On Music, Race, & Nature in Grosz’s Nick of Time

I’ve been working through Grosz’s recent-ish work to try to figure out what she means by “music” and what work it does for her as a thinker of matter and affect. Here I focus on her reading of Darwin’s account of the origin of music in Nick of Time. Grosz argues that for Darwin (and thus implicitly for her too) “music” is a form or manifestation of sexual selection, which in turn is what causes racial differentiation. But, when you read this Darwinian account of music/sex/race with and against Rousseau’s “Essay On The Origin Of Languages” (which is about the origin of music, too), it is clear that “music” and “sexual selection” are–at least in Grosz–already racialized discourses. It’s not that sexual selection gives rise to racial difference, but music/sexual selection is a way of appropriating “affect” as something that is racially “different” (i.e., not white).

And, I guess I should offer the caveat that these posts are probably a bit all over the place, and that’s intentional. I’m starting work on a new book project, and I’m using the blog for all my prewriting, idea-sketching, etc. So, pardon the mess as I think out loud.

Natural V Sexual Selection

Building on Darwin, Grosz distinguishes between “natural selection” as that which encourages survival, and “sexual selection” as that which is in excess of (and perhaps counter to) bare needs. She explains:

The sexes diverged through processes of natural selection. Sexual selection intervenes into, but does not override, natural selection, whose only criterion is the capacity for survival. Sexual selection enhances natural selection, even directing natural selection through the detour of individual taste and discernment” (79; emphasis mine).

Individual taste does not always line up with the option that is believed to maximize survival and fitness. (I still eat chocolate cake, even though I know it’s probably better if I didn’t.) You might say that sexual selection is entrepreneurial–it takes a lot of risks, but sometimes those risks bring significant future payoff. So, an adaptation or preference that in the present context seems like a bad decision may, as contexts change, actually be an advantage. As Grosz explains, “natural selection…[which] must deviate itself through sexual selection, in which minute variations of individual taste may have significant effects on subsequent generations” (87). Sexual selection is, in this view, a system of aleatory production, production that seems irrational and illogical, but which ultimately produces the variation that makes natural selection both possible and successful.

Sexual selection is how “incalculable” is subsumed by “a system as impersonal and algorithmic as natural selection” (87). But nowadays, with the data-crunching algorithms that are common in social media, dataveillance, & finance, these formerly “incalculable” individual preferences are totally calculable–Amazon and YouTube’s recommendation bots have my tastes more or less figured out. “Evolutionary fitness” (i.e., natural selection) is just too primitive an algorithm; in the age of eHarmony, we think there’s nothing “incalculable about the attraction to others” (87). [1] (I wonder: if we recalibrate our “algorithm” for what counts as success from “fitness” to “entrepreneurship” (from most well-adjusted to most profitable) does sexual selection seem more ‘rational’?)

It seems to me that Grosz likes Darwin’s concept of sexual selection because it’s the engine for individual variation: “Darwin’s work, with the centrality it attributes to random variation, to chance transformations, and to the unpredictable…a systematic openness that precludes precise determination” (92). Jacques Attali argues that neoliberal political economy systematizes aleatory production: “the aleatory can be perfectly well be conceptualized in a profoundly systematic way: indeed, in modern times it becomes the fundamental component of all theoretical system” (16). So, if Tiqqun’s Young Girl is the embodiment of neoliberalism as femininity, I wonder if Grosz’s neo-Darwinian “sexual selection” is the embodiment of neoliberalism as sexual difference. (From this perspective, ‘natural selection’ would be an example of more traditionally Modern/Enlightenment rationality, one focused more on regulated causality rather than deregulated chance?)


Sexual Selection → Music

As Grosz reads him, Darwin attributes music to sexual selection: sexual selection is the purpose of music, or music is a medium for sexual selection.

