Is “other-thinking” an answer?

I just listened to a (rebroadcast) This American Life story about a car dealership on Long Island, trying to make a monthly quota set by their car manufacturer. The show plays like a human interest story, with a profile of the most prolific salesman on the lot (“I usually hit 30 cars in a month, 30 plus. But here’s the real crazy ideal:” he writes down the number 40, “I mean, that number is big, that’s a big number.” Remind us of anyone?), the Peruvian guy who reads Sun Tzu and takes notes from Hannibal’s battlefield tactics in the Punic Wars, the manager. But the perversity of chronicling a struggle to meet sales goals without considering the actual impact of the car manufacturing business is practically surreal.

The crystallizing moment is the big seller, who is engaging and has a big personality. He describes a sale that is down to the wire (the episode is utterly rife with Glengarry Glenn Ross allusions, both by the subjects and the producers), when he finally piles on enough pressure and sweeteners to get the guy to put down a deposit. It’s sheer adrenaline fueling the work this guy is doing in society. But of course it’s a short-lived high, and he needs another hit an hour later.

This is all by way of saying, maybe it’s wrong that unthinking or non-thinking is an alternative to our conviction of human transcendence, after Timothy Morton’s ideas on OOO and the environment and coexistence in the recent Guardian piece. That is, if we’re just looking at ways of relinquishing the things that make us (problematically) human, we’re not paying attention to the possibility that one doesn’t have to have a mindset of transcendent exceptionalism to cause damage.

The adrenaline pushing new car sales every month at a dealership on Long Island certainly isn’t thoughtful.


A recent thought on STS and musicology

In an edited compendium published in 2007, Lissa Roberts, Peter Dear, and Simon Shaffer argued that Mindful Hand as it relates to magnetism scientific experiments in the 19th century: ways of creating knowledge that are embodied rather than minded:

Cunning [localized or tacit knowledge] might be involved in the recalcitrance of local circumstances and materials; but how could it ever show value of and provide values for universal laws? This has informed the sense that rationalist standardization and cunning intelligence cannot easily be combined in the sciences. Yet they can be combined… (xx)

While perhaps still of interest in the field of musicology, the kernel of this idea is at least as old as Kuhn’s articulation of scientific revolutions. The simple assertion that American industry used experimental discovery to capitalistic ends, and that apparently straightforward applications of scientific principles were in fact guided and shaped by contingency and tacit knowledge, is not especially interesting, and certainly not generative outside of academic musicology. What is interesting is the relationship between late 19th century industrial standardization, which seemed to thoroughly rationalize humanity’s relationship with the physical world, and, in the face of that rationalization,the persistent mystification of parts of that relationship, specifically sonic elements whose objecthood was somewhat more difficult to nail down. In spending so much time on the century before the actual advent of magnetic recording, my work these days attempts to historicize the acousmatic inflection of music’s orientation to magnetic tape by incorporating the earlier American reactions to the electrification and industrialization of culture, and also, necessarily, the arts.
In the decades preceding the development of sound recording technology, attempts to build up a physical, objectifiable manifestation of electric and spiritual energy by individuals like John Murray Spear, Andrew Jackson Davis, and others demonstrate that electromagnetism’s apparent ethereality gave it a passing resemblance to other experiences of immateriality, including religious experience. Davis’ and Spear’s imputations of spiritual force to electricity, and magnetism especially, effaces the knowability of aesthetic as well as religious experiences. Grappling with the immaterial does indeed also entail grappling with material phenomena, whether the immaterial is mysterious magnetic and electrical properties of rare earth elements, the influence of spirituality on individuals’ actions in mundane as well as narrative-driven experiences of the American project, or musical and broadly sonic experience of and through technology. But it is the interface between the material and the immaterial, a space where concepts and phenomena are perhaps touchable but not graspable, where both musical experience and the discursive construction of cultural identity reside.
One fearsome question hangs in the air: whether basic assertions of the necessity of tacit knowledge and “cunning” in Roberts et al’s [ancient Greek] sense will be accepted by musicologists who find little if anything in common between their chosen (rarefied) field of study on one hand, and the murky, unstable mechanisms by which applied engineers negotiate value, fact, and productivity on the other. Because of the cultural capital that has accrued to fine art institutions, both in terms of genre (e.g. the symphony, the string quartet, the collegiate a capella ensemble) and literal, legal entities (The Metropolitan Opera), the kinds of labor that are devoted to their function have been heavily codified and hierarchized; one result of composers ostensibly residing on top of that particular pyramid is that their intellectual labor has a great deal of assumed value, whereas the work of (unionized) stage crews, musicians, or ushers suffer from the comparison. This high-low divide in work is heavily charged with valences with contemporary cultural production, consumption and critique.

Here’s to us all continuing to possess the clarity of mind to make those connections.

Reading now:

in making sense of the coming political reality, and staying awake to shifting ideas of race and racism:



“…by the age of six I had laid out some of my fundamental principles and psychology that remain with me today, and have shaped my perspective as a journalist.

  • First, I came to believe that humans lived in “reality zones” with quite different rules about identity, fairness and achievement. Inside each of these zones was an internally consistent reality, but as one crossed barriers of geography, class, culture, religion and race, the rules changed entirely.
  • Second, that whiteness, which was inconsequential to my early childhood, was of the paramount importance to understand.
  • Third, that I was able to cross these worlds and remain self-aware of how I was being perceived; and that usually it was not in my best interest to reveal that I understood how others were viewing me, because it made others uncomfortable. If I made people aware that I was observing their construct as intently as they were observing me, that made them observe their own construct in new and discomfiting ways. So I remained friendly and engaged on the outside (and inside) while keeping the more piercing aspects of my cultural studies to myself.
  • Fourth, and most importantly, coming from the above: that whiteness could be observed, even in fearful times, if one got close enough and stayed relatively silent.”


Watching now:

yes, the subtitles are like running through a forest full of trees made of involuted sentence structure, but in this interview (especially in the last third of this youtube clip) Simondon is on point talking about the importance but also the boundaries of the importance of technical objects to our modern affective epistemology.

what work is a musicologist?

I still don’t know.  I have been feeling OK about my public work for a little while now–a few months.  But, I wonder if there’s a better way to go about a theoretical intervention than a deep reading of historical materials.  I can’t help but think that since there’s a limit to how much one’s brain can do at once, focusing on theory necessarily crowds out the story one is trying to tell about things in the past.  But then, maybe the story is only important for how it means to us now, by which measure we shouldn’t bother too deeply with historical facts and so forth–they only slow us down from the real meaning of our work.  And having guest taught in a media studies/ literature-oriented class the other week, I can’t help but think that lit programs don’t worry so much about historical fact, so why should music programs be any more tied to the empirical? we’re in humanities departments, after all.