Ethnomusicology and the body

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

It is such a strange artifact of Cartesian dualism that we have to specify experiences as being “bodily,” as if there were some other kind. It’s like specifying that a place is in the universe.

René Descartes

Blacking (1977) observes that we can understand the convention of the mind/body dichotomy as a cultural construct, a reflection of the way that capitalism divides manual and mental labor, and puts pressure on us to use our bodies in a lopsided way (see, for example, my being hunched over my computer right now.) Furthermore, the mind-body split symbolizes the left brain/right brain split. The arts require both sides of the brain, and this may be their biological function in humans: to activate both brain hemispheres and let us attain a more complete and unified consciousness.

Because music lights up all of the brain areas, it “can create a world of virtual time in which things are no longer subject to time and space, it can make people more aware of feelings they have experienced, or partly experienced, and so restore the conditions of fellow-feeling, body awareness, educability and plasticity that are basic to the survival of the species” (Blacking, 1977). But if music is such a basic survival tool, why is musical ability distributed so unevenly compared to language ability? Perhaps this is just a function of the way we are socialized. If we had the same exposure and support for musicality in early childhood that we do for language, argues Blacking, we might all play as well as we speak. It is no great mystery that talented musicians tend to come from musical households, from Mozart to Paul McCartney to Rakim Allah.

Hearing precedes vision in our bodily experience. I always wondered why loud white noise is so effective for soothing babies, until I learned in Lamaze class that it simulates the noisy environment of the womb. “The body begins with sound, in sound. The sound of the body is the sound of the other but it is also the sound of the same” (Kapchan, 2015). The whole point of music is to dissolve the barriers of ego. Kapchan points out that performers of Sufi music are called “listeners” rather than “singers,” but all good musicians are adept listeners. The “sound body” occupies the same bag of seawater as the “legal body” but their behavior is often in conflict. It is not just racism that makes musicians seem so disreputable: as Kapchan puts it, the sound body refuses to be owned.

White people claimed ownership over a lot of bodies while settling the Americas and carrying out the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The so-called “New World” was not so much discovered in the Caribbean as invented there (Roach, 1996). We use performances to enact the “circum-Atlantic interculture,” expressing memories of collisions and substitutions, however partially or unknowingly. Jay-Z’s recent video for “The Story of OJ” illustrates how much blackface minstrelry still underpins our mass culture, for example in the white gloves of cartoon characters. Ta-Nehisi Coates says that Europeans invented whiteness as a way to distinguish themselves from their dystopian fantasy of Africa, and to justify their subjugation of its people. In Roach’s telling, Mardi Gras Indians “restage events of circum-Atlantic encounter and surrogation in which European experience remains only obliquely acknowledged, if at all.“ Performances of mimicry and parody propose alternate realities, new substitutions that might take place. When white supremacists chant “You will not replace us,” they know it is a real possibility, however eventual it might be.

Eidsheim (2015) uses her description of her Noise Clothes project to assert her belief that designating “any sound resulting from action” qualifies it as music.” This is an article of faith among many of my more avant-garde friends and colleagues, one that produces an immediate and involuntary eye roll in me. It is true that “production is mangled by self-surveillance” when we are discussing speech, but hearing digital feedback is an unusual and highly artificial experience. In a musical context, isn’t meaningful production enabled by self-surveillance? When we focus on process to the exclusion of product, doesn’t that neglect an essential social component of music? Milton Babbitt may rhetorically ask, “Who Cares If You Listen,” but should he then expect that anyone will be willing to listen? My kids expect my attention to their art process regardless of product, and I’m happy to indulge them, but this is not my relationship to anyone else’s music.

All of that said, I find Moten (2010) persuasive when he argues for the avant-gardist “right to obscurity” as “a political imperative that infuses the unfinished project of emancipation as well as any number of other transitions or crossings in progress.” Socially marginal and oppressed people should be able to keep secrets, especially when their art faces intense public and commercial scrutiny, as is the case in American Afrodiasporic music. Moten differentiates rejection of conventional constraint from self-indulgence when he locates Cecil Taylor in “a tradition of freedom but not of license.” Moten also points out that experimentalism and artistic privacy can inhabit the music that is coded as vernacular as well as that which is coded as avant-garde. Besides, the jazz musicians who Moten admires have a way of transgressing and confounding highbrow/lowbrow categories.


John Blacking (1977) Towards an Anthropology of the Body. In The Anthropology of the Body, John Blacking, ed. London: Academic Press.

Joseph Roach (1996) Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance. New York: Columbia University Press.

Nina Sun Eidsheim (2015) Sensing Sound: Singing and Listening as Vibrational Practice. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Charles Henry Rowell (2010) “Words Don’t Go There – an Interview with Fred Moten.” In Fred Moten (2010), B Jenkins. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

2 thoughts on “Ethnomusicology and the body

  1. “White people” didn’t claim ownership, some people in powerful positions did. This race-baiting is destructive and historically inaccurate. Mass Slavery, slave trading, and ownership was happening for hundreds of years in Africa and middle east before any Europeans set foot there, and still does. The Europeans joined the slave system that African tribe leaders and Arabs had established, and extended it to Americas. When Europeans arrived in Africa, enslaving entire villages was a common outcome in raids and conflict. So please, don’t try in intimate that slavery was some kind of “white person” invention.

    • Europeans and Americans certainly didn’t invent slavery, but they did industrialize it. They were able to enslave orders of magnitude more people, to transport them across oceans, and extract labor from them with vastly greater efficiency. While white people don’t have a monopoly on cruelty, we do have a special ability to exercise it at scale.

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