Elaine Miller Scholar Session at SPEP 2022: some reflections on the relationship between her work and mine

I had the fortune of attending the Scholar Session for Elaine Miller at the 2022 SPEP (well, at least most of it–I had to duck out for a meeting before the discussion got going). Scholar Sessions are sessions focused on the work of a senior scholar. Elaine is both very esteemed and senior enough to have been my main undergrad professor from 1998-2000. The session was both a very deserved mid-career retrospective on the work of one of continental feminism’s main North American figures, and, for me at least, an opportunity to reflect on Elaine’s continuing if not exactly always legible to me influence on my own work. Since I didn’t get the chance to bring up my thoughts about this influence during the discussion, I’d like to talk about it here.

I took probably two to four seminars with Elaine in my junior and senior years of college (this is almost 25 years ago, please give my memory a break), and she was one of my two mentors for my summer research project on Kant and Schoenberg. I definitely remember reading Kant’s Critique of (the Power of) Judgment with her, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, and some Irigaray with her (I think I also read some Irigaray with Emily Zakin?). These were all texts that went into her first book, The Vegatative Soul. I must admit I never really read the book as it didn’t exactly speak to my main research topics–it’s about 19th century German philosophy and literature, and y’all know I mostly write about 20th and 21st century philosophy and music/internet culture. But those seminars basically were that book. They were also the core of my undergraduate education in philosophy. 

Listening to Rachel E. Jones’s reflections on Elaine’s work, it became newly clear to me exactly how central those courses were to my own thinking. Two main themes stood out: (1) nature, and (2) materialism. 

First, nature, or more precisely, the idea that nature isn’t an objective material reality, but a figure constructed to tell us something about ourselves. Elaine gets this idea from Kant, Goethe, and Nietzsche, and I get it from Rousseau, but it’s basically the main argument in my first book/dissertation. In the introduction to TVS, Elaine states: “My contention is that ‘nature’ is always presented as symbolized, and that nature and culture both negatively define each other and are sources for each others’ symbolization” (4). My first book basically connects this claim to one from musicologist Susan Cook about the relationship between “classical” and “popular” music: “Fictional categories like ‘popular’ and ‘classical’ are almost always set up in inequitable relationships of power and prestige wherein ‘the popular’ gives ‘the classical’ its worth; the classical is worthwhile only if ‘the popular’ is worthless” (142). Rousseau’s early musical writings are what I use to connect nature to music. Well before The Social Contract, Rousseau was famous for his beef with music theorist and composer Jean-Philipe Rameau. Rameau argued that musical harmony or consonance was grounded in the physical properties of sound waves (the overtone series), and Rousseau argued that musical harmony or consonance was a cultural convention…just like the concept of “nature” itself. So even though Elaine’s first book and my first book are about vastly different things, the underlying premise about nature is basically the same. I hadn’t realized how much of this idea I had absorbed in those undergrad seminars, and how much of it stuck around when it came to dissertation-writing time.

The second main point of influence is regarding materialism, or more specifically new materialism. Jones argued that Elaine’s first book prefigured, in a critical way, feminist new materialism; TVS was published in 2002, Meeting the Universe Halfway, for example, was published in 2007, and Chaos, Territory, Art in 2008. I’m going to have to summarize in very general terms because I didn’t take sufficient notes, but the basic idea is that Elaine argues for something like what Alexander Weheliye calls a “relational singularity.” According to Weheliye, “the interplay between the materiality of the apparatus and its discursive dimensions ceases to transact the binary drama it has hitherto enacted and splinters into a series of relational singularities that refuse to signify any ontological consistency before and beyond…Instead of a dialectical sparring between the transcendental material and cultural mediation, the history of sound technologies offers singular materialities” (205). Relational singularity is Weheliye’s term for describing the existence of objects and practices in an ontology where “the material” and “the discursive” don’t exist on separate ontological planes. Turntablism, for example, is a relational singularity: it emerged from the convergence of 20th century audio technology and Black aesthetic traditions, but neither of these things exist in independent ontological realms from one another. Grandmaster Flash, widely credited as one of the first turntablists, was an audio equipment repair tech who, because of the idiosyncrasies of his life experience, happened to stumble upon the idea of mixing one record into another on a set of two turntables. In Flash’s life, it’s not like Black expressive traditions exist on one plane and his day job fixing record players exists on another: they’re both mundane features of his everyday reality, given his relative position in the world as a young working-class Black New Yorker. From his relative position or “relationality,” material-discursive singularites that are unique to him exist. From the session, I understand Elaine to be arguing for something like this: an ontology in which “the material” and “the discursive” aren’t separable realities, nor does one have ontological priority to the other.

This is basically what I offer as a non-ideal alternative to feminist new materialisms in chapter 3 of The Sonic Episteme. There, I use Weheliye’s relational singularities as an example of theorizing materiality or resonance in a non-ideal way, i.e., in a way that recognizes even concepts of “matter” exist in a world significantly shaped by patriarchal racial capitalism, and any concept of “matter” that claims to describe any sort of pre-discursive existence just naturalize that shaping. Feminist new materialisms like those of Elizabeth Grosz, Karen Barad, and Jane Bennett claim to “overcome” past feminist ontologies and their purportedly limited focus on “representation” or “the discursive” to the exclusion of the material. Matter, they argue, is ontologically prior to representation. But, as I argue with some help from Sara Ahmed, this claim to pre-discursive materiality fails to recognize that “matter” is itself, uh, a discursive concept, much in the same way that “nature” is a figure. A more accurate gloss on The Sonic Episteme would be to say that “resonance” is always a figure, never an objective fact, and when presented as such all it does is naturalize hegemonic power relations behind the veneer of the nature of sound.
I know “teacher influences student” isn’t exactly the most shocking revelation, but The Sonic Episteme came out 20 years after I was first in one of Elaine’s seminars (sorry Elaine, if it’s any consolation it means we are both old lol). That’s evidence of some fundamental and ongoing influence, which was what stood out to me. Elaine works a lot on visual art aesthetics, and there was a side quip about music and my work on music during the session. What I realized while writing this up is that there is a very real way that I’m extending Elaine’s general “nature is always a figure!” method to music (book 1) and sound (book 3). I had never before thought of my projects as related to hers in that way–probably because it was over two decades ago that I last had her in class–but after the conference panel it was pretty clear to me that our work is related in this way.