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November 28, 2004

Any Sound Can Be YouAny Sound Can Be YouAny Sound Can Be You

There are many rewards in Louise Meintjes� �Sound of Africa!�. For brevity�s sake I�ll focus on those that dovetail with my own exploration of expressive culture as a site of contestation and gesture toward a methodology for expressing the features of this argument through specific works and practices.

Meintjes begins by locating the threads of her argument in both interpretive symbolic anthropology (as applied to sound) and analyses of global cultural flows, via technological consumption, commodity fetishization, and the systems of racial/ethnic identity formation particular to Apartheid. These axes crystallize for Meintjes in the mesh of sound captured and created in South African recording studios. She explores the studio as a theater of networks in the creation of music that asserts local and global identities post Apartheid. Meintjes writes,

The consideration of the political struggle as an arena of mediation interlinked and operating with other kinds of mediations challenges us to recognize the centrality of aesthetic production to processes of resistance, to the voicing of oppositionality, and to processes of empowerment.

That she names aesthetic production as a central mode of resistance is the first correlation with my own argument that I identify in �Sound of Africa!� In my conception the embodiment of absence is a performance strategy that functions as both a method of survival and mode of being-in-the-world. These may be literal, corporeal absences, the performance of which destroys the body in part or whole, or performed absences through which the life of the body is altered in relation to the dominant culture in which it resides. In either case the resulting absence exposes and challenges hegemonic authority. I locate this performance of absence, which I have called �radical disappearance,� in processes of east-west cultural assimilation, the aesthetic practices of multi-national Arab performance artists and the explosive terror-performances of Palestinian suicide bombers. Central to my theoretical framework is the notion that systems of aesthetics are not distinct from systems of ethics: that performances of identity encompass responses to hegemony and elucidate ways of being-in-the-world. Meintjes references Bakhtin�s assertion that expressive culture is a site where the �image of man� converges with the poetics of form. In her study (after Feld) she considers style itself as the presentation of instances in which the �meaning of personhood� is distilled.

Meintjes focus on style as a site of hegemonic contestation leads her to consider the various forces at play on the performance of identity. She writes, �the effects of technology, politics, and the market can be analyzed not only in the organization of cultural production, but in the sound itself, affectively articulated and understood, and experienced through the body.� This emphasis on the body as both originator and receptor of cultural production places Meintjes study in direct relationship with my own. Her experimental use of language to write with and against affective experience made her physical presence in �Sound of Africa!� palpable, a very satisfying feature of this text for me. In Meintjes language this �metacultural figuring� is arrived at through �poetic representation of the self and others� in relationship.

Refining her argument microscopically she chooses to listen �principally at the level of timbre.� Developing this methodology in imitation of the recording studio participants she observes, Meintjes writes, �although understudied, timbre is becoming recognized as the carrier of�the affective, generic, and social significance imputed to expression.� Organizing her study around the micro sound analyses of different instruments in the studio she connects musical and spoken utterances. Meintjes further traces the significance of these sonic gestures �out into the sociopolitical world to which they speak rather than primarily focusing on a structural explanation of their coherence�� This methodology, a �writing outward from the musical gesture,� forms the connective tissue of her study and frames her observations in an especially performance studies context.

Meintjes consideration of sound construction/ identity formation resonates for me with Paul D. Miller�s concept of �rhythm science.� In his book of the same name Miller (AKA DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid) asserts, �rhythm science is a forensic investigation of sound as a vector of coded language that goes from the physical to the informational and back again.� Both Miller and Meintjes are concerned with making and receiving meaning through the production and manipulation of sonic structures. Although Miller is writing about an explicitly US American context, his assertions about hip-hop and electronic music resonate with and against Meintjes in a way that I thought enriched both texts. Miller writes, �at their best, these genres are about the morphology of structure�how forms and feelings transmute from one medium to another.� In the South African context Meintjes considers, these structures of feeling resonate with pre and post-Apartheid racial and ethnic identities as music is created to define and elaborate �Zuluness.� Miller�s scope of attention is situated differently although when he writes �identity is about creating an environment where you can make the world act as your own reflection� he gestures toward this project of racial self-definition. Miller further asserts that US American slavery and segregation created a pattern of overlapping dualities that prefigured aspects of on-line culture. He writes, �Afro-diasporic culture was the first Generation X. The current multivalent entity we call the United States is enthralled with the unconscious implications of Africa in the New World.� However Miller argues that a 21st century person is so immersed in and defined by data that s/he is entering an era of �multiplex consciousness� in which, �any sound can be you.�

The assertion that the timbre of an instrument (and I am also considering the voice here) is an expression of identity is a profound intervention into discourses of representation. Rooted in the body but not resistant to elaboration through language Meintjes� consideration of timbre is a model for me to consider in my own research. Identity as a construct that may be sounded through the body is a theoretical structure that has implications for my consideration of Middle Eastern oral cultures and the monophony that represents successful east-west cultural assimilation. Meintjes writes,

Timbre...seems so indefinable, unquantifiable, and intuitive. Yet music makers and listeners talk about it all the time�or at least we talk around it with elaborated poetics, usually tying it up with equally unquantifiable feelings. Feeling is crucially captured in and transported through timbre. The ineffability of musical timbre and the indeterminacy of feeling are both analytical problems and key theoretical points, for it is because of the ambiguity and indeterminacy of both that one can house the other.

This paradoxical description of timbre as ineffable and yet ubiquitous resonates with my own considerations of ethnic identity. Like timbre ethnic identities themselves are �deeply invested but never fully defined or finally fixed.� Meintjes own consideration of identity as �fiction, rhetoric�commodity, sensibility and experience� offers a way for me to consider my own study: as a multivalent current, with and against the phantasm of collective memory.

Posted by at November 28, 2004 11:22 PM