On “Reason & Resonance” #1: the Descartes chapter, gender, and race

Up till now I’ve mostly read Veit Erlmann’s Reason & Resonance like Deleuze and Guattari suggested one read A Thousand Plateaus: jump in and read the slice you’re most interested in at the moment. This summer I’m going to try to read Erlman’s book all the way through, and, you guessed it, I’m writing my way through it.

The first proper chapter is about Descartes. Closely reading Descartes’ writings on music, hearing, and the anatomy of the ear, Erlmann argues that the epistemic subject Descartes constructs in his Meditations is neither as occularcentric nor as disembodied as it is stereotypically claimed to be. Even though the Cogito “has come to epitomize the cold, objectifying, ocularcentric and anti-sensual type of rationality that is said to have dominated Western thought for the last four centuries” (VE 30), “Descartes’ philosophy enacts an uneasy truce between cogito and audio…the joining together of reason and resonance in a new concept of personhood…self-fashioning that modern egos go through to this day: how to reason and resonate at the same time” (VE 31). Erlmann’s claim is that philosophers have (1) privileged ‘reason’ to the exclusion of ‘resonance,’ and thus (2) mischaracterized both the logic of Modern subjectivity itself, and the role of sound in early modern philosophy.

He’s generally right about the latter claim (2), but I think he’s entirely incorrect about the former one (1). Philosophers are well aware that the Modern subject is a dialectic between stereotypically Cartesian “skeptical melancholy” and stereotypically feminized, non-whitened “receptivity.” We may not have paid a lot of attention to Descartes’ writing on sound and hearing, but “resonance” isn’t the only way to get at the phenomenon Erlmann uses it to describe–the capacity to affect sensuously and be sensuously affected. As Robert Gooding-Williams’ work on Nietzsche’s critique of this classically Cartesian “skeptical melancholy” shows, you can also get at that phenomenon by paying attention to the gendering and racialization of that skeptically melancholic subject. White masculinity was what let a subject “resonate” or be sensuously “receptive” without diminishing his capacity to reason. Ultimately, what I want to argue for is a “both/and” approach: we need to pay attention to both sound/resonance AND the politics of gender and race to get the full story. Ultimately, modern philosophy didn’t hold skeptical melancholy and receptivity (reason and resonance) as categorically incompatible; rather, it used gender and race to determine for whom receptivity and resonance was a positive accomplishment, and for whom it was a pathology

To flesh that out, first I’ll explain Gooding-Williams’s basic argument about skeptical melancholy and receptivity. Then, I’ll show how Erlmann’s reading of Descartes’ concept of (in)concussum (i.e., (un)shakeable or (im)moveable, as in an unshakeable foundation for knowledge in the opening of the first meditation) maps onto Gooding-Williams’s framework. After that I’ll talk gender and race again.

Skeptical Melancholy and Receptivity

The standard feminist or critical race approach to mind/body dualism is that mind is masculine and white and body is feminine and non-white. Gooding-Williams’s analysis complicates that conventional story. He argues that Nietzsche identifies stereotypically Cartesian “melancholy of a skeptic, doubtful of his existence and dissociated from his body” (RGW 54) as a gendered problem faced only by men. “Zarathustra concludes ‘On Those Who Are Sublime’ with a sentence that genders the truth-willing, heroic subject of knowledge as male and his body’s power of receptivity as female” (RGW 48). Adding to Nietzsche, Gooding Williams shows, via a reading of the 1953 film The Band Wagon, that that these same “trials and tribulations of skeptical, modern subjectivity belong exclusively to whites” (GRW 54). His claim isn’t just that alleged disembodiment is a problem only for white men, but that receptivity, the capacity to be sensuously affected and to affect others sensuously, is a capacity that is exclusive to white men. When white women and non-whites feel things or make other people feel things, chaos ensues and we clutch our pearls: hence everything from Adorno ranting about jitterbuggers to Disco Demolition Night to rockism. The rest of us aren’t receptive, we’re hysterical or ratchet or thuggish or or or whatever negative stereotype you prefer.