Vocalization not only has survival value, but primarily functions as a sexual lure…Music, the pleasurable, rhythmical repetition of sounds, the variability of melody and cadence, was selected, not simply, as Darwin suggests in Origin, because of survival value…but also, perhaps above all, because of their appeal to the opposite sex and especially because of the pleasure of male sounds to female ears…This musicality, the articulation of sounds, not simply for information, but for expression and seduction, is part of the genealogy of language, part of the reason, perhaps, that language itself is always playful, always seductive, always has the capacity to convey and induce pleasure (77).

Distinguishing music, which is pleasurable, seductive, playful and expression, from clearly and efficiently formulated sounds designed primarily to communicate information, Grosz’s Darwin echoes Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Essay On the Origin of Languages.

Arguing that “the needs dictated the first gestures and the passions wung the first voices [voix]” (252), Rousseau makes a distinction more or less equivalent to the one Grosz draws between natural and sexual selection: passion exceeds mere need or survival. Rousseau thinks that sonic/spoken language is what brings us out of the state of nature:

one has to go back to some cause that depends on locality and antedates even morals [ie customs]: since speech is the first social institution, it owes its form to natural causes alone” (EOL 248).

So, Rousseau thinks that spoken language is grounded in, but exceeds bare physical existence. It’s not something we need–in fact, he argues that “if we had never had any but physical needs, we might very well never have spoken and yet have understood one another perfectly by means of the language of gesture alone” (EOL 251). Sonic language arose because social interaction gave people reasons beyond bare need–what you might call desires–to communicate. [2]  As Rousseau understands it in the Essay, we have sonic language because it feels good.

But, for Rousseau, not all languages are created equal. “Northern” languages, like French and German, arose more from need (“aidez-moi!”) than from passion, so their sonic/affective dimensions are sacrificed for clear and efficient communication of informational content. “Southern” languages, like Italian, arose from social intercourse (“aimez-moi!”). European languages have all, in general, lost their accent, that is, “the inflections of every sort, that constitute the greatest part of the vigor of the language[,] and make a phrase, that is otherwise common, the only appropriate one in the place where it is” (260). Accent, for Rousseau, is the affective dimension of language; this affective dimension is necessarily tied to the concrete, materially individuating relationship a sound has to its environment. Accent is, in other words, how individual variability manifests materially in spoken language.

Because they are less generic and universal, because they are more individually tailored to local conditions, accented sounds are more powerfully affective than, shall we say, ‘quantized’ or ‘normalized’ sounds. [3] “These accents…penetrate to the very depths of the heart, in spite of ourselves convey it to the emotions that wring them from us, and cause us to feel what we hear” (EOL 250). On this point, Grosz’s Darwin sounds a lot like Rousseau:

Darwin also argues that musicality has become closely associated with expression, affect, and emotion…Whatever its origin, music for humans retains its similarity with instinctive articulations and the excessive, nonutilitarian pleasures potential to all higher animals. This inherent playfulness and erotic charm…” (78).

Both Rousseau and Grosz’s Darwin think sound is the domain of affect, of robust concrete materiality.

Moreover, both Rousseau and Grosz think that representational/symbolic systems are more accurate but less affectively intense than properly ‘musical’ systems. As Rousseau puts it, “visible signs make for more accurate imitation, but..interest is more effectively aroused by sounds” (250/1). This sounds a lot like Grosz’s version of the new materialist critique of textual/linguistic feminisms: “models of subject-inscription, production, or constitution lack material force; paradoxically, they lack corporeality. They have been stripped of their bodiliness and thus of their force, energy, and activity” (4). Repeating “force, energy, and activity” at the end of her sentence, Grosz’s phrasing even sounds like Rousseau’s.

I have argued here that philosophers often use “music” as a way to get over what they perceive to be philosophy’s “skeptical melancholy”–its supposedly cold, affect-less propositionality, its ignorance of material warmth and embodied ‘resonance.’ Is Grosz’s new materialism similarly an attempt to overcome and/or counter feminism’s supposed “skeptical melancholy”? Is she critiquing textual/linguistic/representational feminism for its disembodiment, its skeptical melancholy? Is Grosz’s “new materialism” just the newest variation on an old theme, which is looking to feminized/racially non-whitened phenomena to reinvigorate theoretical practices that are felt to be too skeptically melancholy? [I mean, given the centrality of Nietzsche to Nick of Time, and Robert Gooding-Williams’ critique of Nietzsche’s own turn to the feminine (which, as I argue here, is a racially non-white femininity) to overcome philosophy’s skeptical melancholy, I’m inclined to think that this is, in fact, the case.]

