BODIES | MUSIC | PLEASURE
To my friend Lucas David Palmer
“You gotta free your feet before you can free your mind.”
—JEFF BRIDGES in the film “The Men Who Stare at Goats”
This article is motivated by my passion for dance music in the form of house and techno, and its relation to the politics of the body and sound. How- ever, I will be focusing on some of the ideas behind the normative strategies through which the experience of the body was coerced in the history of Western societies. The purpose is, thus, to sketch out a narrative that could lead to interpreting the political and cultural relevance of two of the most transgressive underground movements in our recent history: Chicago House and Detroit Techno. I am aware that this topic is impossible to be addressed entirely in this short text. Nevertheless, it does not impede wanting to make some remarks and to trace a line on an issue where its theme is “Emancipation(s)”. Therefore, I would like to see this effort as a working in progress, to take the opportunity to present some ideas that are going to be developed in other texts; or who knows, this attempt could also pave the way to explore the topic in different formats, like a book, a documentary film or a vinyl record.
Plato, in his text Gorgias, argued that the body is, even when alive, a tomb incapable of any sense that should remain inert to desires, given that these bind us to the illusory reality, just like art. For him, an artist imitates and creates appearances of real objects. Thus, he designed a society in which mimetic art is considered inferior, useless and dangerous, since it confuses people‘s mind and doesn‘t have social and practical value. Nevertheless, what concerned him the most was art’s power of seduction: the sensuous, when no abstract and intellectual, could lead to passivity (of the body) and blurriness (of the mind), just like a siren song. “In Greek culture, as demonstrated by Foucault in his study on sexuality, passivity is associated with inferior social status while activity is valued as emblematic of masculine aristocracy. Furthermore, Plato’s refusal to consider the artistic representation of the Sensible as a legitimate way to disclose truth originates from the absence of epistemic value associated with sense data. The criterion for the validity of soul’s judgment is not sense data but intelligible ideas.”Jean-Yves Heurtebise | Ontology and the Aesthetics of Cinematographic Bodies | Contemporary Aesthetics | Special Volume 5 | June 2016
As for music, Plato was aware of its capability to produce affects and not only rational meaning. Music was considered to be able to touch beyond the mental idea, to reach physicality, corporality. Thus, in his ideal of a republic, he opted only for music that could inspire and motivate action, self-discipline and braveness, music that could foster and create intellectual value and awareness of reality. The idea behind was to ban all kind of music that was mere entertainment, or as Kant called it, Tafelmusik. This sort of music was associated with passiveness, and passiveness was considered, as we mentioned before, inferior and dangerous for a society, something men and society must avoid. Furthermore, music that exclusively has effects on the senses is music that leads to “drunkenness, softness and idleness”, as he pointed out in “The Republic”.Plato | The Republic | Penguin | 1974 He was also aware of the fact that music can be associated with physical pleasure, that it can trigger a corporal reaction that can induce lasciviousness. In a society lead by philosophers, where self-control and discipline are some of the most important values, such kind of lascivious behaviour should be banned, and with it, the source that provoked it.
This conception and awareness of music’s power in affecting the senses was not something exclusive of Ancient Greece philosophers. In the seventeenth century, and following the Greco-Latin tradition, the body was considered to be a simple tool, a machine at the service of the mind and the soul. Descartes, in his text “Passions of the Soul”, understood and reduced the body to an automaton, a machine incapable of perceiving by itself, a mere appendix of the subject: what is a passion in the soul is usually an action in the bodyDescartes | Passion of The Soul | Jonathan Bennett | 2017; not in vain his thesis: “Cogito ergo sum”.
Following the ideas of Plato and Descartes, the project of Enlightenment kept on reducing and limiting the experience of art and music and its joy to an intellectual understanding of it. The body, consequently, was subjugated to constant control and restriction of its faculties for perceiving and feeling—by itself. Until the late nineteenth century, the body was understood as that part of the human being incapable of reasoning per se. Therefore its systematic indoctrination, its regular programming based on the principle of functionality, whether economic, social or biological. Michel Foucault, in the text “History of Sexuality”, defined the power relations behind the regulatory norms that control the body as “anatomo-politics” and “biopolitics of the population”. He saw in the governing forms of reason the imperceptive hegemonic strategy of the patriarchal discourse that with its heterosexual imperative “conducts our conduct.”
