Race & Emergent “Musical” Processes: on Grosz, Reich, & Gopinath

I first published this post on 10/3/14. I have made significant edits to the “Reich” section, so even if you already read the original version, this new version is worth a look.

This is another one of those Robin Thinks Out Loud posts. I’m thinking about the role of race in two different white people’s accounts of dynamic emergence. I am going to try to relate my own critique of Elizabeth Grosz’s use of Aboriginal “songlines” to Sumanth Gopinath’s account of race in Steve Reich’s “It’s Gonna Rain.” It may not work, but, we’ll see. Like I said: I’m thinking out loud.



(fwiw most of this stuff is revisions of what i’ve posted earlier; so, similar, yes, but different.)

I’ve been writing about Elizabeth Grosz’s use of “music” to theorize an ontology of dynamic emergence. In Chaos, Territory, Art, Grosz uses Bruce Chatwin’s description of Australian Aboriginal sonic practice as an example of the “musical” ontology she develops in the book. The sonic practices of racially non-white people are the focal point of her account of the “gradual process” of life’s emergence from chaos.

I’m getting this concept of “gradual process from Steve Reich. His essay “Music As A Gradual Process” begins and ends with the claim “the distinctive thing about musical processes is that they determine all the note-to-note (sound-to-sound) details and the overall form simultaneously” (8, 10). There is no predetermined form for, say, “It’s Gonna Rain”–that form emerges from the dynamic interactions of the individual notes. Though Grosz uses the language of counterpoint, her musical description of the relationship between body and nature or environment is actually quite Riechean. She says:

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 (CTA 45).

“Nature” is what emerges from the “note-to-note” interactions of living things among themselves, with inanimate matter, and with nature itself. This emergent process feeds back into itself: past “note-to-note” interactions materialize as the background conditions (nature) from which present and future notes are generated. This dynamic process of emergence is the foundation of Grosz’s ontology.

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?



Music Theorist Sumanth Gopinath shows that race is central to Reich’s process pieces, the pieces that inform the theory of gradual processes that so closely resembles Grosz’s ontology. According to Gopinath, Reich thought the then-dominant serialism was too abstract, written for analysis rather than listening. Seeking a more “authentic” musical experience than serialism could afford, Reich’s process technique appropriates two different types of racial non-whiteness as means to access what serialism’s abstraction voids–namely, musical form that can be understood as it is heard.  “It’s Gonna Rain” uses stereotypically “Asian” methods to uncover otherwise hidden blackness (i.e., the music in Brother Walter’s voice). Gopinath explains:

the Asian seems to function as the mode of authentic perception and being, the invisible eye (or ear) through which one might reach the African. As such, this logic seems to reproduce the nascent (white) counterculture’s fascination with things Asian as a means of structuring lifestyles while reproducing Americans’ insatiable curiosity about black culture (156).

Reich uses supposedly “Asian” methods to craft a musical form that reveals otherwise hidden “African” content. Hyperelite whites often use blackness as a means to disidentify with mainstream whiteness, in particular its disembodied skeptical melancholy (music for theoretical analysis, not for embodied listening). Following Gopinath, we could argue that “It’s Gonna Rain” uses blackness as a counter to the skeptical melancholy of Babbitt-style serialism (music designed more for analysis than for listening). But unlike the commercial white pop music of the day, which used African-American musical practices to access blackness-as-content, Reich uses “Asian” methods. Perhaps this is because they were aiming at different kinds of content: rock and R&B-influenced pop used blackness to overcome the limitations of Cartesian subjectivity, to reunite the thinking subject with his body; Reich used blackness to overcome subjectivity itself.