Interestingly, Rousseau thinks attention to material vibrations is what causes us to overlook the affective, dynamic dimension of music and language. [4] New materialists such as Grosz seem to think that attention to material vibration is what recovers the affective and dynamic dimension of sound for theory.

Arguing that sonic language, accent, and affective communion are the result of human responses to nature (that is, to geographical and environmental conditions) [5], Rousseau challenges the underlying philosophical move made by 18th century music theory and 18th century race theory: that a hierarchically-ordered structure could be inferred from the “nature” of sound and/or the “nature” of people (their physiology and the geography in which they live) [6]. He quips, “They say that it can be explained by the difference in organs. I should be curious to see this explanation” (EOL 252). Like Grosz’s Darwin, Rousseau challenges the idea that “languages are defined…by their characteristics, their material, that is, morphological and phonological features” (27). His emphasis on human responsiveness to environment might be comparable to some Darwinian notion of adaptation. So, on the one hand, Rousseau and Grosz’s Darwin seem to be bookends on more or less the same century-long page. But I think they’re actually on quite different pages. Whereas Rousseau cautions us against biological explanations for cultural phenomena like music and language, Grosz’s Darwin takes Rousseau’s critique and re-biologizes it according to a new understanding of biology. That is, Grosz’s Darwin biologizes the responsiveness that Rousseau posits as evidence of music/language’s non-naturalness (it is a social/conventional [in his words, moral] response to natural conditions):

what remains crucial and relatively unrecognized by feminists and others in his [Darwin’s] writings is the reconfiguration of culture in light of the fundamental openness he attributes to the natural world. Culture–whether patriarchal, class-based, or racist–is no longer the extension and completion of nature, the coloring in of the contours provided by nature. Nature is open to any kind of culture, to any kind of ‘artificiality, ‘for culture itself does not find pregiven biological resources, but makes them for its own needs, as does nature itself. Culture produces the nature it needs to justify itself [this is exactly Rousseau’s point], but nature is also that which resists by operating according to its own logic or procedures. A reconfiguration of nature as dynamic, of matter as culturally productive, of time as a force of proliferation, is thus central to the ways feminism itself may be able to move beyond the politics of equalization to more actively embrace a politics of affirmative difference” (72)

Rousseau critiques his contemporaries’ view that culture is and ought to be “the extension and completion of nature.” He thinks that human social/cultural activity “makes for them its own needs” out of what nature presents them.

As I have argued here, the implications of Rousseau’s Essay (and the rest of his early musical writing) for theories of gender and race is this: Enlightenment theories of gender and race thought there was a “natural” order of bodies, and that a society could admit no inequalities except those that were already grounded in/reflective of the natural order of bodies. So, women and non-whites could be excluded from full citizenship because their inferior position in civil society was merely reflective of their natural, biological inferiority. Civil society (or the public) could claim to be equal, because all inequalities were limited to nature (to the private). Rousseau, on the other hand, argues that these apparently ‘natural’ hierarchies are human responses to what they perceive to be ‘natural’ conditions. Grosz’s Darwin gets us little further than Rousseau’s early-career critique of social contract theorists (which is much better than his later work on the social contract). Basically, what Grosz’s Darwin does is give us neoliberal grounds to critique classically liberal theories of social inequality, in particular, their treatment of “nature” and “difference.” Grosz advocates “affirmative difference”–which sounds a lot like neoliberal multiculturalism/MRWaSP (more on that in the next post)–and dynamic, emergent nature (again, more on that in a future post–but this definitely needs to be thought with Foucault’s discussion of the role of ‘nature’ in classical and neoliberal theoretical writings in Birth of Biopolitics).


