I was recently lucky enough to be part of a seminar with Jamie Currie (University of Buffalo), and was asked to respond to his paper. I thought the paper itself would be of interest to many here so I’ve copied it below (with Jamie’s generous permission), followed by my short response.
On Loosing Face
Dr. James R. Currie
Since, as the title of this seminar states [Shifting Positions — Writing Materialities of Sound], we are attempting here to contemplate the issue of how we are to set about writing about the materiality of sound, I would like to follow through on the invitation by focusing in almost exclusively on the materiality of the writing itself within this process. To proceed in this fashion is perfectly within the boundaries of our topic. But if I do so, it is less out of professional academic interest, than from a desire to test out the validity of a certain suspicion that distracts me in a number of areas of my, as it were, so-called life in late modernity. And since this is a seminar, and so this is not yet an article—the latter, we should remember, is a term of law—I’m happy either way, whether it turns out to be a valid paranoia or just a productive fiction. We are, after all, trying to work some things out, to draw things into the light so that they can just be seen first of all, rather (hopefully) than just re-performing some already composed script. At any rate, I wonder whether, with the academic/artistic topic of how to write about sound, we might not be opening the door inadvertently to the tricky contradictions of some latter day version of what (in admittedly very broad terms) we might call a realism problematic. If and when this is the case, sound can get scripted in the privileged position as sheer visceral reality; writing then gets relegated to a somewhat parasitic condition, as the never quite transparent-enough medium through which our experiences must (unfortunately, according to some) pass. Within the discipline that concerns itself primarily/exclusively with the sound that is music (the discipline sometimes known as musicology), an all-too-obvious example of this kind of stance would, of course, be Carolyn Abbate’s Critical Inquiry piece, “Music: Drastic or Gnostic?” But fragments of this can be found glittering in the gloom of all sorts of nooks and crannies—and a fragment, after all, can sometimes have far more devastating a radius of repercussion than the offensiveness of a broadly held policy.
If and when such a sound/writing (and thus reality/commentary, host/parasite, presence/absence) binary is managing to make its pressure felt, then we are back quite solidly within the concerns of the early Derrida, and in particular the world of On Grammatology. And maybe this might give us some pause. On Grammatology, of course, works out its theory of writing’s supplemental relationship to speech through an incredibly close reading of Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages, an essay in which music features prominently. It is very much concerned with the problem of sound in relationship to writing, and it repeatedly keeps drawing our attention to the contradictions and abuses performed under the aegis of presence, such as one finds when sound is posited in its unmediated state. However, present academic fashions in the humanities are frequently geared towards seeing themselves either as a form of liberation from, or just simply beyond the linguistic turn of poststructuralism. Sound studies can be as prone to this pose as anything else. At its crudest, this kind of gesture manifests itself in some kind of assertion that, having dethroned language from its privileged position, we are now more free to be in touch with the real thing, whatever that might be: sound, force, the body, color, gesture—the list continues. It is an interesting assertion, especially considering how manifestly less free we are now in the second decade of the twenty-first century than we were in the late 60’s and early 70’s when Derrida was at work in this area. Do we have to be free in terms of something like sound in order to compensate for our manifest lack of freedoms elsewhere? Maybe we are not yet quite as over post-structuralism as some of us (myself included at times) might wish to think.
Now, I’m not much of a Derridean. Further, although I’m prepared to say that language goes a long way, I’m not prepared to say that it’s got the entire ground covered. (And I’m not saying that Derrida says this either.) However, the fact that I notice the early Derrida out of the corner of my eye as I’m sitting here working out my thoughts through the computer keyboard is perhaps the itch that helps me formulate the following scratch: that although I’m happy to say that we can pass over into sound—and although at times I’m prepared to be quite euphoric and utopian about that possibility and its repercussions—I do not believe that one can do that directly. Moreover, to keep in mind the indirection that is necessary in order for sound to give us the impression of its sudden directness of assault upon us—to do this is, I assert, to the benefit of sound itself, not just something that is advantageous for our ethical and political understanding of ourselves. In my statements here, I posit two reasons for why this is the case; the two reasons are intimately bound up in each other, but I do not have anything particularly profound to say at this stage about the intricacies of their wobbly, lop-sided co-dependencies. The first reason is broadly political; the second reason is broadly psychoanalytic.
