Abstracts – Paper Session 2: sound, music, method

Chickens that like Pink Floyd: media physicalism in early 20th and 21st Century America
Brenton J. Malin, University of Pittsburgh

In Mind Wide Open journalist Steven Johnson attempted to capture the emotional power of media by appealing to a strange sounding 1990s study. According to Johnson, Jaak Panksepp had used emotion-measuring technologies to demonstrate that chickens preferred certain kinds of music over others. Johnson had in fact conflated two of Panksepp’s studies—one showing human reactions to Pink Floyd and another measuring chickens’ general responses to music. Johnson’s eagerness to endow chickens with media preferences captures a trend in media research stretching back at least as far as the early 20th century. Media physicalism, as I term it, assumes that emotional responses to media reduce to specific physiological processes. If we can know a chicken’s musical preferences, it is because “preferring” a kind of music is reduced for the physicalist to a set of sub-perceptual bodily phenomena. Here, neither chickens nor humans are the authority of their mediated emotions—specially tuned emotion measuring machines are. This essay charts the history and consequences of this position, illustrating how concerns about emotional control and both a fear and faith in “new technologies” have underwritten the media physicalist conception of emotion in its popular and academic forms.

Discourse as phenomenological event: theorising the intersubjective creativity of everyday conversation
Sun-ha Hong, University of Pennsylvania

The individual production of discourse is creative. Creativity denotes not an essence within individuals, but an experience through which subjects are positioned in the social world. The phenomenology of discourse takes on the character of events, discontinuities in the everyday which, ritual-like, ‘open up’ the social value of people and things for reconfiguration. I deploy this perspective on interview data on music consumption, exploring the phenomenological mediation of subjectivity vis-à-vis media and culture. Media and cultural studies today wrestles with the power-agency doublet, a zero-sum framework between dominative, codifying strategy and improvised tactics. In a lateral move, I propose a real-time unfolding of collaborative and conflicting improvisation amongst subjects and discourse. This places Foucault’s discourse as event in conversation with Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. Discourse consists both of the corporeal materiality of conversation and the incorporeal materiality of subjective positioning. Individuals cobble together discourse to bring themselves into being in the world – often by calling upon others’ words, which themselves introduce new discursive regimes into the conversation. Meanwhile, one’s interlocutors intervene to give meaning to that enactment. This polyphonic discourse involves a fundamental entanglement of individual agents and discursive regimes, whereby every performance works with and reconfigures the ‘rules of the game’.

Music, morality and phenomenology
Vernita Pearl Fort, University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign

“We had the first telephone, you know,” said the sage Maroon woman. She was referring to the sound of the drums and the abeng (cow horn) that have long carried messages and that called our bodies to respond. Borrowing from Merleau-Ponty’s emphasis on the corporeal, I explore the shared lived experiences through embodied ethnography among the Maroon people in Jamaica. They have used music as media, and musical instruments as media technology, to communicate and act on their moral values and ideals. These polyrhythmic sounds, with specific and orchestrated meanings, now sedimented in a musical language, helped to free enslaved Africans and protect them as they became and lived as free Maroons. This exploration evokes questions about why we communicate and have communication technologies. Is it possible to build a moral ‘telephone’ in our communication future as we consciously participate in our evolution? From an interdisciplinary perspective that includes neurophenomenology, I probe the moral imagination in the spirit of Arendt, with the Maroons having welcomed me into their noble and celebratory circles of music making and dancing. The paper presentation draws from my ongoing research and multi‐media project on “Music, Morality, Mind” and will include selected clips from it.

Becoming quiet: on mediation and noise cancellation
Matt Jordan, Penn State University

Heidegger once suggested that raw sound is an abstraction; sound is always interpreted. Listening for sound is always a matter of grasping this interpretation and thinking through the conditions of mediation that allow for sound to mean one thing or another. What, then, of our perception of quietness? This paper will examine the transformation in how the phenomenon of quietness has been understood in relation to the development of technologies for mediating and managing our everyday soundscape. In thinking about the relationship of media to the senses, both Walter Benjamin and Henri Lefebvre argued that perception shifts dialectically as we integrate new forms of media into our experience of the world. I will draw on both, as well as Merleau-Ponty, McLuhan and Husserl, to think about how the emergence of consumer technologies for mediating sound in our everyday life have shifted our perception, consciousness, and experience of quietness. Relating these contemporary regimes of auditory mediation that cancel “unwanted” noise and condition our understanding of quietness to what Merleau-Ponty called “sensationalist prejudices,” I will raise ethical concerns about their impact on our capacity to listen and hear the sounds of otherness.

Participant observation as a phenomenological conundrum
Mark Pedelty, University of Minnesota

Patrick Murphy (2008) calls participant observation a “methodological oxymoron” (275). While I would not go that far, I do believe the term belies a serious conundrum. The more deeply an ethnographer participates, the less she is able to observe. Conversely, distant observation lacks phenomenological depth. Yet, differences between participation and observation can easily be deconstructed, even erased, in theory. For example, objective vantage points are nonexistent, according to poststructuralist theory. Therefore, observation is just another form of participation. However, I am convinced that observation is a complex spectrum, rather than a singular method. To illustrate the point, I will draw comparisons between two ethnographic experiences: one in Mexico and the other in the USA. Both studies focused on musical ritual and media. I was more of an observer in Mexico, watching performers and audiences from greater spatial and cultural distances (Phillips-Silver et al., 2010). For the second study I became a performing musician. These differing levels of participation allowed me to observe corresponding scales of social experience, including greater awareness of the overall scene in Mexico as compared to deeply interpersonal musical entrainment in the second instance. I will perform a song to illustrate the point.

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