activities are of a different order from bodily activities is negated and in fact reversed when thinking about musical embodiment. Critically approaching the traditional idea of the body in relation to the virtual has implicitly proven that there isn‟t just matter and there aren‟t just natural given entities in our world. I have shown how the semiotic and the material are knotted together and that the semiotic is therefore no more or less real than the material. The body clearly exemplifies this overlapping between the material and the semiotic because subjectivity is located within the body. This also becomes evident when exploring the body in relation to digital music cultures. Digital (re)production of music shows that besides its material form, the body comes into existence through the semiotic process of embodiment because the body is in process of becoming rather than in a constant state of being. The physical body is always in search of a message and in this case, the message is music. Like a virtual memory, musical embodiment may be experienced as real but is neither tangible nor material. This is essential for understanding the significance of virtual simulations and their close relationship to material reality. This understanding in the end changes our perception of digital (re)production as opposed to the live performance or analogue recording and is exactly what makes musical embodiment similar to the virtual: just because the former isn‟t (as) tangible or material, doesn‟t mean it is less real.
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