To start with the political: it is always interesting to note these days when lines of argumentation are imbued with the potential for careering off a little too easily into rather border-line fetishizations of liveness, presence, the irreducibility of the present moment, and the power of the non-discursive, the haptic, force, event, affect, visceral immediacy and so on. When this happens, discourse can inadvertently come off a little butch—and believe you me, I’m not unattracted to this quality. But when ever a discourse threatens to start positing itself in such terms (as being somehow in the raw, naked, the real thing) it is perhaps not unhelpful to contemplate its dress code, and so in this instance remember that we sometimes take our clothes off precisely in order to hide. Qualities of liveness and presence are, after all, also massively privileged terms within the networks of corporately-driven commodity circulation with all its attendant brutalities. And so what kind of pause should that give us when we see that being played out on the terrain of sound? If there is an element of fetishization at play when such terms rise to the surface of sound studies? Does it help us to remember that a fetish, crudely speaking, is an overdetermination of one thing that functions to distract from a lack somewhere else? And so if we are, at this particular juncture of the historical present, attracted strongly to what we perceive as the reality of sound’s materiality, is there any traction to be gotten from flirting with the idea that our attraction in such instances functions like desire, and so therefore through lack? Do we desire presence from sound because the discursive structures that would allow us to get such tangibility in the rest of our life (politically, intersubjectively, romantically, professionally, or wherever) are at this stage withered to the point of embarrassment? And anyway, even if this is the case, does this necessarily mean that we are on the wrong track?
If our attraction to a certain immediacy connected with sound is indeed some kind of symptom of our times, then maybe (to nod vaguely towards Žižek) we might benefit from enjoying it. Presence, indeed, may well be less an either/or encounter (redemptive immediacy pitted against ideological obfuscation) than radically indifferent and so strategically open to all sorts of possibilities and pitfalls. We live, after all, in radically undecided times. And as Lauren Berlant writes, in Cruel Optimism, “Intensely political seasons spawn reveries of a different immediacy. People imagine alternative environments where authenticity trumps ideology, truths cannot be concealed, and communication feels intimate, face-to-face” (223). Sound, as she goes on to articulate, can provide the necessary sense of belonging, for it creates a space in which “Without having speech as a cushion, affect shapes the event” (228). Sound, as opposed to traditionally articulated political language, is “that circulating, transpersonal, permeating, viscerally connective affective atmosphere that feels as though it has escaped ‘the filter’ to indicate, for good or for ill, a sensorium for potential social world now lived as collective affect, or a revitalized political one”(231). And so she wonders, for example, why such a large amount of art activism has turned away from the essentially language-based forms of communication that have tended to define public-sphere communication. She wonders why noise/sound has come to the fore instead, why there has been such a concerted effort to access the “visceral immediacy that communication rationalizes, brackets, idealizes, and disrespects?” Her conclusion seems to be that whilst the seeming immediacy and sense of affective attachment created by the sonic may well be fantasy, and thus part of what she calls a cruel optimism, it is nevertheless the case that in the new ordinary of our world, in which instability and the lack of any tangible concept for the political future has become the norm, the kinds of fantasies offered by the sonic environment might simply be necessary in order to kick start something other than what predominates into action. To hijack her arguments rather shamelessly for my own purposes, we might thus posit the following hypothesis: if the “visceral immediacy” of sound is, in its fetishized state, part of the very problem it seeks to give us respite from, then maybe (to return to nodding towards Žižek once more) our best solution is to double the insult and cure the effects of the poison by imbibing another draft of the poison itself: only the spear that smote thee can heal the wound, as Žižek would say.