In both cases, some stereotype about blackness was the content that, via music, would liberate whites from the constraints of whiteness. Whereas the “White Negro”-style hipsterism of rock sought to liberate whites from sexualized, gendered repression of the body, Reich, as Gopinath argues, sought an entirely different model of liberation. The phenomenological experience of gradual musical processes takes the same form as the phenomenological experience of political liberation. However, the liberation that the process pieces “allegorize” (SG 52) is not liberation in the classically liberal sense of removing constraint and enabling full subjectivity (SG 15, 122). Rather, this liberation is the emergence of signal or order, of “structure…understood as a combination of dynamic, interrelated elements” (SG 53). Instead of freeing us to be subjects, processes free us from Western modernity’s subject/object metaphysics and ontology. As Gopinath argues, “Reich saw musical process as a means of facilitating ‘direct contact with the impersonal.’ In the famous closing lines of his essay, he notes that ‘focusing in on the musical process makes possible that shift of attention away from he and she and you and me outwards toward it’” (SG 150). Gradual processes are practices of becoming that liberate us from being subjects and/or objects. On this score, Reichian processes sound a lot like new materialist critiques of correlationism and subject-centrism: to borrow Bennett’s phrasing, gradual processes let us tune into “thing-power.” And for both Reich and for Bennett this “it,” this “thing power” manifests as voice, not speech. Citing Reich, Gopinath emphasizes that the phrase “It’s Gonna Rain” is a sonic pattern, not a lyric:

Using the voice of individual speakers is not like setting a text–it’s setting a human being. A human being is personified by his or her voice. If you record me, my cadences, the way I speak are just as much of me as a photograph of me. When other people listen to that they feel a persona present (Reich cited in SG 157).

Processes allow the voice to emerge where modernity hears only propositional content, and in liberating us from propositional speech, they liberate us from subjectivity. Listening in this way we can hear Brother Walter as “singing” in Grosz’s sense–as performing an emergent pattern of relationships with a chaotic material environment. As Reich explains,

As you listen to the result, you seem to hear all kinds of words and sounds that you’ve heard before, and a lot of psychoacoustic fragments that your brain organizes in different ways, and this will vary from person to person” (Reich cited in SG 156-7).

This is the key point: Reichian processes and Groszian “singing” are the same practice, the practice of becoming-voice as liberation from subjectivity. If subjects “speak” (and they most certainly do–just think of all the psychoanalytic emphasis on “the speaking subject”), then matter, “it,” vocalizes. Matter/it exists as the process of vocalization, as becoming-voice.

The opposition between speech and voice is what new materialist theorists use to make their progress past the subject/object binary legible. That is, they use the former opposition to make the case that they have overcome the latter opposition. In claiming to execute the opposition between subject and object, new materialisms (re)animate the opposition between speech and voice. And just as the subject/object opposition is racialized (white/non-white), the speech/voice opposition is racialized by a post-identity or post-race logic. Just think about it: both new materialism and MRWaSP present themselves as moving beyond tired old Modernist binaries. As so many feminist and critical race theorists have argued, those binaries are mutually constitutive: subjectivity is normatively white/masculine/etc. Because the Modernist subject/object metaphysics and traditional white supremacist patriarchy are mutually constitutive, the (very MRWaSP-y) inclusion and centering of racial non-whiteness is another way to disidentify with and critique of Modernist subject/object metaphysics. New materialism’s supposed de-centering of the subject intersects with MRWaSP’s supposed de-centering of whiteness.

Jared Sexton argues that neoliberal white supremacy abandons Modernity’s politics of purity and exclusion in favor of a politics of mixing and exception. The former organizes the world into a white/non-white binary, and enforces this binary by keeping the “white” category pure. The latter organizes the world into a non-black black binary, and enforces this by quarantining “black” from the healthy multicultural mix. New materialism echoes this shift from exclusion to exception: instead of a subject/object politics of exclusion, it advocates a biopolitics of exception in which any and everything is vibrant matter, except the stuff that’s not, the stuff that’s just dead. Everything is “vibrant,” except what’s not. So the question feminists need to be asking is: what isn’t vibrant (enough)? To answer this question, we need to examine the techniques and practices of “immobilization” (Dillon, TKTK), such as the prison-industrial complex and payday loans/student debt, that actively produce immobility, inflexibility, and non-resilience in poor and working-class black populations. Immobility is the inability to be appropriately responsive to one’s environment, to take opportunities and to not let a crisis go to waste, so to speak. It is also the inability to meaningfully impact one’s environment. It is, in other words, living death. The “exception” produced by MRWaSP inclusion, this living death is the underside of “vibrancy.”