Sexual Selection & Race

According to Grosz, race is the product of sexual selection, which produces the individual variations that get intensified into races.

Darwin suggests the effects of sexual selection are most manifest in the long-term production of racial diversity…Sexual selection–taste, individual choice, preference, aesthetics–may have directed what were once slight variations in individual racial characteristics (color, features, proclivities) could provide criteria by which males and females choose each other as sexual and reproductive partners (79/84).

From the perspective of critical race theory, especially recent work on aesthetics and race, Grosz’s account of race is, well, primitive. Sure it has the advantage of saying race isn’t genetic/the result of natural selection, but the effect of individual taste or preference–something that’s been made, not something that’s given. [7] But come on–race isn’t the result of sexual selection, it’s the product of white supremacy. The phenotypical characteristics we refer to as “races” would exist without white supremacy, probably (but we may not even be aware of them as such), but they wouldn’t be races.

Contemporary CRT–or, the best work in contemporary CRT–is really over the “race isn’t natural” schtick. The consensus now is that race is biological in precisely the sort of  new materialist sense that someone like Barad would endorse: “race” is biological because white supremacy is an agential cut that deeply impacts the arrangement of objects/matter/etc. For example, The only reason we call these sub-species varieties of human being “races” is because of white supremacist theories developed in the Modern/Enlightenment era. “Races” didn’t originate millennia ago; they originated at some point after the European discovery of the Western hemisphere. Physiological, anatomical race wouldn’t exist without the idea of race (similar, interestingly, to how homo/heterosexuality didn’t exist as such until the invention of “sexuality” in the 19th century), which itself arose from Europeans’ attempts to make sense of what they understood as material differences in humans’ physiological and cultural responses to various geographic and environmental conditions.

Arguing that sexually preferable traits are merely “otherwise insignificant characteristics” (87), Grosz’s account of race as the result of (apparently neutral, non-racist because pre-racist) [8] individual preferences is also out of step with contemporary research on the role of aesthetics in racialization. Monique Roelofs shows that taste “serves as a racial border patrolling technology and institutes racial boundaries.” In other words, taste is never “otherwise insignificant.” As Roelofs puts it, “judgments of taste line up the furrows of the racial community to establish a distribution of virtue and labor.”

My main difficulty with Grosz’s account of race is, well, the absence of any structural account of white supremacy. There is, for example, no account of why individuals might find some traits preferable to others. Moreover, her whole account is premised on the idea that there can be an idea of “race” prior to and independent of white supremacy as an institution. Which, historically in philosophy, is just incorrect.

I also wonder–and this is definitely something I need to think more about–if Grosz’s celebration of racial/sexual difference as sources/evidence of randomness and variability falls under the sort of neoliberal ‘multiracial’ white supremacy that Jared Sexton and others critique. Grosz thinks “racial differences are, in other words, entirely transformable, entirely open to historical and social transformations, though they must always be mediated by sexual relations’ (85). So, transformation of race difference/race relations is tied to sexual practices. That’s central to Sexton’s claim that institutions privilege respectable sex as a way to make sure that variations in racial identity–‘multiracialism’ or ‘mixed race’ people–don’t impede the survival of white supremacy. From this perspective, tying race to sexual selection as an engine of variability (and race being the expression of that variability), is absolutely in line with multiracial white supremacy, not a challenge to it.