The ideas of Rousseau and Kant showed the distinction between “music as affect and music as a source of meaning, and he [Rousseau] specifically identified the former with bodily pleasure, in a very similar way to Plato [...] Kant, on the other hand, was concerned with the problem of how far music can be said to belong to his prised aesthetic category: the ‘beautiful’, and how far it must be understood as having the much inferior status of the mere ‘pleasurable’.”Jeremy Gilbert & Ewan Person | Dance Music, Culture and The Politics of Sound | Routledge | 1999 In Kant, the act of reflecting and judging transcends the possibility of mere joy and physical pleasure. The form(s) ought to produce (but they must be recognised), a mental experience that should be acknowledged by the intellect. Pleasure resides in intellectual comprehension, in “rational” understanding. As a consequence, the body was far away from being considered a “conscious” and valid receptor and “processor” of affects and meanings.
For Kant, there are two kinds of art: one for being experienced by the intellect, an art with Zweckmässigkeit ohne Zweck (purposiveness without purpose, another milestone in Kant’s theory of judgement), and one for mere entertainment. Music was not banned from society in Kant’s philosophical system, but there is an explicit remark: there is music with more qualities, more valuable for society and the intellect than other. This operation can be considered as the beginning of the distinction between high and low art, but based on the notion of beauty and sublime, Kant’s flagship categories. These ideas were followed in the twentieth century by Clement Greenberg in his defence of a narrative of Modern Art based on formalism. We can also see this distinction in Adorno’s conception of avant-garde art and the notion of autonomy of art, but his approach comes from Hegel and Marx theories of history.
Returning to Kant, the pleasure in art and music was reduced to an exclusively intellectual experience, and the body was condemned to remain passive, inert to any input. As for this, Kant remarks: “Pleasing arts are those which are merely intended for pleasure; like all are the charms that society can enjoy on a blackboard: as entertaining to tell, to set society in open-minded and lively talkativeness, by joking and laughing to tune it to a certain tone of jollity, where, it is said, some may be chatted into laughter, and no one wants to be responsible for what he is saying, because it is designed only for the momentary conversation, not for a permanent material to think or to say [...] Fine art, on the other hand, is a mode of thought which is expedient for Itself, and, though without purpose, nevertheless encourages the culture of the mental powers to social communication.”Immanuel Kant | Kritik der Urteilskraft | Kapitel 54 | § 44 Von der schönen Kunst | Gutenberg Projekt | Translated by the author.
Returning to the philosophical narrative, when it comes to music and aesthetic experience it is impossible to not mention Adorno’s ideas, and even though there are similarities between his precepts and Kant‘s notion of intellectual pleasure in the experience of music, as we can see in the next paragraph, it is essential to consider that for him, pleasure and experience differ from the tradition: “The objective consequence of the basic musical concept, which alone lends dignity to good music, has always demanded alert control via the subjective compositional conscience. The cultivation of such logical consequence, at the expense of passive perception of sensual sound, alone defines the stature of this perception, in contrast to mere ‘culinary enjoyment’.”Adorno and Horkheimer | The Dialectic of Enlightenment | Verso | 1997
In the relation between intellectual meaning, bodily pleasure and the category of experience, Adorno’s position was clear: “Pleasure means not having to think about anything, to forget suffering even when it is shown. Basically, it is helplessness. It is a flight; not as it is asserted, flight from a wretched reality, but from the last remaining thought of resistance. The liberation of which amusement promises is freedom from thought and from negation.”Theodor Adorno | Philosophy of Modern Music | The Seabury Press | 1973 This means, first, that to be amused is to agree and consent with a familiar situation. And two, that negation comes to express (the) recognition—but not necessarily its understanding—of the unknown in the moment of confrontation between our previous (already known) experiences. Thus, the idea of negative experience can be understood as (positive) confrontation.
“After Hegel, many neo and post-Marxism’s, the hermeneutic tradition and deconstructionist theories, have been able to explain this moment of negativity in the experience, of both the aesthetic experience and the hermeneutical experience in general. Moreover, it is, that to make an experience consists of denying in some degree the experience one previously had, the knowledge that guided us, and the expectations we had. When we confirm what we know, when our expectations are met, we do not make any experience, but perhaps we revalidate the experience we already possessed, that is, we do not learn anything new, and we refuse any modification. Experience, then, is something that is actively achieved by the path of negativity if you want to have it. And in this sense, given its open character to the unexpected and unknown.”Gerard Vilar | Estética y Anarquía (Un Diálogo con V. Bozal) | La Balsa de la Medusa 6 | 2011 | Translated by the author.
