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‘We Feed Off Each Other’: Embodiment, Phenomenology and Listener Receptivity of Nirvana’s In Utero
by Christopher Alan Martin

"Despite the fact that listening to recorded music is a predominant form of human interaction with music in general, music scholarship often continues to classify listening as a passive form of reception in comparison to the “activity” of actual music performance. This thesis presents the idea that music listening is actually an embodied and agentive form of reception that varies according to different listeners, their listening strategies, and other surrounding contexts. In order to provide detailed analysis of this assertion, Nirvana’s 1993 album In Utero is the primary recording that this thesis examines, arguing that the album contains specific embodied properties that ultimately allow for embodied forms of listening and responses within the musical experience. Phenomenological reasoning and scholarship from popular music studies, history, cultural studies, and other humanities fields contribute to the central argument." (Abstract)

I love it when an analysis gets into the practical techniques of experience generation:

"when death metal guitarists remove the midrange sound frequencies from their amplifiers and equalizers (leaving an amplified level of treble and bass), their goal is to emphasize 'aural extremes' that are 'iconic of social opposition and affective extremity,' thus contributing to their musical identity. Therefore, signified forms of embodiment become palpable through the sonic materiality of recorded music. This does not mean that we should privilege the material nature of recorded music over lyrical representation and vocal indexicality. Rather, these components contribute to the affective presence of the recording together; it is just necessary to recognize the (traditionally ignored) embodied aspect of recorded music itself. (31)

To the Psychedelic Things Themselves

1st Response to Graham Harman's Guerilla Metaphysics: The Carpentry of Things: naive and enthusiastic wonder

No really. I get that Heidegger and Kant couldn't deal with evolution or Big Bang cosmology. It's no wonder that they persisted in building critical philosophy on what was supposedly unique to human beings or Human-being. But this book took me back to the stunning vistas opened up by Carl Sagan's Cosmos and the revelation that I am part of this universe, not the centre of it, just one more interesting part of it. One attraction of the science-fictional fantastic  for me was the way that it extended and deepened this sense of wonder at what is.

I am not sure of the direct application of Harman's theories. It is a radical step to resituate human intentional relationship to things in a general theory of relationships, and thereby eliminating any special human "being for itself," or ex-stasis, or nihilation, or transcendence, or reflection, that puts me on a plane of being utterly different from that occupied by rocks, scorpions, and myths. Given my academic immersion in language, experience, and history -- in the particular domain of theatre -- it's very disconcerting to have the basic orientations undergirding hermeneutics and phenomenology undermined. But it is stimulating.

This remark, from Harman's conclusions, contains none of the axioms that he develops and applies in his book. But it lays out the stakes of his investigation very plainly.

"Efforts are frequently made to locate human uniqueness in language or tool-making, in the ability to plan for the future, or in our having a history rather than a fixed essence. But some of these features are arguably found among the higher animals, and in a few cases the eveidence seems fairly obvious. Beyond this, none of these features alone is sufficient to explain human peculiarity. We can state far more generally that humans are the most object-oriented animals. We are the most nihilistic creatures only because we are the most gullible, only because our powers of destruction survey a wider field to which to apply their childlike energies, whereas sharks or scorpions never dream of eating empires and moons." (Harman 247)

Harman manages to take the intentional objects apprehended by the human imagination and make them part of the whole universe of real objects. The intentional relationships between objects is the more general case of the intentional or representation-making done by perceiving and thinking beings like myself (on my good days).

Hard going for someone with no philosophical training, but plenty of vivid examples and points where the author recapitulates prior concepts before proceeding. 
I finished reading Cole and Chinoy's Actors on Acting. Again and again the contrast between artificial declamation and natural acting is posited. Grotowski's characterization of acting as a via negativa has its precedents centuries before. So does the Meisner focus on interaction between actors in the present as the seed of meaningful scene work.

This does not mean that consideration of the history of acting needs to dissolve into a general haze where the only distinction possible is that between the natural and the declamatory.

This is because the bodily disciplines of declamation are historically specific. Saws about what the orator should or should do are plucked out of Roman sources. These in turn get repackaged in the schools -- in various combinations with other disciplines and practices -- to produce orators, lawyers, and other authoritative public speakers. So perhaps people preparing to put dramas on the stage must say again and again, stop declaiming, be natural, give up artifice. Putting aside a gesture founded on some text in Quintillian or Cicero has a different character when an English actor with an education at Rugby makes that refusal, and when a American who went from a frontier schoolhouse to the New York stage puts that gesture aside. An actor who could have been called to the Bar, like Garrick, had the poise to be a participant in upper-class social life, even if he could put aside the bodily comportments of that class while on the stage. I doubt that Kean could have integrated himself to that social sphere in the same way.