The invocation of Žižek and fantasy leads me to my second optic on the problem of the, as it were, directness of sound: psychoanalysis. As any good Lacanian understands immediately, God writes in crooked lines, and so freedom is something that must be practiced. In other words, it is not that we are always tragically barred access from the actuality of the world (such as sound) by means of the castrating force of language, but that our approach to that actuality involves what often seems, at first, to be a paradoxical distraction from our main aim. Thus, to elaborate: we “get” at sound not by placing it firmly in our line of sight and then plotting as direct a course across the intervening landscape as possible. The seeming common sense of such literal mindedness merely gets us caught up on what Lacan would call the inverted ladder of desire, where the approach to the object of desire becomes the very means by which our arrival is forever forestalled. (The strong tendency amongst academics towards writing blocks, procrastination, and the inability to bring projects to completion comes, I suspect, quite precisely from such a form of entrapment within the drunken convolutions created by what they think at first is but their sober attention to the most rational means of getting at their subject.) But to state my basic credo here, we “get” at the object through what I would describe as the sustaining of a carefully orchestrated productive distance. And that distance is what I would call love. Love is a distance, not a proximity. Therefore, if you care about sound, you should care about perfecting the disciplines of distance that allow you access to it.
Over the years, my thoughts about this matter have developed from the helpful irritation inspired by a certain scene. The scene is what we might call “the sad story of love lost.” Here one is again, sitting in the restaurant opposite one’s friend who is slowly but inexorably slumping down into their soup. Their relationship is no longer working. It may well be over. “We’ve fallen apart,” they sigh, and look up at us with hang-dog eyes. We nod back, slowly, as if we were looking out over the vast plains of the sadness of this life. How beautifully melancholic is the truth! And yet this is all complete nonsense. Romantic love doesn’t dissolve from lack of proximity; it is rather that proximity itself is the guilty liquid that drowns the focused desire that had constituted the initial passion. The sad story of love lost is an endlessly repeated parable of the tragedies that ensue when two people fall into each other, not when they fall apart. Simply note the following: that when love goes wrong, partners become consumed by an excessive attention to the kinds of particular observations that can only come from too much proximity: “He always leaves the lid off the tooth paste,” “Have you noticed the grotesque way that she keeps her mouth open when she’s breathing?” “Don’t scuttle across the road like that! It’s so embarrassing! It makes you look like a nervous child.” And so on and so forth. It is like the paradox of looking at an Impressionist painting: you get too close and the whole thing dissolves into the materiality of paint, a snow storm of meaningless pigment that one cannot see beyond. At a certain distance, however, the thing becomes a picture with which one can establish a relationship. Getting close periodically to the mesmerizing swarm of brush strokes may well be a means of revivifying the relationship to the image—even of creating wonderment out of the realization that at a certain point a shitty mess can become a seemingly living artifice—but getting close is hardly more “truthful.” If love happens it is through the miracle that two people find that the respective distances they both need in order for the other to come into focus are mutually compatible. What is needed is a discipline capable of sustaining that truth.
There was a period in Žižek’s career, for example, when he would frequently perform variations on the following theme (loosely pilfered from Marguerite Duras): that the only form of romantic relationship that he would participate in was one where there was a third point of focus (for him politics) to which each party in the relationship was prepared to sacrifice the other should the need arise. Now this, for some, may merely validate their suspicions regarding the distasteful tendency towards sacrifice and cruelty that they perceive to be endemic to the influence of Lacanain psychoanalysis. For our purposes, though, it raises an interesting theoretical potential: that in the relationship between us and sound, writing is the third term that allows for the sound to strike us with any force at all. It is as if the focus necessitated by the materiality of the writing act itself, is the discipline that allows for the creation of a distraction—a distraction from the miserable surveillance we incarcerate the beloved within when we approach them directly. Free from us, sound can then finally get to us. But if we need to be distanced from sound in order for sound to get at us, then that is precisely because we have to get away from ourselves in order to write. If there is a pleasure to writing (and for this author, writing verges towards a full and productive sublimation) then that is because the discipline necessary in order to form concepts through language necessitates that for the period that the writing is at work we have to push to the side that tedious and essentially quite lazy blob of what Kant would have called our pathological being. We have to become gripped by something other than our desire to fiddle with our emails, or endlessly make cups of tea, or go to the toilet, or follow through on the most childish and fidgety of our instincts and wishes. So if sound can at last get at us, that is because we, to a large extent, are no longer there. We have been liberated from the shame of being anyone at all. We have lost our face, and so at last can smile. And perhaps listen too.