The phenomenology, in the early twenty-century, played a significant role in the theories that were about to come in the decade of 1970s and later on, where the body existed in connection to its history and its sex, its gender, and its identity. Husserl and Merleau-Ponty opened the way to consider the possibility of recognising the body in its conceptual and reflective importance. That is, the body as valuable as the mind or the soul, as a medium for reasoning and understanding. The body as an autonomous entity, as the embodiment of history and not a mere instrument, tool or appendix that should be denied or that has to remain marginalised because of its materiality, its corporality, and its eroticism. “The body (Leib) became the substance-subject (Subjekt-Leib) of the feeling faculty (empfindendes Dinge). The phenomenological experience, since it provides the capacity of feeling life itself (leiblicher Körper), hinges on the living body (Leibkörper). Phenomenological experience connects to the body mostly by an inward, internal feeling of the self.”Jean-Yves Heurtebise | Ontology and the Aesthetics of Cinematographic Bodies | Contemporary Aesthetics | Special Volume 5 | June 2016
Nowadays we are at the dawn of experiencing the post-human body. We arrived at this moment in history where humanity sees a possibility in emancipating itself from its traditional and patriarchal discourse and forms of dominance by seeing the body, as Donna Hathaway stated in a “Cyborg Manifesto”, as “something that should not end at the skin”. How- ever, this emancipation could only happen if we do not continue to perpetuate the traditional hegemonic strategies and normative practices or following Althusser, the same structures that compose (an) ideology. If we want to recognise what the body incarnates, we should have in mind Deleuze’s, conception of it: “[...] The body is the surface onto which floats the fragments of both individual and collective memories. If the body is deprived of its faculty to act; as a purely reflective entity, it becomes the passive vector of time.”Jean-Yves Heurtebise | Ontology and the Aesthetics of Cinematographic Bodies | Contemporary Aesthetics | Special Volume 5 | June 2016
Androids, cyborgs, and avatars are new territories beyond the body’s biological condition. However, these territories ought to be also a discursive extension, where new identities, categories, and values can coexist. This is, perhaps, what can lead us to finally break down the relations that tied us to the traditional discourses, the ones that control our body and determine our identity, and by extension, the roles we are assigned to play in society. The body, our body, following Judith Butler ideas in “Bodies That Matter”, “is not what we are, it is the consequence of the viability to comply with the domain of cultural intelligibility, and it’s exactly this domain that has to be reversed and transformed.”Judith Butler | Bodies That Matter | Routledge | 1993
Dance Music was a revolt against the passiveness of the spectator. Since the appearance of Disco and later on through Chicago House and Detroit Techno, people’s role changed from being entertained to entertain him or her self. People became the real show at a party; it was not the DJ or the music—at a certain degree—what really mattered. That was the time of the “Night Fever”: to look forward to the weekend to finally go to a party dressed in the best possible style, knowing that you will be sharing the floor-plan with Negroes, Hispanics, Italians, Queers and white people who couldn’t dance unless there was a four to the floor beat. The ritual was to dance and socialise, to meet people, to get drunk, high and with some luck laid.
The scene’s power rested in how people, and to be more specific, how minorities considered discos, clubs and warehouse parties: sanctuaries for emancipation, spaces where first, you could dance because in many cases it was prohibited by law or it wasn’t socially accepted; and second, nobody was no longer oppressed and discriminated by his or her origin, sex, gender or skin colour.
Dance music—in its actual state of artistic plurality—creates spaces for inclusion, diversity and yes, freedom. Freedom to foster and to present artistic ideas, but not only using sound as the exclusive media. It also offers the possibility to behave freely, but respecting “the others”— and not exclusively by sharing and promoting common values. The notion of underground should not be conceived as “us against them”, and definitely should not be a place for phantasies of high art or cultural elitism. The underground represents new ideas and values, and when it reaches visibility, it should not be considered as “sell-out”, no. This visibility allows the possibility to conquer new spaces for the promotion of new and hopefully more democratic values.