But the artifice that is being given up in each instance is particular. The tact that is required to put away particular gestures or stances, the discerning critic who waits to pronounce the judgments "natural" or "unnatural," the actor who wants to characterize her work, all operate in horizons of expectation against which which any abstinence or refusal can become apparent. Carrying or NOT carrying a candle around during Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene has significance against the background of prior acceptances or refusals to carry that object. (Refusing to do it when the monarch tells you that she herself carries around a light in Glamis because the place is so spooky would have been especially significant.)

Look at this American schoolboy being taught declamation: >>>>>>>>>

Now consider the case of an American who is credited with putting "natural acting" on the stage, Steele MacKaye. As an adult he studies the Delsarte system in France. Any "refinement" or "naturalizing" he adds to American performance marks a specific departure from practices of bodily display with which he, his pupils and imitators, and his audience knew and to which they had been subject. Practices like the kind on display in this classroom. MacKaye's promotion of "natural acting" in his teaching and in his productions requires specific modifications, suspensions, and refusals of prior bodily dispositions.

I have a growing appreciation for how specific ways of being "natural" and "unaffected" worked in different theatrical cultures. Consider the long endurance of the Drama (the privileged literary dramatic genre described in Peter Szondi's Theory of the Modern Drama). Stepping into the spaces dedicated to that genre requires putting aside certain bodily dispositions and producing others. The school, the court, the parade ground, the church have all shaped the bodies of the actors who are then asked to be "natural." In this space and under the demands of a ritualized "two hours traffic" on the stage (with additional prep time, warm up, maintaining focus, cooling down afterwards) many of those dispositions will have to be put aside. The deft modification of some of them will allow audiences to pass the judgment "yes, they have captured the typical priest" and at the same time to say, "ah, that gesture of blessing was very natural, unlike the stiff gestures that other actors and even real priests fall into." To modify the stock portrayal of a Catholic priest means something different in an overwhelmingly Catholic region and one in which the residents have never even seen a Catholic chruch. The actor can only distinguish his or her particular kind of natural speech by refusing local speech genres and accents. Being to true to one's speaking would mean bringing Swabian or Sicilian onto a stage where a non-regional dialect is expected.

[IIRC Brecht had to keep reminding actors to avoid "stage German": frank regional accent as alienation effect?]

[Has anyone looked at Bakhtin and acting?]

And by distinguishing him or herself in being natural the actor acquires a kind of capital. The reputation for being natural (naturally, in one's characteristic manner) is a to make one's name. One's OWN name, upon which one can trade.

In Hagen and Stanislavsky and Meisner one nevitably encounters the constraints of the literary/dramatic form into which supposedly "natural" or "spontaneous" actions will have to be made to fit. The admission of certain gestures into the studio and onto the stage depends up their being deemed "natural" or "spontaneous." But that judgment is made with certain expectations about the dramatic or literary form the actor is expected to stage. Even non-literary or physical theatres have their local standards of what gestures are natural and what speech is not declamatory. I wish I could recall the article or book that critiqued the LeCoq school in Paris. The neutral body and freely created gestures and sounds are presented as the raw material out of which non-naturalistic physical and imagistic theatre can be built. But non-European students have complained that the "neutral" and the "pure" correspond to a particular type of European bodily disposition. French bodies in that school may have put aside dispositions and speech practices acquired in elite secondary schools or in neighbourhood dance schools. But that does not mean a unconditioned and universally adaptable body is then available for spontaneous creation.

To what extent can any body put aside the dispositions to which it has been subject? If a body is a site of a kind of work, and not a brute natural object, to refuse every single disposition and prior acquisition would mean that body's dissolution. And to admit a kind of naive naturalism for a moment: every person has their own idiosyncracies and physique, and bodily particularities. I am typing using a middle finger whose tip was almost severed in a cooking accident. Trying to play the guitar presents me with a particular challenge because I have lost sensation in that finger. Has the desire to produce neutral or natural bodies and voices meant that very particular moments of sensation and a world of particular physical dispositions been overlooked? The world of guitar playing would have been much poorer if Django Reinhardt hadn't shown what could be done with two fingers and a thumb (the rest being injured in a caravan fire when he was young). Joni Mitchell's resonant harp-like guitar tunings have expanded the guitar's expressiveness. But Mitchel had to find her own way of using the guitar that was comfortable to her polio-weakend hands. Has the production of voices and bodies that are neutral or and free from any apparent prior conditioning meant overlooking the potential of very particular bodies?

