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.