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  • Down with Disembodiment; or, Musicology and the Material Turn
  • Holly Watkins (bio) and Melina Esse (bio)

Confronted with the spread of electronic technologies into nearly every corner of musical life, musicologists and practitioners of sound studies have avidly embraced the theme of music’s technological mediation. The mp3 file format, the “cybersounds” of the Internet music scene, and the instrumental ensemble of the modern orchestra are just a few topics that have served as subjects of recent critical and historical inquiry.1 Summing up this disciplinary activity, Emily Dolan contends that “musical technologies have become the objects that hold our fascination, that demand analysis, explanation, and contex-tualization.”2 Dolan portrays this “material turn” as a necessary corrective to musicology’s long-standing idealism, which holds that musical works possess an identity separate from their realizations in performance and from the techniques of inscription (whether those of memory, writing, or recording) that render them repeatable.3 In a more interdisciplinary register, media theorist David Cecchetto categorically states that “today’s subject is first thought in relation to technology,” thus outlining a mode of analysis that seeks to both assimilate and supersede consideration of the social and bodily dimensions of subjectivity.4

To be sure, the economic, social, and perceptual ramifications of music technologies, both historically and today, deserve careful study. Equally deserving of study, however, is the way in which the scholarly fascination Dolan [End Page 160] identifies mirrors the fascination with technology among those denizens of the world whom Jared Diamond calls weird (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic).5 Just as gazing at a computer screen or smart phone often results in attenuated body awareness and movement, scholarship focusing on music technologies likewise tends to sideline that other material resource required for musical experience: human bodies. As materials for study, the intricacies of music perception, bodily responses to music, and the coordination of mental intentions and motor skills in musical performance appear to hold less interest for musicologists than the industry-driven technologies supporting musical production and consumption. The end result is a certain rhetorical drift by which humans become “users” who adapt, in deterministic fashion, to a changing array of inventions and their accompanying interfaces.

The enormous cultural prestige of technology is not the only reason for the relative neglect of the body in musicology today.6 Most of what goes on between ears, brain, and the rest of the body is still poorly understood, and the little that has been established by empirical studies is generally ignored by musicologists.7 This indifference toward studies of sensation, perception, and bodily kinetics is a symptom of not only traditional disciplinary divisions but also the lingering constructivism that, in its hostility to essentialism, denies the sciences any purchase on theories of embodiment, which might be defined as the nexus of relations between mind and body, individual and society, organism and culture (with those pairs understood as neither symmetrical nor strictly separable from one another).8 However, constructivism, along with its poststructuralist cousin deconstruction, has increasingly come under fire from a diverse range of humanists, including feminists for whom the expulsion of biology from critical discourse has hampered efforts to come to grips with contemporary threats to women’s health and well-being. Elizabeth Grosz’s assay in Darwinian philosophy argues that humanists need to place a “reconfigured concept of the biological body” in dialogue with analysis of the social forces impinging upon the bodily imaginary.9 Similarly, Elizabeth Wilson calls for intensive study of the somatic aspects of emotion, sexuality, and psychological illnesses, phenomena [End Page 161] whose attendant discourses have been unfairly dominated, she argues, by the ideational.10 In sum, feminist interventions in so-called new materialism are renegotiating relations between matter and ideas in nondeterministic and politically sensitive ways.11

For the most part, technology studies have perpetuated a constructivist line of argument by foregrounding the formative power that technologies, rather than the once-ubiquitous “discourse,” exert upon individual experiences of embodiment.12 While we do not wish to discount the importance of technology in this capacity, we believe that a better balance might be struck between technosocial and biological considerations in studies of embodiment. At...


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pp. 160-168
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