Maria Abramovic invites artists to practice the kind of physical presence she brings to her performances. From what I can gather, the aim is not a degree zero of neutrality or erasure of particularity, but to prepare the artists' bodies for a long period of proximity to a variety of other bodies and in preparation for a performative activity that may take hours, days, or even weeks.

P.S. Something about Foucault's "no power without resistance/no resistance without power flow" comes to mind. To refuse a bodily disposition that is "ready at hand" or "comes over one" is a microphysical act of resistance, but that act cannot take place without the power flow against which a body disposes itself, like a sailboat tacking against a wind.

P.P.S. The actor would be falling into a kind of a trap if the body's resources were always regared as either ready-to-hand tools, or as ecstasies or moods that simply came over one. But deliberatly exploring such stances towards corporeal being should be part but not the whole of an actor's study. Phenomenological Acting & Post-Heideggerian Resoluteness for the Camera 101 taught with Viola Spolin, Herbert Blau, Judith Butler, and Merleau-Ponty as reference texts.

Photo from Otto L. Bettmann's The Good Old Days -- They Were Terrible!
This little vignette from Civil War England pretty much sums up the position of the artist. Alternately flattering the crowd's hopes and taunting them with intimations of what they fear, playfully disestablishing and soberly re-enacting the enduring rituals of authority, cheerfully enduring regulation and fitfully daring open defiance.

Happy New Year's all.

Celebrate with spontaneous pantomimes, rope dancing, and keep crowning and decrowning those monarchs.

New Year's Day Holiday, 1649. The king is to be tried for treason. But with Army and Parliament in conflict, and fugitive Royalists stirring up trouble, how are theatre people going to take advantage of the situation? Put on a show!

"... actors and audiences had grown so bold that by the New Year four of the old theatres were open. This defiance of an ordinance against play-acting in force for the last seven years, could not go unpunished. Two parties of soldiers were despatched to break up the performances. At the Fortune theatre they found nothing but a rope dancer, and at the Red Bull no one at all for actors and audicence had been forewarned and had quickly vanished. But at Salisbury Court [site of early Restoration performances IIRC] they found a play in full swing, interrupted the performance and carried the players prisoners to the Headquarters at Whitehall in their theatrical finery. It was not an ill-natured business; all down the Strand people cheered the actors, the soldiers allowed them to respond and even to perform a sort of spontaneous pantomime as they went along. One of them was in crown and robes, and his attendants alternately discrowned and re-crowned him with appropriate getures, eliciting groans, jeers, laughter and applause from the crowd. Only at the fourth theatre, the Cockpit, did the actors show fight, a mistaken policy as they were roughly handled, were arrested and had their wardrobe and properties confiscated."

Wedgwood, C.V. The Trial of Charles I. London: Reprint Society, 1966.
"[Putative] Cross-cultural dialogue is the disaster site where multiple God's-eye solipsisms explode into politics"

What could be bad about cross-cultural dialogue? When it is undertaken in a certain way, the exchange of platitudes and the simulacrum of listening is perhaps worse than respectful silence or wary distance. So argues Aubrey Neal.

"I believe that Westerners habitually use the God's-eye view on each other with devastating consequences for interpersonal understanding." (235)

If there is an enduring problem with the person-to-person view inside Western culture, what can be expected of Western/Non-western dialogue. Very little, according to Neal. Especially given the history of dislocation, genocide, and attempted assimilation of Native peoples.

"The toolbox paradigm of universal practical reason can be sternly and sadistically misapplied under the assumption that a cross-cultural core of generic reason awaits the persistence of the patient positivist. (226)

Neal provides a cautionary note to utopias of dialogue and exchange. The very notion of inter-personal exchange, and derivative notions of inter-cultural exchange is culturally particular. There is no universally applicable standard of what it means to be "equal" or to "exchange" or "share."

"Because concepts are integral to experience and not external like a tool, the structure of intersubjectivity varies between
cultures." (225)

Too often dialogue is instumentalized as a way to still social conflict or ongoing dissensus. How to move away from dialogue-as-tool to dialogue-as-instigator-of-change?