So what’s at stake here isn’t just the capacity for sensuous affect and affectability, but the rationality of receptivity/resonance itself. Or: the issue isn’t being physically moved, but what physical movements you make; the same movement will be read as rational when a white man does it and irrational when anybody else does. This is, after all, the story of gendered cultural appropriation that The Band Wagon tells…and, well, the story that anyone who’s paying attention hears.


Erlmann’s analysis of Descartes turns on the first meditation’s use of the term “inconcussum” to describe epistemic certainty: “Although usually translated as ‘indubitable,’ inconcussum actually means ‘unshakable.’…inconcussum is thus surrounded by a semantic field carrying, apart from the idea of violent motion, specific sonic and even cognitive connotation…” (VE 31). Certainty means immunity to external movement, especially the percussive vibrations implied in the idea of “concutio” (VE 41). So, Descartes’ idea of epistemic certainty shares etymological roots with the term “cutere,” which was used to verbally represent then-current concepts of resonant vibration and sympathetic resonance. Unshakeability is basically skeptical melancholy–alienation from bodily affect, sensation, etc.–and cutere/shakeability is a kind of receptivity. Sympathetic resonance is the experience of being moved by others.

Erlmann sets up rational certainty (inconcussum) and resonance (concutio) as apparently mutually exclusive things that Descartes winds circles, throughout his career, to bridge. For example, he argues that the subject of the Cogito isn’t totally unmoved, because he’s receptive to his own vibrations: “The space the thinker traverses as he gains ‘acquaintanceship’ with himself by estranging himself from the world reverberates with voices engaged in an inner dialogue, an internal discussio” (VE 37). This means that Descartes faced the “dilemma of stabilizing truth by soundproofing thought while simultaneously taking for granted the percussive nature of self-reflection” (VE 37). Similarly, Erlmann notes that at the end of Descartes’ Compendium, “instead of excluding the sensuous, sympathetic…qualities of sound, here friendship and sympathy seem to frame reason, even embrace it” (45). SO the chapter sets up reason and resonance as two apparently incompatible things (concutio/inconcutio) that Descartes nevertheless tries to reconcile sometimes. Erlmann thinks we’ve overlooked this apparent inconsistency because we don’t pay enough attention to sound and resonance.

This isn’t a weird dilemma if we understand some kinds of cussio-s as more rational than others. If our analysis centers race and gender, what appears to be an unresolved tension is actually a totally resolved logic. Those internal discussios reverberate with the Modern subject’s white masculine body; they contain no foreign, irrational vibrations. And if we all have that same kind of body, then sympathetic vibrations won’t introduce foreign, irrational patterns. This is basically Kant’s point about sensus communis in the third critique. It’s also the point Plato makes in the Symposium when he defines what he means by the “love” in the “love of wisdom.” As I argue quite extensively here, Symposium shows that loving wisdom means aligning your body with the proportions of the Truth/logos, so that when you speak what comes out of your mouth will embody the same proportions it does. This bears on the issue of resonance because this idea that proportionate bodies will generate proportionate sounds is how ancient Greeks thought sound worked. Socrates had to rearticulate what Diotima told him because only when that information came out of the body of an Athenian man would it embody the same proportions as the True itself. So when Erlmann asks “for what is philosophy, other than, literally, friendship and intimacy: a resonant, amorous relationship between the subject and the truth?” (46), he’s right, but he’s not totally right. He’s missing the race and gender part: only Athenian/white men’s bodies can resonate sympathetically with the True, reason, etc. And it’s not the capacity to move that the modern subject lacks, it’s the capacity to move irrationally–because even when they appropriate otherwise irrational movements, these white dudes read as rational.

Erlmann is correct that reason and resonance weren’t as strictly dichotomized as the mind/body dualism story lets on. The reason we tend to overdichotomize isn’t because we ignore sound, hearing, and resonance so much as it is the invisibility of whiteness and the normativity of masculinity. Or, it’s not only occularcentrism that obscures the non-dichotomous nature of reason and resonance in early modern philosophy but also (and more significantly) the white supremacist patriarchy. The incentive to naturalize white supremacist patriarchy is much stronger than any incentive to naturalize occularcentrism.