Response to ‘On loosing face’
In Of Grammatology, Derrida explains that the reason that the notion of technique can never simply clarify the notion of writing is that “a certain sort of question about the meaning and origin of writing precedes, or at least merges with, a certain type of question about the meaning and origin of technics” (8). There’s much to unpack in this claim but what strikes me as crucial is the parenthetical hesitation, the “or at least merges with.” This, after all, is the crux of the matter: the precedence of “writing” in the large, grammatological sense of the term lies (paradoxically) in the fact that it is both before and after technics (in this case), and indeed experience itself.
To my ears, Jamie’s not-yet-article picks up on this ambivalence in its full complexity, but also does something more: that is, rather than simply and only mounting a defense of writing as something more than “the never quite transparent enough medium through which our [sheerly visceral sonic experiences] must [unfortunately] pass,” Jamie also limns precisely the multivariate indirections of sound’s perceived directness. Like Jamie proclaims of himself I’m not much of a Derridean, but I do believe that one of the unfortunate results of the canonization of Derridean grammatology in the academy has been to dramatically underplay—and in many cases even willfully neglect—the performative dimension of Derrida’s thought; Jamie’s brief intervention is a useful corrective to this tendency, both in his constative claims and in the possible paths these claims (provisionally) lay.
He draws our attention to two such paths in particular: politics and psychoanalytics. With respect to the former, Jamie notes that the qualities of liveness and presence that sound catalyzes are “massively privileged terms within the networks of corporately-driven commodity circulation.” From this, he astutely wonders if our attraction to such qualities might not emerge—through an economy of desire—as a result of the lack of such immediacy in the rest of our daily lives—lives that are characterized by a bureaucratic diffusal of agency that is intensified in what we must unavoidably (and cynically) call our contemporary networked culture. An intensification of what Sartre—long in advance of the personal computer revolution—identified as urban alienation, contemporary networks alienate as much as they connect (and indeed, they alienate through their connectivity). Brilliantly, Jamie turns this diagnosis into a prescription of sorts, suggesting that perhaps the best response is to redouble the problem, in this case by leveraging precisely that set of aural capacities that are most fantastic towards upsetting the established state of affairs.
And yet, moving into his second site of argument—psychoanalysis—Jamie offers an alternate approach—perhaps even a reversal of sorts of the politics of symptoms that he articulates in the political arena. As he states so beautifully, “in the relationship between us and sound, writing is the third term that allows for the sound to strike us with any force at all.” Writing is a discipline that cultivates the distance (rather than proximity) that is the sustaining condition of love. Put differently, writing affords us a distance not only from sound, but also from ourselves in so far as this distanced sound strikes us.
It is this last image—the image of our disappearance, of our ‘lost face’—that leads to the line of discussion I’d like to open, a line that perhaps connects these two disparate trajectories (psychoanalysis and politics). Stated as a question, I’d ask: is there a point where fully “enjoying the symptom” of sound’s immersive directness means adopting something other than a linear relationship between individual bodies and the social bodies that their coagulations perform? Put differently, if writing acts as a kind of ecology (i.e. a set of complex and multilateral causalities that sustains both distinctions and relations) might it afford us access, in its own peculiar ways, to sound at a scale other than ourselves? Is this scale made of the same material as that which we can cultivate love for? In short, I think I’m almost entirely on board with both of the suggestions that Jamie provisionally explores, but I’m wondering how they might sustain their purchase in the context of a notion of sound that doesn’t hinge on human individuals listening. Do they?
 In Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960) Sartre figures this through the example of men reading newspapers at a bus stop: their “acts of waiting are not a communal fact, but are lived separately as identical instances of the same” (262). They are isolated, while at the same time being forced into group arrangements.