Though Grosz’s Darwin’s account of race might critique 17th and 18th c ideas that informed classical liberalism, it seems to fit quite neatly with the theories of race that emerged in the 19th century: Grosz’s Darwin argues that music/language originated as the effect of sexual selection–it intensified the pleasures therein. Race also is the effect of sexual selection–of the intensification individual taste and preference over generations. This is a 19th c rather than a 18th c understanding of race (see Foucault in SMBD for more on those differences). In fact, Grosz’s Darwin doesn’t make the 18th c move Rousseau criticizes: neither music nor race are the effect of natural selection. Rather, as sexual selection they are the effect of humans’ transcendence (in the Beauvoirian sense of responding to a limitation and transforming it, like the airplane transcends humans’ flightlessness) of “natural” conditions. But in the century between Rousseau and Darwin, race discourse changed drastically–as Foucault tells it, the 19th century is the birth of the biopolitical concept of race, race as a matter of a population’s health, not of individual morphology. Arguing that “the study of languages in their diversity is best facilitated, not thorough evaluations of their internal complexity, their essential features, but in terms of both their history and their adaptedness, their functionality in the present” (31), Grosz’s Darwinian views on the origin of language reflect this biopolitical-ish understanding of race as population- or species-level health–adaptedness and functionality. In fact, I think there’s evidence to show that this emphasis on responsive adaptation resonates with the concept of neoliberal subjectivity as homo economicus, who is understood (ex post facto) as responding systematically to its background conditions. Grosz argues that “species and languages are defined…through their relations of descent…on broad principles of change gleaned from the historical forms of change they have already undergone” (27). These “broad principles of change” sound a lot like the systematic responsiveness of an algorithmically-modeled dynamic system (which, IMO, is another way of describing homo economicus’s economic rationality). Also, this idea that species & languages aren’t morphologically definable, but relationally definable, that sounds a lot the shift from content-based to pattern-based epistemologies (eg listening to what you say vs the big data style of listening, which notices patterns of relationships among speech-events).


[1] “This attractiveness is more difficult to reduce to algorithmic form that Dennett’s proposition implies: there is something incalculable about the attraction to others , even in spite of attempted codifications of attractiveness in terms of evolutionary fitness” (87).

[2] “Around the fountains which i have mentioned [so the desert, not the mild climates], the first speeches were the first songs: the periodic and measured recurrences of rhythm, the melodious inflections of accents, caused poetry and music to be born together with language, or rather all this was nothing other than language itself inthose happy climates and those happy ages when the only pressing needs that required another’s collaboration were the needs born of the heart” (EOL 282)

[3]  “as accents disappear and quantities are equalized, they are replaced by grammatical combinations and new articulations…it becomes more precise and less passionate; it substitutes ideas for sentiments, it no longer speaks to the heart but to the reason. As a result accent dies out, articulation spreads, language becomes more exact, clearer, but more sluggish, more muted and colder” (EOL 256).

[4] “Note how everything constantly brings us back to the moral effects about which I have spoken, and how far the musicians who account for the impact of sounds solely in terms of the action of air and the excitation of nerve fibers are from understanding wherein the force of this art consists. The more closely they assimilate it to purely physical impressions, the farther away they remove it from its origin, and the more they also deprive it of its primitive energy. By abandoning the accents of speech and adhering exclusively to the rules of harmony, music becomes noisier to the ear and less pleasing to the heart. It has already ceased to speak, soon it will no longer sing and then, for all of its chords and harmony, it will no longer have any effect on us” (EOL 293).

[5] “The preceding division corresponds to the three states of man considered in relation to society. The savage is a hunter, the barbarian a herdsman, civil man a tiller of the soil. So that regardless of whether one inquires into the origin of the arts or studies the earliest morals everything is seen to be related in its principle to the means by which men provide for their subsistence, and it is for those among these means that unite men, they are a function of the climate and the nature of the soil. hence the diversity of languages and their opposite characteristics must also be explained by the same causes” (EOL 272).

[6] Rousseau sarcastically critiques his opponents here: “I, however, have shown you the great, the true principles of the art. What am i saying, of the art? Of all the arts, Gentlemen, of all the Sciences. The analysis of colors, the measurement of prismatic refractions provide you with the only precise relations to be found in nature, with the rule for all relations” (EOL 283; emphasis mine).

[7] “Racial differences are themselves the long-term result of sexual rather than natural selection” (Grosz 84)

[8] “Human racial differences, while they may be the result of the selective diversification and intensification of what were once individual differences” (Grosz 84).