- What is a Question?
A bird call, the smell of toasted pine needles on a California hillside, a gunshot, a viral video, church bells, the taste of a ripe peach [End Page 32] plucked from grandmother’s tree—what Kate Bush calls the “sensual world”—occurs as an intensity that sometimes goes unnoticed and sometimes gets rationalized into a prompt, a provocation, a question. On her October 1989-released LP, which begins with “The Sensual World” and ends with “This Woman’s Work,” Kate Bush proposes a sensual world without words, where rationality is somehow swerved around singing: “You don’t need words … stepping out off the page into the sensual world.”
Using the medium of pop music, Bush raises the question that music has raised for centuries: must we rationalize into well-formed questions what the sensual world asks in non-rationalizable terms? What are the intensities that get sensed, circulating through us in ways that never result in the “feeling of having a feeling” but simply resonate through, on top of or near our bodies?1 Are these interactions questions too? And how do we know when we’re being asked?
If these are indeed questions being asked by the sensual world, then perhaps what “an investigative question is or should be in the arts today” is a distillation of intensities resonating through us in the situatedness of our times and spaces, as well as our social and political worlds. The artist/scholar, then, is tasked with taking an account of these intensities (in a way that can best approximate an originary form/content whose roots and routes are often inaccessible), while also synthesizing them into an outcome that does something in the world, engaging matters of political intensity in forms that are best suited to do that work. Just as the intensities produced by the sensual world cannot have a predictable effect, neither can the objects, impulses, and expressions created by arts workers have a predictable effect in circulation. This critical stage in the life of the work is what makes it a dynamic expression of the here and now enfolded into the sensual world in circulation.
How might the aesthetic object/impulse/expression created—the formal question—be informed by the questions asked of me by the sensual world while also generating new sensual questions to be circulated in the world? What work would I will the formal question to do in the world? And how can arts workers be open to the dynamic and ongoing transformations our questions undergo as they boomerang back to us, often unrecognizably returned as intensities resonating as questions posed yet again by the sensual world? Like [End Page 33] the Trio Bulgarka, who offer choral color and texture to “The Sensual World” by breathing their crescendo around Bush’s crystalline and melodramatic voice, all the while enmeshed in the song’s ensemblic particularity, the arts worker must figure the specificity of a question in the context of questions posed by an ensemblic whole.2
ROSHANAK KHESHTI is Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Her first book, Modernity’s Ear: Listening to R ace and Gender in World Music (2015), traces the feminization of listening through ethnographic and commercial audio recording, archiving and distribution practices. She has published numerous articles on film, popular music, sound, sexuality and Iran in such journals as R adical History Review, Sounding Out!, Feminist Studies, Theatre Sur vey, American Quarterly, Hypatia, and Parallax.
1. Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 13.
2. On the “ensemblic” see Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics Of The Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 41.