Freedom Sounds and The Conjectural Body: Some (more) intersections between my work and Ingrid Monson’s

I am a huge admirer of Ingrid Monson’s work, and find it hugely influential on my own work (see, for example, my article on hipness in Contemporary Aesthetics). I recently completed Freedom Sounds, her book on the racial politics of jazz in the Civil Rights and Black Power eras. I was both super fascinated pleased by the fact that FS and my own recently-published book, The Conjectural Body, seemed to be asking similar questions. So here I want to spend some time clarifying the similarities and differences between my project in CB and Monson’s in FS—both to help me clarify my own argument, but also to help ground (and even validate) my argument. I think it’s sorta cool that I can say “See, I’m right! Somebody else thinks these questions are important, and comes to somewhat similar conclusions (but in a different context).” I’m also using this post as a sort of first stab at describing the book to a general audience. I’m going to be giving a college-sponsored “book talk” in the fall, and the target audience is the general public. I need a way of explaining what the project is and why it’s interesting to people with no background in philosophy, and probably an interest in music, but likely no expertise in it. Soooo, if you have comments or suggestions to that end, I’d really appreciate your feedback!

Broadly, Monson’s book investigates the slippage between racial-political discourses and jazz-aesthetic discourses in the 1950s and 1960s. At the most general, abstract level, she is interested in the relationships between race and music aesthetics. She asks questions such as:

  • How did certain sounds or styles come to be thought of as “black” or “white” sounds?
  • Relatedly, why do we (and what is at stake when we) make aesthetic claims in racial terms? Why do we (and what is at stake when we) make racial claims in aesthetic terms? For example, Monson finds that “many” mid-century debates about jazz aesthetics “were about race and racism, even when the ostensible subject of discussion was something else, like harmonic choices or swinging” (5).
  • What is the relationship between politics and aesthetics? Does an avant-garde politics imply or necessarily coincide with/require an avant-garde aesthetics? Or vice versa: does an avant-garde aesthetic imply or require an avant-garde politics?
  • “How do the structural and symbolic aspects of the music combine?” (176)

My book asks many of these same questions—sometimes exactly the same questions, sometimes more abstract or generalized versions of Monson’s more historically-specific ones. I address the second bullet above in my introduction, where I analyze a more contemporary example of the same phenomenon: Why does music critic Sasha Frere-Jones frame his critique of indie rock aesthetics in racial terms (i.e., as the absence of black people or “blackness”)? I use this question to introduce one of the book’s more fundamental, philosophical questions: Why does it make sense to talk about race (or other forms of embodied social inequality, like gender) via music aesthetics? How is this discursive move even possible? Why is it so easy to shift back and forth between race (and gender) and music aesthetics?

It is possible, I argue, because of the way Western political philosophers and music theorists understand the answer to the fourth bulleted question above. Which is to say: Western philosophy—especially European political philosophy—tends to conceive of social identities (like race or gender) and of music in similar terms. More specifically, it understands race, gender, and music in terms of embodiment.

I first realized this when I was reading Rousseau’s early musical writings (for the work that would become Chapter 2). Because Rousseau was critiquing music theorist Jean-Phillipe Rameau, I decided it would be a good idea to read some of Rameau’s responses to Rousseau. Rameau sometimes describes music as the product of resonating bodies. Music isn’t just “like” a body, it is a body. What does it mean to say that music is a “resonating body”? And not just music in general, but European tonality (or functional tonal harmony)? So why does Rameau, author of the definitive treatise on functional tonal harmony, conceive of music as a body?

Why? Because right at the same time that Rameau is codifying tonal harmony, European political philosophers are inventing the idea of race and transforming older models of gender difference into more Modern notions of gendered social identities. These attempts to theorize raced, gendered, and resonating bodies all share a common logic or problematic: they all attempt to ground evaluative differences (the different harmonic functions of, say, tonic, dominant, and sub-dominant, or masculinity and femininity) in the nature of bodies themselves. So, for example Rameau defends the position (contra Rousseau) that Western tonality is the best way of organizing sound because it is supposedly grounded in the nature of sounds themselves (i.e., acoustics). Similarly, Kant and Hegel will argue that Europeans are the most civilized, rational, best race of people because of either (1) the differences in European, African, and Asian bodies, and/or (2) the differences in cultural practices derived from the exigencies of living in European, African, or Asian geographies. All these discourses share the attempt to naturalize hierarchies by grounding differences in the immutable properties of bodies themselves.

This slippage among raced, gendered, and resonating bodies is actually quite obvious in some canonical works in political philosophy, feminist theory, and postcolonial theory. It is actually quite common for political philosophers, feminist theorists, and PoCo theorists to turn to music as an example, especially when they are examining embodied social inequality (i.e., race, gender, etc.). The first part of the book looks at some instances of this use of “resonating bodies” to theorize raced and gendered embodiment. Chapter 1 looks at the use of popular music in millennial postcolonial theory; Chapter 2 examines Rousseau’s notion of “conjecture” as developed in his early musical writings; Chapter 3 reads Kristeva’s use of Schoenberg. In all three of these chapters, I rework Rousseau’s concept of “conjecture,” and argue that it is a helpful way of theorizing the (perhaps untheorizable) material dimension of embodiment. Philosophers from Kant to Lacan have held that materiality is, to a greater or lesser extent, invisible to the theoretical gaze: for example, the very idea of “nature” is itself a socially-produced concept, so we can never analyze “nature” in and of itself. However, we really need to account for materiality, especially because we Western philosophers are constantly working with and against a tradition that denies, devalues, and elides embodied materiality.