"In cross-cultural dialogue an idealized fantasy of a middle-class lifestyle can snare the gaze of the encultured beholder." (235)

So where to begin? The physician's "first, do no harm" maxim might be a good place. But for any employees of the Ideological State Apparatuses [that's me], they might begin by not expecting that everyone who gets pushed through their system will interact with them after the fashion of a seminar discussion or a CBC/NPR radio interview.

One piece of advice to follow might be "perceive like a phenomenologist": "Understanding the emotional world which is
culturally prefigured in skill repertoires establishes the possibility for either cynical exploitation or meaningful dialogue." (237)

So, look at what people are doing and try to reach them, if you must, in reference to those activities. You try to infer the emotional world in which those activities are invested, but never assume that the emotional matrix in which those practices are anchored corresponds to yours.

The note of pathos for the "service professional" in this passage makes me a little uneasy. It absolves we ISA-employees of responsibility. But I'll turn the idea around a little. If you want to get out of your perceived helplessness then start by approaching the emotional needs of your clients without bad faith dismissal of their and YOUR emotional reality.

"All service professionals, including academics, must accommodate the suspicion that even with the most generous of good wishes, their toolbox is not emotionally neutral. The subjective detachment of a traditional logic suitable for tools, not people, often treats human problems in bad faith, creating a policy world of Schneiders [a famous WW I case of brain damage] who are "unable to bring their own thoughts before themselves". These policy makers are snared in the same helplessness  as their victims." (237)

The last bit, though, makes a simple point. Just because your are part of a system guided by reference to evidence, or rationality-as-systematicity&regularity does not mean that you are not part of a culture. As transparent/glassy/networked/techno/neon/glassbrick/cyber as your apparatus may be, it is still an institution with its ritualizations, its taboos, its doxa.

"Professionals have to understand that they have a culture, too." (237)

"Apraxia: The Phenomenology of Acculturation", Canadian Journal of Native Studies X, 2, 1992.

For Reals

Initially, this was an on-line commonplace book. Whatever thoughts or scraps came by when I was near a terminal, I did some posting.

However, reinventing my way of thinking and reading has taken a lot of time. So no time for random goofiness.
"The charm which M. Sardou is not of a very high quality; he makes a play very much as he would make a pudding; he has his well-tested recipe and his little stores of sugar and spice, from which he extracts with an unimpassioned hand exactly the proper quantity of each. The pudding is capital, but I can think of no writer of equal talent who puts so little of himself into his writing."

-HJ, "The Parisian Stage" (1876)

Henry James Liked Pudding. And Theatre.

"Realism is a very good thing, but it is like baking a pudding in a porcelain dish; your pudding may be excellent but your dish gets cracked. An actor who attempts to play Shakespeare must establish for himself a certain Shakespearean tradition; he must make sacrifices. We are afraid that as things are going, most actors find it easier to sacrifice Shakespeare than to sacrifice to him."

HJ in "Mr. George Ringold" (1875)
So many games, especially those with a Wild West settings like the Doomtown CCG, or Dust Devils RPG rely on poker mechanics. (I have been a fan of both games for years).

You realize Faro was the big social card gambling experience in early 19th centuryAmerica? From Arizona to Civil War battlefields, the game was everywhere. Dealers walking around with fancy Faro sets and boxes. I cannot remember a single cowboy movie where they are playing the game.

It seems to me there are a number of antique card games that might be used in conjunction with historical settings and themes:

  • There is conquin which indigenous North Americans remade as Coon Can (or Koon Kan) and is part of the Rummy family.

  • The multi-stage gambling game from Germany Poch, remade as Tripoley. If you are doing a 15th or 16th century setting, it is a possible choice, along with other games documented here.

  • And the 3-way game Ombre has an interesting property: The Ombre is in a position of competition against the other 2 players. Any game in which the Black Queen trumps all other cards is one with a lot of thematic resonances. Solo takes away the stable role of the Ombre, and all players compete against each other and in which there are no fixed partnerships but fixed partnerships may arise in play. Sounds like a great game for competition and scheming.

Speculating about Objects

The Speculative Turn collection addresses the issue of objects.

How are objects to be given their due? By "explaining their existence in terms of a deeper material basis" or "letting them exist only in their appearances, relations, qualities, or effects"? Neither, replies Harman, taking the actualist position. Neither, replies Grant, from a realist position. There is an outside to objects and an anteriority to them, but not a substance like that of the object. It is a real domain of "pure productivity" that is "irreducible to fully constituted objects" (26).

The challenge is how to examine the history of objects as worked with and perceived by embodied persons which achieves some kind of actualism, never mind a more comprehensive realism.

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