SPEP 2017 Talk: Philosophies or Phonographies?: on the political stakes of theorizing about and through “music”

Here is the full text of my talk for the 2017 SPEP meeting. I’ve printed the introduction below.

Traditionally, in Anglo-American and Continental philosophy, music is addressed as the object of philosophical analysis: it is either a case study for developing broader, generalizable ideas about ontology, metaphysics, or ethics, or it’s the thing that we apply philosophical methods and concepts to. It’s the philosophy of music, remember. But in the last several decades philosophers in these traditions have increasingly taken “music” as a model for philosophical analysis–there’s a whole wing of Deleuze studies dedicated to this; new materialisms constantly refer to things like vibration, resonance, and other wave behaviors like diffraction; and continental figures like Nancy and Cavarero use ideas of listening and voice to build non-propositional and extra-representational methods of philosophical analysis. This is philosophy through music. Even though philosophy hasn’t had a lot of interaction or involvement with the newish but established field of sound studies, this shift from of to through correlates to one of the basic methodological approaches in sound studies, which uses close listening as the basis upon which theoretical insights are built. Sound or music aren’t just things we theorize about, but the medium or model for theorizing.


And this isn’t entirely new: Plato’s divided line exhibits the same geometric ratios or proportions he attributes to harmonious sound–musical harmony is his model for the True. And Nietzsche’s attention to the “gait and stride of [philosophers’] thoughts” (GS section 282) analyzes texts for their rhythm not their propositional content. Today I focus on two broad methods contemporary scholars use to theorize through sound: philosophies and phonographies. My talk is about these two methods for taking sound and music as a model for theorizing.


Treating music as the “other” of old-school, traditional philosophy, philosophies leverage that supposed otherness in an attempt to overcome philosophy’s skeptical melancholy. Across various parts of the discipline, philosophers use an audiovisual litany–the favorable opposition of sound and listening to images and sight–to mark their surpassing of philosophy’s old methods of abstraction. “Musical” methods supposedly fix all that’s wrong with: verbal/visual representationalism, subject-centrism, correlationism, anthropocentrism, hierarchies, patriarchy, identity politics, you name it. Philosophies turn to their “other” and appropriate it in order to reinvest in and renew Philosophy-capital-P.


Phonographies generally, though not exclusively, study Afrodiasporic sound and music aesthetics and identify the practices of abstraction these aesthetics use. Building on work by Alexander Weheliye and Ashon Crawley, I argue that these practices articulate and analyze patterns, sounds, or vibrations in parts of the spectrum perceptually coded out of Philosophy-capital-P. Far from reinvesting in philosophy, phonographies abolish it. Phonographies are “undisciplined” (Sharpe 13) methods of abstraction that don’t treat sound as extra-Philosophical material that must be improved by philosophers’ labor and transformed into a kind of whiteness-as-property.