This idea of conjecture helps frame and qualify our analyses of materiality, allowing us to be aware of the limitations of our theoretical apparatuses in ways that don’t prohibit us from attending to and valuing embodied materiality. In Monson’s terms, my idea of a “conjectural body” explains how the “structural” and “symbolic” aspects of the music combine (the fourth bullet point above). How do they combine? Taking “structural” to mean “material” or “natural,” and “symbolic” to mean “constructed” or “contextually dependent,” they combine in a recursive way (as Monson repeatedly argues). Symbolic elements are practiced and repeated, and eventually become structural—or, specific musical techniques are practiced until they appear to be “second nature”. Our abilities to hear and perform “music” are in no way “structural” features of our bodies; we learn them, but we learn them so well that we use these knowledges without having to consciously concentrate on them. As Monson explains, that’s the point of practicing:

Playing and inventing materials that were then practiced…turned intellectual knowledge into embodied knowledge, which in turn fed the discovery of new ideas both mental and physical. It is thorugh a continual process of dialogue among the senses, intellect, and body that the great jazz improvisers of the 1950s and 1960s were able to play intuitively and passionately with materials of great complexity that they had themselves devised (295)

Practicing turns new ideas into “second nature”—so what was once “symbolic” is now “structural”. Monson calls this internalization or “in-corporation” of ideas “recursive.” I use the term “conjecture” to describe this recursion. I picked the term “conjecture” because it emphasizes that what appears to be “natural” or “structural” only appears that way for us, who are theorizing based on our observations of a well-rehearsed performance. As Monson explains, “the embodied knowledge so cultivated [in practicing] becomes the basis of the ability to perform intuitively and responsively without the conscious overintrusion of intellectual interventions during performance” (295). We need to be able to theorize “embodiment” as something that is both learned and experienced unreflectively. My idea of “conjecture” is an attempt to do just that: we understand embodiment “as if” it were immediate, even though it’s highly mediated (or well-rehearsed).

This idea of conjecture also helps me: (1) understand what is intended by the term “intersectionality” more accurately; (2) argue why the musical context of Rousseau’s Essay On The Origin of Languages is key in understanding its philosophical argument (and thus show that Derrida gets the latter wrong because he totally overlooks the former); and (3) critique some supposedly “feminist” re-inscriptions of gendered serious/pop culture hierarchies (especially as manifest in Kristeva’s later work). So the first part of the book examines political philosophers’ use of music in order to develop this idea of a “conjectural body.”

The second part of the book addresses the second and third bullets above, but with more of a focus on the gendering of popular music (rather than Monson’s focus on the racialization of jazz subgenres or styles). Feminist musicologists have argued that we use implicitly and explicitly gendred terms to argue for the value (or lack of value) of specific styles of music. Serious/pop hierarchies take many forms, and yesterday’s “pop” can be today’s “serious” music. However, what remains consistent is the gendering of the serious/pop binary: serious music is masculinized, pop music is feminized. Put differently, whatever pop music is, it’s bad because it is feminine—the implicit assumption, of course, is that femininity is bad, undesirable, etc. In Chapter 4 I read Adorno’s writings on popular/commodity music through Irigaray’s critique of Marx’s theorization of commodities. Irigaray argues that women are commodities; this framework helps explain why Adorno always references female body parts, women, stereotypical femininity, etc., when arguing why commodity music is bad, damaging, etc. Unlike Adorno, Nietzsche positively values feminized popular music; I discuss this in Chapter 5. In the second part of the book, I try to give some philosophical grounding to feminist musicologists’ claims about the feminization of “the popular.” I also argue that, given the feminization of the popular, feminists ought to be interested in re-valuing the popular.

In the first part, I explain how and why we make aesthetic claims about music in raced and gendered terms. In the second part, I critique a specific gendered (and raced, but I don’t emphasize that so much in this book; I do flesh this out in some of my subsequent work) aesthetic claims. So I think The Conjectural Body is an interesting and useful compliment to Monson’s Freedom Sounds. It’s nice to know somebody else has similar ideas. And, to shamelessly self-promote, readers of Monson ought to read my book 🙂

Just as an aside, I’m also interested in Monson’s work for more meta-politico-methodological reasons. We’re both white women working on race and music, and our work primarily addresses music by African-American artists. I often reflect upon (sometimes in the form of “worrying about,” sometimes more critically or philosophically) the politics of me, as a white woman, writing on African-American artists, blackness, and US racial politics. I try to always be cognizant of my own position, be vigilant in my lookout for my own blindnesses and privileges, and generally try to not be part of the very problem I’m trying to critique. I admire Monson’s ability to do these things; if I ever ran into her at a conference, I’d definitely want to ask her advice about/thoughts on these concerns.